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Single Reed Maintenance

Jason Kush and Timothy Savage | December 2020 January 2021

    Band directors face countless problems every day. While moving forward with rehearsal and making music is always the goal, many tiny pieces of the puzzle can cause problems and consume valuable time. Reeds are often one of these small issues. Reeds frequently break, go bad, go missing, or become science experiments in student cases. Developing a routine of good reed maintenance and care can help make reeds last longer and stay in better shape, improving their sound and control.

photo by Kirby Fong

What to Avoid
    Some bad reed habits are easier to discern than others, but they all inhibit the ability to produce a good sound. One of the more obvious issues is carelessness when handling reeds, leading to cracking and chipping. Another is eating or drinking anything but water during or immediately prior to playing, which can keep reeds from vibrating properly, and affect the instrument. Less visible problems include keeping a reed on the mouthpiece when not playing, using only one reed for too long, soaking a reed too much, and using the wrong kind of reed. By adhering to the following guidelines, you can help extend the life of your students’ reeds and improve their quality of sound.

What the Reeds Need
    Reeds should not dry out completely. They are an organic substance, which means the cane can absorb and expel moisture. To prevent a reed from drying out, it is necessary to use the proper container. There are several options for containers, but it must keep the humidity constant and keep the reeds flat as they rest after playing. If not kept flat while drying, the reed will warp, meaning the tip of the reed will develop waves that lead to difficulty when playing and poor sound quality. Examples of good containers include any multi-reed cases that fully enclose the reeds. There are good options on the market from a number of companies.
    Even with good reed habits, the process of wetting and drying a reed can warp the underside. It is essential that reeds seal perfectly with the table of the mouthpiece. Test the seal by taking the neck of a saxophone or barrel of a clarinet with the mouthpiece, ligature, and reed attached, placing the open hole flat on the palm of the hand, and then sucking the air out of the neck or barrel through the mouthpiece while keeping your hand in place making it airtight. If the reed pops, then the seal is good. If no pop occurs, then the reed may need to be adjusted.
    The seal can sometimes be fixed by flattening or polishing the bottom of the reed. This can be done by placing a plain piece of white copy paper on a flat surface like a smooth-flat desktop, whiteboard, or piece of glass and then repeatedly rubbing the underside of the reed going longways with the grain pattern. Also, there are school-friendly reed tools on the market that can help with the adjustment of reeds.
    Students should make a habit of using a mouthpiece cover (sometimes called a mouthpiece cap) whenever they have their instrument out and put together but are not playing. Mouthpiece covers help prevent a number of reed problems, particularly chipping. When not playing in a rehearsal, chips are much more common, and the proper mouthpiece cover can protect the reed. It can also help prevent warping by creating somewhat of a seal to the mouthpiece and keeping the moisture from the reed inside. This is especially helpful for students who are not playing for a long period of time or are doubling on instruments.
    On the other side of keeping the reed from completely drying out, it is possible to waterlog a reed.This typically happens from soaking a reed for too long. There are several ways to properly soak a reed. The simplest and most convenient is to have students place reeds in their mouth for 20-30 seconds. If students do not wish to do this, they can soak the reed in a small film canister or old medicine bottle filled with fresh water for 20-30 seconds, emptying the water after each use. A final method would be to fill the small canister with non-flavored Listerine, which has no sugar or dye, to kill any lingering germs. Students should wet the entire bottom of the reed as well as the top where the bark of the cane is absent.
    Rotation is one of the best ways to extend the useful life of reeds. Students should have at least four reeds that they have played on and know will work on standby for use. They then should switch them out occasionally to prevent overuse. Ideally, reeds should be switched out from one playing session to the next.
    Good oral hygiene can be one of the best ways to improve reed quality. Players should avoid eating or drinking beverages with sugar 30 minutes before rehearsal as the reed’s cane will be broken down by those substances and reduce sound quality. Students should periodically clean their reeds using either original Listerine for about a minute or hydrogen peroxide for up to two minutes, followed by rinsing them in water. These methods prevent mold and bacteria from building up.

The Death of a Reed
    When used properly, reeds can last for several weeks, but they do eventually require replacement. Several clues reveal when a reed has should be discarded. Often, a worn-out reed will cause a student’s sound to become thin and bright, which leads to playing louder than usual. One player with a bad reed can upset the balance and blend in an entire saxophone section. A tired reed may also produce more squeaks and fluctuations in pitch. Occasionally, reeds will not work one day but sound fine after a day of rest. Students should cautioned not to prematurely dispose of reeds. Instead, they should pay attention to their condition.
Reed Selection
    There are many different strengths and cut styles of reeds. Strength affects the resistance felt when playing a reed, while the cut style will primarily change the timbre. Students and teachers should know that the optimal classical and jazz tones have similarity in their evenness and intonation but will differ in timbre. For example, using a jazz cut style as opposed to the traditional cut style will help make an appropriate sound in a jazz band.
    While jazz cut reeds may provide a quicker response, they may be too bright for a concert band setting. Similarly, a reed that is too soft may seem easy to play for a student, but it will not last as long, and the student may end up playing too loudly and have more intonation issues. A reed that is too hard will make sound production difficult and cause response issues. Typically, a student who has been playing for a few years should use a medium strength reed (3 or 3.5), while someone who is just starting should play a 2.5.
    Commercial reed production has improved dramatically over the past two decades. Play test every reed, but remember that there are a few visual indicators of a good reed. Look for consistency and evenness in the appearance of the reed. Observe the stock (bark) and heel (end) of the reed. If it is thicker or thinner than the average reed, this will affect the sound and playability. Also, look for similar thickness in the rails of the reed – the left and right sides as it is held with the playing tip upwards.
    Some players prefer to use synthetic reeds over traditional cane reeds. There are several tradeoffs with that option. Synthetic reeds are much more durable and will last considerably longer than cane reeds, but they are more expensive and can have a different sound quality. In high school or middle school it may be appropriate to use a synthetic reed in outdoor performance locations (such as in a marching band) where reeds are more likely to be damaged. Synthetic reeds and cane reeds do not feel the same to the player, and therefore switching between the two can cause setbacks if the player is not aware of optimal practices with both types of reeds.

What to Remember
    If players in middle and high school develop good reed habits and maintenance, they will have better sound quality and save money. They should know the condition of their reeds and rotate between four of them to help elongate their life. Reeds that cause problems, such as a thin and bright sound, should be discarded and replaced. A proper container will prevent reeds from drying out completely and keep the reeds flat. Mouthpiece covers (caps) are ideal for long stretches in rehearsals when students are not playing. Reeds should be periodically cleaned using original Listerine or hydrogen peroxide to prevent mold and bacterial growth, which not only keeps reeds in better shape, but causes them to last longer.