Reed quality is important when playing and is important in its interaction with the mouthpiece. Along with breath support and embouchure, it is responsible for pitch control and the quality of the sound produced.
The fibers running through the length of a reed create the high partials in a sound. If there are excessive fibers, they may contribute to an edgy sound, or poor quality of sound. So, the pith between the fibers slightly dampens the high partials, but if excessively pithy, the sound may be somewhat "fuzzy."
Many other factors contribute to the quality of sound produced by a reed, including the maturity of the cane. This is indicated by the color of the reed. Cane is seasoned for two to three years after it is cut and must have reached maturity, but not entered its natural state of decay. The amount of seasoning of the cane and the shape and dimensions of the reed also contribute to the quality of sound.
Choosing a good reed takes
practice and experience. Comparing the grain of your favorites reeds against
ones that don't play as well, and looking for differences, is a good start.
When purchasing reeds, check that the color of the reed is a golden yellow color.
Look for obvious flaws in the reed such as chips or splits on the tip. Hold
the reed up to the light and look for a reasonably well-defined heart. The grain
should be relatively even throughout.
Every four to six weeks, replenish your supply of new reeds. One approach that most can afford is to buy one or two boxes every month. Get in the habit of doing this; make it a regular routine. Date the boxes when you receive them; then store them. Use your oldest reeds first; your newest reeds go to the back of your personal supply. Never again will you have to order reeds in a panic, only to discover your supplier is out of stock.
Select and prepare new reeds regularly. Many players look for a good reed only when they desperately need one. Then, panic happens. The result: you won't find one. A better approach is to be in the routine of regularly trying and adjusting new reeds. Keep six to eight working reeds on hand. Routinely eliminate those that no longer play well; add in new ones that are acceptable to you. Do this even if you have no performances scheduled--you want to be in the habit of maintaining a supply of good reeds. Once every week or so, eliminate the poorest reed, and add a new one that seems to have potential. Note: "eliminate" does not necessarily mean "throw away." You can deselect a reed from your current group of six to eight preferred reeds, and store it for later re-evaluation. It may play better in six months, when the season--and humidity--changes.
Rotate the reeds you play on. You will lose some of the flexibility of embouchure so necessary to successfully performing on a variety of reeds. Rotate your reeds in the course of a day's practice; practice on two or three reeds instead of just one.
Find a reed's best playing position on the mouthpiece. Each reed has an ideal position on the mouthpiece. Sometimes, a slight change in the positioning of a reed on the mouthpiece can have a dramatic effect on how it responds.Also try moving the tip of the reed slightly to the left, or right; this subtle angling of position can offset an imbalance in the reed and cause it to become significantly more responsive.
Storing your reeds. A storage container should do more than simply protect the reed from damage. A good storage system will minimize reed warpage by reducing variations in humidity, allowing little or no exposure to outside air. Thus, make certain the reed container has good closure. To eliminate mold, some containers have salt and/or carbon granules present. The storage device should also minimize potential warpage by allowing the air inside the reed case to contact both the top and bottom surfaces of the reed. Air naturally contacts the top surface of the reed, but what about the bottom? In many reed cases, this is accomplished through use of a grooved surface, upon which the reed rests. Thus, both the top and bottom of the reed is in contact with air, promoting a uniform drying process. If only the top surface (i.e., the vamp) of the reed contacts the air, it dries at a different rate than the bottom surface, and the reed warps.
Rejuvenating an older reed. Well-used reeds can possess a build-up of material which clogs the pores and fibers of the reed. This adversely affect reed performance. Reeds in this condition can be soaked in hydrogen peroxide for a few minutes to cleanse them.
Ray Pizzi turned me on to using POLYDENT. The denture cleaner- and it works like a charm. You'll know it's working: the foaming process is easy to see. Don't expect miracles here; the reed will not be restored to a "like-new" condition. However, you can expect a few more days of reliable use after this treatment.
Always make small adjustments. Always remember: when you adjust a reed's dimensions, you are working with extremely small tolerances. Adjustments affect thickness, contour, and balance. Thickness: removal of a seemingly small amount of cane may actually represent ten, twenty, or thirty percent of its total thickness, depending upon where you are working. Therefore, changes that seem quite small are actually quite signficant. Contour: remember that your adjustment always affects the shape of the reed in two ways: the taper of the reed from the shoulder to the tip, and the convex curve of the reed from side to side. These shapes should be smooth, and free of any sudden "dips." Even the smallest break in either curve can have a negative effect. Therefore, always work with the idea in mind to preserve these two shapes. Balance: a reed is out of balance if a point on one side of the vamp is higher or lower than the corresponding point on the opposite side. You may well have to remove some cane to bring a reed into balance. However, if a reed is already balanced, the removal of cane from one side may necessitate the same adjustment on the other side.
