Dr. Eric Lau is Associate Professor of Saxophone at the University of New Mexico and is the baritone saxophonist with the Iridium Quartet. For more information, go to EricLauSaxophone.com.
A typical scene: It is the day of festival and one of your middle-school saxophonists has just chipped his or her one good reed and is now forced to perform on a brand-new reed that has not yet been broken in, causing the student and you unneeded stress. Reeds can be a constant source of frustration for students and educators alike. While there is no magic process that will make every reed perfect, here are three tips that can dramatically improve the playability and longevity of your students’ reeds: the break-in process, rotation, and storage.
Breaking In Reeds
First, it is important to break in new reeds over several days. Reeds absorb the most moisture the first time they are played, which makes it easy to waterlog a new reed. Encourage your students play a new reed for no more than 5-10 minutes during its first use. Each day that playing period can be extended until the reed has adjusted to being played and can be played for extended periods of time without worry. I find that this occurs after four to six days of moderate playing. It can be frustrating to break in several reeds at a time, so advise your students to start breaking in a new reed before their favorite reeds have stopped working. Once a reed has stabilized it can be added to the student’s regular rotation.
The second tip to helping students have a selection of good reeds is to have several playable reeds in a rotation. Rotating reeds ensures that students will have more than one reed that is ready to be played on any given day. I feel the minimum number of reeds to have in a rotation is four, with one or two additional reeds being broken in. This number of reeds allows the student to play one reed a day and give the other reeds in the rotation time to rest between uses. A good rotation can allow reeds to provide weeks of good playing.
The final tip to having consistently good reeds is proper storage. If you take a look inside your students’ cases, you might find reeds strewn everywhere with no sense of organization, and in this mass of debris they expect to find a reed that will play. Obviously, this is not an ideal scenario. There are many good options available to students for storing their reeds, including the plastic sleeve in which the reed is originally packaged. I like to keep my reeds in a humidity-controlled container, because it provides the reeds with the most stable environment, making them last longer.
I would like to add that all of this is dependent on the student playing on a reed that is the appropriate strength. There is a common misconception that playing on a harder reed is a sign of advancement for saxophonists. This is not the case. The appropriate reed strength is determined by a number of factors including altitude, air support, embouchure strength, and tip opening of the mouthpiece. For most players on most mouthpieces a medium-strength reed (2.5-3.5) is correct. Since younger players have yet to develop the air support and embouchure strength of a professional, it is advisable that they play reeds on the softer side of medium. Teach these three tips to your students and see how good reeds in a rotation can make all the difference.
Photo via Toshiyuki IMAI, CC