A good reed is hard to find. Many clarinet and saxophone players spend the better part of their time searching through a box of reeds trying to find the best ones. If you’ve played through a box of reeds and have separated the good from the bad, you may be wondering if there’s anything you can do to extend the life of your good reeds. From storage techniques to proper maintenance, below you’ll find some tips that will help make your reeds last longer. Regardless of the instrument in question, all reeds should be first and foremost handled with care to prevent damage.
Preparing the Reed
Before you play any reed, you must first moisten it. Many musicians wet their reeds in their mouths, while others wet their reeds in a small cup of warm water for a few minutes until the tips appear flat and unwrinkled. Moistening your reeds is crucial: the water needs to fill the interior of the numerous hollow tubes from both ends of the reed, filling them and allowing flexibility while vibrating hundreds to thousands of times per second. Once the reeds are moist, place the ligature on your mouthpiece, fitting the reed under the ligature from the top. From there, align the reed tip with the end of the mouthpiece and tighten the ligature screws so the pressure is evenly dispersed. Be careful not to over or under-tighten; they should feel snug in your fingers, but not too tense.
Clean Mouths = Clean Instruments
If you use your spit to moisten your reeds, consider rinsing your mouth with mouthwash or brushing your teeth before you do so. In some cases, the bacteria from your mouth can accumulate on the reeds and pads so it’s best to avoid any possibility of contamination. If you’re concerned about maintaining the cleanliness of your instrument, use a cup of clean water to moisten your reeds, instead. If this isn’t a possibility or if you prefer to moisten them with your mouth, speak with your band or orchestra teacher about how often you should be disassembling your instrument for a deep clean. In many cases, repair technicians will clean and disassemble your instrument during its annual maintenance, but you may need to do this more or less depending on how often you use your instrument.
When you’re finished playing, it’s important to remove any excess moisture. You can do this by rinsing the reed thoroughly in water until clean, and then wiping it dry. Finish this process by placing the reed in a “Reed gard” to dry completely. Whatever you do, don’t keep your reeds in a sealed plastic bag. Over time, this can actually cause mold and mildew to form. Plus, prolonged soaking will make the reed too porous, changing its vibration characteristics and shortening its life. Fluctuation in moisture, humidity, and temperature will greatly affect how your reed plays. The more you become familiar with your reeds, the more you’ll become aware of how these changes affect a reed’s performance.
Store Them Properly
Storing your reeds in a reed case will keep them flat as they dry, which prevents warping. Additionally, it’ll keep your reeds from being damaged as you transport them to and from practice in your instrument case. Many musicians assume that storing reeds in the clear plastic cases they’re packaged in will suffice, but those cases don’t actually keep them flat, they just keep them from chipping during shipping. A quality reed case can also prevent accidental chips since students can more easily slide the reeds into place. A small reed case typically holds four reeds and are usually available for $20 or less. If you’re concerned about the price, think about the case as an investment: it’ll quickly pay for itself in the money you’ll save on purchasing replacement reeds.
Rotate Your Reeds
Playing the same reed day after day will wear it quickly, so it’s important to consistently rotate your reeds. Many experts recommend playing a different reed everyday to give the others a break. If you’re using a brand new reed, reeds should only be played for about five minutes a day during the first week. In most cases, the reed has been dry for at least a year or two before you purchase it, and this breaking in process slows down the warping process. Always have several reeds in top playing condition in your rotation. Avoid playing any reed longer than 30 minutes in a practice session, or longer than 60 minutes in a rehearsal or performance. Playing a reed wears it out, and the longer you play a reed in any single session the faster the reed breaks down; therefore, shorter periods of playing are ideal.
Remove the “Bump”
When a wet reed gets strapped to the mouthpiece and played, the wood gets pressed into the area of contact between the wood and the opening of the mouthpiece. Over time, a bump will form at this intersection that can have a great effect on playing. You can check for this bump by gently rubbing your finger along this point and feeling for a bump. From time to time, this bump needs to be removed without disturbing the rest of the reed. You can use sandpaper, a flat file, or a special tool manufactured by a trusted brand like Vandoren to remove the bump. Many musicians find that using a flat file is more gentle and user-friendly; simply lay the flat side of the reed against the file and rub the reed up and down the length of the file a few times. Do this until the bump is removed.
Reeds have a reputation for being difficult, finicky, and a pain to deal with. Unfortunately, it’s just something that some musicians have to learn to deal with. If a reed warps or chips, don’t stress out and do your best to maintain your patience. Just because a reed is warped doesn’t mean you have to throw it out. Simply moisten it daily and let it try out on a flat surface. Over time, you may notice that it’ll straighten itself out. Following the above reed care tips will save you time, money, and frustration. If you find that they work for you, share the knowledge with your friends and bandmates.
If you’re interested in saxophone reeds in particular, learn How to Adjust Saxophone Reeds and get advice on Choosing a Saxophone Reed.