Keep a light touch. No pressure, just the weight of the knife; just the weight of the hand if using sandpaper or reed rush. Never press. The material removed should resemble dust. Think twice before you scrape...once cane is removed, it cannot be restored. A great book to find is Kalman Oppermans book on adjusting reeds.
Get the bottom of the reed truly flat. If the bottom of the reed is warped, it will not create a true seal against the various elements of the mouthpiece, and the reed will not respond properly. To see if a reed is warped, wet the reed and lay it on a piece of glass. Gently tap one shoulder of the reed. Does it rock back and forth? If so, the bottom is warped. To reduce or eliminate the warpage, lightly sand the bottom of the reed on a file, or on sandpaper placed on a piece of glass (or plexiglass). Here's one reliable technique: wet your index, middle, and fourth fingers--this helps to hold the reed--and place them gently on the bark and vamp. Sand in a circular pattern, first clockwise, then counter-clockwise. Use three or four clockwise motions, followed by three or four counter-clockwise motions. This use of this circular technique is important, because if the reed is sanded only in one direction (say, using a repeating back and forth motion) there is a tendency to sand unevenly by creating additional pressure with the fingers at the end of the stroke. Important: Do not press. If you press, the result can be that you will actually exaggerate the warpage. While sanding, keep the reed tip off the file or sandpaper; the thinness of the tip prohibits this type of sanding. Sand only for a brief time, and then test for warpage again by laying the reed on the glass and trying to "rock" it by touching one side. With some reeds, you cannot totally eliminate warpage.
A balanced reed tip will vibrate fully, and thus realize its potential to produce sound. Here, the concept we work with is that the reed, in and of itself, produces no sound. It works in conjunction with a mouthpiece--your individual mouthpiece--to produce that sound. Therefore, the reed should be balanced through the use of a playing test. Set the reed on the mouthpiece; for convenience, you can hold it in place with your left thumb. Turn the clarinet to the side, so your lower lip closes the right side of the reed; then blow an "open G." The sound you hear is created by the left tip of the reed. Then, reverse the process: turn the clarinet so that your lower lip damps the left side of the reed. When you blow, you are hearing the right tip. Compare the sounds. Is one vibrant, the other stuffy? If so, lightly scrape the stuffy side, from the tip itself back about a quarter inch. Repeat the process. Continue this cycle until you get a good match (in clarity of sound) when you listen to each individual side of the reed's tip. Take your time...remove the tiniest amount of cane (remember, only "dust"), and then try it again. Your patience will pay off.
Try not be overly concerned
with reproducing reeds to meet the exact dimensions of a model reed. This concept,
while sound in theory, can yield disappointing results if relied upon too heavily.
When adjusting reeds, remember: every reed plays differently, regardless of
our best efforts at perfect duplication. Even if we use one of the many measuring,
cutting, or grinding and sanding devices currently available, these devices
can only attempt to reproduce a reed's dimensions. They cannot respond to the
density of an individual piece of cane. The density of the cane has a direct
effect on its ability to vibrate. Thus, two reeds of identical dimensions may
play very differently from one another. This is one of the reasons why reeds
from the same box can vary so much. When making fine adjustments, focus on achieving
a smooth blend of the reed's two basic contours--the taper from shoulder to
tip, and the convex curve from side to side--as opposed to trying to reproduce
a set of specific dimensions. Look at the reed. Does it appear to have a high
spot? If so, try to blend that spot into the overall contour. The elimination
of a high spot can dramatically affect the reed's performance.
Try the reed first. If it plays, don't do anything to it! If the reed gods of chance and good fortune hand you a fine reed, my advice is to play it! Don't change it--just add it to your selection of six to eight preferred reeds, and spend the extra time practicing.
Last but not least..some old school
ideas here. Many players advocate a carefully laid out routine involving a cycle
of wetting and drying the reeds prior to extended playing. Those players who
recommend such programs most assuredly find them successful. For many years
I followed such a routine, but no longer do so. I find that having six to eight
reeds on hand, and rotating them--playing two or three in the course of a practice
session--is, in and of itself, an effective "break-in" routine for
my newer reeds.
My experience tells me this: there is no "best" brand of reed. Knife, sandpaper...use what you personally prefer. Where to adjust for specific results? I wish there was a formula, but there isn't...at least, I haven't found one that seems to work consistently.
Keep in mind. Buy new reeds routinely. Work on them regularly. Keep a set of six to eight reeds available. Rotate the reeds you play on, using two or three during a practice session. Add a new reed to the rotation every week or ten days, and eliminate the poorest one. Find the reed's best playing position on the mouthpiece. Store your reeds in a container which minimizes warp-age. If needed, give an older reed a boost by cleaning it with hydrogen peroxide.
Make small adjustments. Keep a light touch. Focus primarily on the two fundamental adjustments: make the bottom flat, and balance the tip. Devote the majority of your time to practicing ; work on reeds only about twenty minutes a day. It's what you do with those twenty minutes that can make all the difference.