Reeds and mouthpieces are essential equipment for playing clarinet, and they must be replaced periodically—especially reeds. How do you know when to swap out your reeds and your mouthpiece?
Reeds are made of cane, a plant similar to bamboo. How they feel and play will differ with weather changes (temperature and humidity), changes in altitude, and over their lifespans. Generally, a reed that has been properly broken in will last 2-3 months, depending on the amount of time you spend playing (see this saxophonist’s discussion of the reed break-in process). This estimate also assumes that you are rotating that one reed with others, and not only playing that one reed all the time.
At first, reeds are stiff and may not respond exactly the way you like—which is why breaking them in is so important. It makes material in the cane accustomed to being wet and vibrating. After the break-in process, they should feel just right: not too hard, so that you’re blowing quite hard and straining, or too soft, so that you’re overwhelming the reed with air and/or embouchure pressure and making it squeak or chirp all the time.
As reeds get older, they get softer. They are still playable, but may require minor adjustments to continue responding properly. Once a reed gets to the point where, even with adjustment, it feels rather soft, doesn’t respond well, or develops a chip, crack, or black stuff growing on the back, it’s time to replace it with a newer one. A little bit of discoloration on the back of the reed is normal, it’s just a darkening of the reed material. If you notice it getting quite dark, almost like it’s been drawn on with a marker, or has whorl-like patterns showing up, it’s growing mold and should be tossed (and the reed case should be sanitized).
Mouthpieces are usually made of plastic or hard rubber. Typically, it’s time for a mouthpiece change when you “outgrow” what your current mouthpiece will allow you to do on the instrument. You may notice pitch changes (notes that you could easily play in tune before are now more difficult), a lot more squeaking and chirping regardless of which reed you’re using, or that it seems too easy or too difficult to play with your mouthpiece (again, regardless of reed). Mouthpieces can also get damaged, especially if they’re bumped into hard surfaces or dropped. If your mouthpiece is chipped, for example, it’s time to replace it.
Beginner students usually start with plastic mouthpieces that are a little bit less expensive, and they’re designed to be “middle-of-the-road” mouthpieces: medium tip openings so that they’re not too resistant, but not too easy to blow into either. The more closed the tip, the less resistant the mouthpiece feels (easy to blow through); the more open the tip, the more resistance there is (harder to blow through). Closed-tip mouthpieces result in a “darker” sound and more open tips result in a “brighter” sound.
If you notice any of the changes listed above, it’s best to consult with your band director or private teacher for mouthpiece recommendations. There are many different brands and types available on the market today. Music store employees can also help you decide which mouthpiece is the best choice for you. This guide goes into more detail about making a mouthpiece choice. Keep in mind that with any mouthpiece you try, you should check that you can play it in tune with your tuner. You may sound like a million bucks, but if you can’t play in tune with it, it’s not worth the switch.