How to Have Good Reeds, by Jean Johnson

A reed is virtually never ready for performance fresh out of the box. The cane needs to be broken in before it can withstand serious playing without breaking down. Otherwise, you will have a reed that might sound good for a few minutes, but responds quite poorly after only a little while of playing on it.

Reeds that are mass produced get punched out of machines called profilers. Larger companies have many profilers, and each of the ten reeds in a given box may have come from a different profiler. This is why every reed in a box often responds very differently, as there is no guarantee that all of the profilers are carefully calibrated to be identical to each other. In addition, the balance of a single profiler may not be symmetrical, leaving the reed with one side thicker than the other.

The cane of a new reed is pourous and vulnerable to deterioration. The vulnerable top reed fibers can be broken down prematurely and easily waterlogged with saliva. Saliva contains enzymes that aggressively break down food in the mouth. You do not want this first stage of digestion to act on the reed.

The reed is pourous because it is chock-full of length-wise tubes called xylums. One opening of the tube is in the vamp of the reed, the other opening is at the butt end of the reed. Ideally, you would want these tubes to be swollen open with moisture (this produces the best sound and response), but also sealed off at the ends so that the moisture stays in. However, remember that you are trying to avoid the xylums to be completely filled up with saliva. When a reed is dense as a result of being repeateddly waterlogged with saliva, it will not be long before the sound becomes "metallic". The "good" way that saliva acts on reeds is that it has a high content of calcium, and will seal off the ends of the xylums at the vamp just as we like. It will also toughen-up the top reed fibers and make them durable for sustained use.

Breaking in your reeds

Before playing on a brand new reed, soak the vamp end of the reed in WATER for a few seconds. (not saliva- remember, we don't want to break down the wood.) Once you've done that, put it in your mouth for about 30 seconds. It's already swollen with water, so not much saliva will get in- just enough to begin sealing it off. Leave the reed alone to dry without playing on it yet. I like to do this procedure a few times before I play a note on the reed. When you finally do go to try it, play on the reed softly, in the low register, for just a minute or two. This will begin to break it in, and the oils from your lips and the little bit of saliva from playing the reed will be sufficient to seal off the xylums. Repeat this procedure each day for about five days or so. Then your reed will be ready for more sustained playing and should be vibrant if it is good cane with a good cut.

Reeds cases can be kept in a plastic container or a plastic bag with a moistened sponge inside the container or bag to keep the humidity level high. If the reeds never fully dry out, they will not change as much from day to day. That is not to say that they should be WET all the time, just humid. If it is too wet in your container, they will grow mildew. If you want to further ward off mildew, you can dot your damp sponge with Listerine.

Preventing Warps

When storing the reeds, coat the vamp of the reed with water (or saliva after a day or two is okay) and lay it in the case with the flat back facing up. This allows for better circulation of air around the reed and will promote more even drying. A wet back that dries out unevenly will cause very damaging warpage. If the back of the reed warps, then it will not lay against the mouthpiece properly and will not vibrate properly. Letting the reeds dry in this fashion will also help prevent the reed from warping in another damaging way, which is when the ears (the corners of the tip) curl upward and away from the mouthpiece. Try to keep the back of the reed dry. If there were ever a "good" way for a reed to warp, it would be with the ears of the reed fanning down toward the mouthpiece. Keeping a dry reed back and a wet reed vamp will achieve that.

I should mention that this information does not come from me alone. I am indebted to all of my former teachers for a large portion of this knowledge. Some were more reed obsessed than others, but all of my mentors contributed to the information contained here.

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Copyright 2000 Jean Johnson