Making Reed Adjustments, by Jean Johnson

After the necessary preparations have been taken for the first stages of breaking in a reed, you may notice that your reed is still not as responsive as you would like. This is due to several reasons, primarily related to the proportions of wood on the shoulders, rails, tip, or bottom of the vamp. It is also possible that the particular piece of cane is not of high quality- either too grainy and pourous or under-aged.

There is a test you can try that will tell you which pieces of cane will never be ideal. Coat the vamps of a box of brand new reeds with water and let dry. The ones that soak up the water very quickly are probably going to be bad, though if the cut is good enough they might be workable. I know clarinetists who will throw a reed away immediately if it fails this test.

Adjustment Materials

There are several different materials that can be utilized for making reed adjustments. The most common for clarinet reeds is probably sandpaper, somewhere around 500 grit, depending on your preference. It effectively takes off wood without taking too much off per stroke. This is what I prefer since it is not possible to put the wood back once it is scraped off. Another good material when you're beginning is reed rush. This is also cheap, but it's a little messy and more difficult to work with, in this author's opinion. You must soak the tube of reed rush in water until it become pliable. When used to scrape on the reed, the ridges of the tube take off wood from the reed. However, water goes everywhere and it's not as manageable as sandpaper. The last tool that I know of is a reed knife. I have one and use it when I'm feeling particularly confident about the adjustment I must make, or when I'm short for time and am not worried about the possibility of ruining my reed. It is an invaluble tool if there is a large quantity of material that must come off. Make sure that your knife is sharp. Buy a diamond sharpening stone to keep it sharp. Otherwise your adjustments on the reed will be messy and your reed will look hacked up instead of streamlined.

The first adjustments

Quite often with reeds, there is one shoulder (upper rail) thicker than the other. This will give an airy or buzzy type of sound and can throw off articulation.

To see if the shoulders are balanced, first tilt the mouthpiece to the right (thus closing off the right-hand shoulder of the reed and letting only the left side vibrate. You are checking the left side of the reed by doing this) and blow an open G from ff to pppp. It would be ideal if you could get down to a sub-tone dynamic without fuzz in the sound. Repeat this test for the right-hand side of the reed by tilting mouthpiece to the left. If one side can reach a soft dynamic without fuzz but the other side cannot, than some sanding needs to be done on the shoulder that had fuzz in the sound.

There is a rule with reed adjustments when you are beginning, and that is to never touch the heart of the reed! Sanding on the heart will break down its backbone. You will alter the whole strength of the reed and will probably throw off its proportions irreparably.

If you can now normally play an open G down to a subtone dynamic, you should put the reed away for the rest of the day. However, tomorrow you should check balance in the other registers.

In a nutshell, the rails of the reed near the top are responsible for high register, a bit lower on the rails for throat tones, and and still lower for low register. You can use the side-to-side test for the other registers by using different pitches other than open G, and then follow through with adjustments on the rails on the appropriate side and at the appropriate longitude.

Your reed is well balanced if you can softly slur a chalumeau C (add register key) to high G, (take off left index finger) to altissimo E, (add right hand f#/c#) to altissimo A without adding any pressure from the embouchure.

Some people also like to polish the backs of their reeds with a piece of paper. This does add some vibrancy to the sound. I know others who will sand the backs or run the reed over a flat bastard file, but I think that there is too little material on commercial reeds to begin with, so maybe it's best not to take too much off through sanding or filing. (Of course, this is just one author's opinion.) A perfectly flat back of the reed is necessary to vibrate properly against a perfectly flat table of a mouthpiece. Ideally, polish (or sand) the reed with the paper or sandpaper (or the back of the sandaper) taped to a piece of flat glass.

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Copyright 2000 Jean Johnson