The clarinet is an extraordinary system. The instrument (barrel, upper joint, lower joint, bell), mouthpiece, reed and ligature all work in partnership to create sound, and eventually, beautiful music. When you’re learning how to play the clarinet, having the right reed will help ensure that your instrument sounds its best. In this article, we will discuss different shapes, sizes and brands of reeds, and strategies to help beginners learn to play the clarinet with ease and enjoyment.
Reeds take on an almost mythical status for many in the woodwind world. Double reed players, such as oboists and bassoonists, inevitably make their own reeds, and spend as much time in the working on reeds as they do in the practice room. Clarinet players use single reeds, and frequently do not descend into bamboo carpentry the way their double reed counterparts do. There are techniques for filing, sanding, and shaping single reeds, but most players agree, there is no substitute for a reed that sounds great right out of the box.
Reeds come in a range of strengths, expressed in numbers 1 through 5+, with half sizes in between. The higher the number, the harder or more resistant the reed. Beginners, especially young people, will usually start with a #2 or #2.5, and will typically aim towards a #3 or #3.5 as they begin to play high C and above. Be careful of the myth that “harder is better.” There are a number of variables that determine the “correct” reed strength for a given player, in a given context.
The strength of the reed works in harmony with the shape of the mouthpiece, specifically the distance between the tip of the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece, determined by the facing curve. A mouthpiece with an open facing will require a softer reed; a closed facing calls for a harder reed. Clarinet players experiment with mouthpieces and reeds to find the sound they want for a given occasion. Certain folk traditions prefer open mouthpieces and soft reeds to allow pitch bending and ornamentation. Classical players gravitate towards harder reeds, and a clearer tone. Beginners may not have control over their mouthpiece selection, so finding a compatible reed is an excellent first step toward developing a good clarinet sound.
As with anything else, branding and quality matter tremendously with clarinet reeds. When young people first learn to play the clarinet, many teachers will start them on a basic, “orange box” Rico reed. These are ubiquitous and can be replaced inexpensively when broken by inexperienced players. Generations of clarinet players have started with Rico.
The D’Addario company, known globally as a maker of guitar strings, acquired Rico in 2004, and expanded significantly into the woodwind marketplace. They continue to produce beginner and intermediate products under the name “Rico by D’Addario”. Their “D’Addario Reserve” models are intended for professional clarinetists.
Vandoren Paris has long been the industry standard for advancing students and professionals. The company offers a wide variety of products, and a vast selection of reeds. The Traditional, “blue box” model is an excellent choice for beginners. They have a clearer tone and more consistent intonation than other, less expensive options.
Regardless of the make and model, the frustrating reality is that not every reed in a box will be perfectly playable. Reeds are made of natural cane, and therefore, no two are exactly alike. In a box of ten reeds, maybe three or four will play in a desirable way. To mitigate this low percentage, some clarinet players transition to plastic or plastic-coated reeds. A plastic reed will not degrade like a cane reed. Weather, climate, and travel will not affect the performance, and once you find a good plastic reed, it can last a long time.
The young clarinetist is certainly blessed with options, and advice, when it comes to choosing reeds. Here are some more things to consider as you learn to play the clarinet:
There is no “perfect reed.” We drive toward consistency and choose reeds that will give us our sound without manipulation and carpentry. Practice to regulate the variables you can control – embouchure, posture, alignment, breathing, equipment- and use reeds that will fulfill their specific role in your process.
Mass produced, low cost reeds may have their virtues, but they will not give you a beautiful sound. Use high quality reeds, even in the beginning, and handle them with care. The financial difference is an investment in excellent tone and intonation. Your bandmates, bandleader, and the people who overhear your practicing will reap the benefit immediately.
If possible, buy in bulk. A box of ten reeds can last weeks, and will cost less than those same ten reeds bought individually from a local shop. If you wish to support your neighborhood music store, make sure they can sell you a fresh box, not one that has been on the shelf for months or years. Online suppliers frequently offer discounted prices and fresh product.
When you open a new box, play through all of the reeds. Distinguish one from another in some way, and make note of each reed’s characteristics. Keep a journal if need be. Separate the ones that play beautifully from the ones that do not. Discard the reeds that will not work for you, but be discerning. Over time, hard reeds can get softer and soft reeds can get harder. A reed that sounds great in your living room may not be sturdy enough to fill an auditorium. Use a case that can hold multiple reeds, and rotate them through your practicing or purchase a reed guard. Whatever your methodology, avoid the habit of using one reed until it breaks or turns green.
After you learn what reeds you like, start to experiment with different mouthpieces. Do some research. Find a music store that carries high quality, hard rubber mouthpieces, and schedule an appointment to test them. Generally, an entry level rubber mouthpiece will be a vast improvement over a generic, plastic one.
There may be many obstacles when you first learn to play the clarinet but your reed need not be one of them. Use good reeds, practice as much as you can, and if you find yourself becoming frustrated, know that you are in excellent company. If you maintain your patience and discipline, you can only improve.