Clarinet reed adjustment can happen two different ways: adjusting it on the mouthpiece and adjusting it with a reed knife. This page deals with "on the mouthpiece" adjustment.
If you understand that clarinet reeds have multiple personalities and moods, you can live with them better.
Reeds are usually the “cop-out” excuse for clarinetists. "Wow! This reed is really *&^#s.” Have you ever heard a fellow clarinetist say, “It’s the reed?” That person is blaming the reed.
This person is also admitting that they cannot get control over any single reed that they own. Yipes! They are not maximizing the clarinet reed adjustment on the mouthpiece.
What an interesting study it would make to figure out how much time clarinetists spend looking for good reeds instead of just practicing to get better control over reeds. I guess the argument is why try to practice on a poor reed? Why try to wrestle out a good sound on a poor reed?
Have you tried to maximize its position on the mouthpiece, first?
THREE MASSIVE CLARINET REED ADJUSTMENT TIPS
Have more than one reed to play at any time.
Rotate your reeds
Develop your own reed system
Number one – Why do young clarinetists think that playing one reed at a time is the way to go? Maybe they aren’t taught any better by band directors who are not clarinetists. Maybe the parents are on a really fixed income and can only buy one at a time.
You should have at minimum four working clarinet reeds in your case at any one time. Do not play one reed to death before you start on the next.
Number two – Rotate those reeds. Every time you put the clarinet together use a different reed. If you play a really long rehearsal, switch reeds out. If you play a new reed for too long too soon, you will kill it really fast.
Number three – Develop your own reed system. Clarinetists and reed systems are equivalent to baseball pitchers and superstitious warm-up routines.
Ultimate Clarinet Reed Adjustment
MAXIMIZING THE POSITION OF YOUR CLARINET REEDS
Here, you will read about clarinet reed adjustment on the mouthpiece without using a knife.
You are probably already familiar with the art of clarinet reed-making and adjustment. Hopefully, you’ve at least heard of it. Most clarinetists use commercial reeds, but some specialize in the fine art of making their own reeds. Well, I’m not one to make my own reeds, but I am going to tell you a little secret about commercial reeds.
Are you tired of opening a box of ten clarinet reeds and having only one or two worth playing? I believe every clarinetist is tired of this. Believe it or not, you are not trying your reeds enough and finding MAXIMUM clarinet reed adjustment.
First of all, try this clarinet reed adjustment every time you put a reed on a mouthpiece. Set the reed on the mouthpiece straight up and down with the tip flush or even with the tip of the mouthpiece. This is CENTER. The butt of the reed is center on the mouthpiece table (flat part of the mouthpiece). And, the tip of the reed is CENTER. Play it.
Is it good or bad? Either way, now try this: Loosen the ligature slightly and move the reed to the left ever so slightly (thousandths of an inch). Tighten the ligature and try it again. Is it better or worse than before? Now, go slightly to the right of center. Better or worse?
BETTER OR WORSE DEFINED?
Is it easier to play or harder to play?
Does it sound clear or sound stuffy (like a sock is in the clarinet or scrambled eggs frying)?
Does it have a lighter, brighter sound or a darker, fuller sound?
Is it easy to start the sound or hard to start it?
Is it easy to articulate or hard to articulate?
How is the range of the reed? What does it play like in the altissimo register? Easy, hard or any of the questions above.
You should find that this reed will play much better on one of these left, center or right variations. It might not make it your number one reed, but worth keeping for practicing. So, play around with your clarinet reed adjustment.
If the reed still is awful, try six more clarinet reed adjustment positions on the mouthpiece (still moving only in thousandths of an inch). Move the tip of the reed slightly lower than the tip of the mouthpiece and try center, left and right. Now, move the tip of the reed slightly higher than the tip of the mouthpiece and try, center, left and then right.
You will not believe the improvements you can make to a single reed by doing these adjustments. And this is before you ever try to improve the reed with a knife.
DISCIPLINING YOURSELF TO ROTATE THOSE CLARINET REEDS
So, now you have a little secret about trying clarinet reeds. We need to talk about rotating the reeds. Maybe the ultimate clarinet reed adjustment is changing the reed entirely. How do you really discipline yourself in reed rotation? I’m about to lay out a disciplined reed routine that Kalmen Opperman gave me years ago.
1. Open a box of reeds (box of 10 is best)
2. Lay them out on a table in a line
3. Play test each reed and use the left, center, right clarinet reed adjustment already described. Mark the reed with an arrow documenting on the reed which direction it best plays. This should take one to two minutes MAXIMUM. This is a good “break-in” policy for any reeds. Only play new reeds one to two minutes a day for three to four days before you go to extended periods of time.
4. Let’s say you found two reeds that are the best of the box. Make them SUNDAY reeds. Mark an S on them.
5. Now you have eight reeds left. Divide these reeds in half and jumble the better and worse reeds together for each set of four (do not put the four next good ones in one pile and the last four in the second pile).
6. Mark one set of four as MONDAY, WEDNESDAY, FRIDAY reeds or MWF.
7. Mark the other set of four as TUESDAY, THURSDAY, SATURDAY reeds or TTS.
8. Use the SUNDAY reeds for special performances, recitals, solos, contests and clarinet lessons.
9. Use your other reeds only on those days as workhorse reeds. Even practice rotating among the MWF and TTS reeds on each of those days.
10. This system keeps your reeds rotating and makes you play the good and the bad. Once you discipline yourself to run through clarinet reeds like this, you’ll wonder why you never rotated well in the past.
Also, what happens if reeds are just too heavy or too soft? Use the soft reeds for practicing at the end of a long practice session. This gives your mouth a much needed break possibly in a time of crisis. Also, soft reeds are good to use if you wish to develop rapid articulation. Practicing for rapid articulation takes hours and hours of work and the embouchure seems to work even harder while the tongue is engaged.
Save the hard reeds for a day when your mouth has developed to a point of using that strength of reed, OR use these reeds to attempt scraping and improving with a knife. Also, if you have some reeds that are just duds, practice some adjustment with a knife. Knowing these skills of clarinet reed adjustment not only improved your skills as a clarinetist but also as a reed-maker.
The number one book on this method of clarinet reed adjustment Kalmen Opperman’s Guide to Making and Adjusting Single Reeds.
I do not use the S MWF TTS routine any more. I then developed the habit of lining the ten clarinet reeds up; testing them with the left, center, right clarinet reed adjustment method; and then organizing the reeds best to worst from left to right.
Sometimes I organize them from lightest to hardest. Why? You never know what kind of reed you will need for what kind of situation. For me, it is easier to know lightest to heaviest. I can usually bet that my best reeds are between number 3 and 5.
As the reeds get older and older, the scale of the reeds change. Reeds are moody, right? Humidity, temperature, pressure, altitude all effect the state of clarinet reeds.
Once I’ve gotten a few important performances under my belt using these reeds, it is time to open a new box and start the entire clarinet reed adjustment process again.
What do I do with the last box? Can you say WORKHORSE REEDS? When I need to practice articulation for hours on end or rattle a particularly hard technical passage for a long period of time. I use that box to get me through these times. Also, while performing long rehearsals in band, this is the WORKHORSE box to use. Unless you have a massive solo in the middle of your piece, use the workhorse box.
If you were to adopt a system like this, there are multiple opportunities for you to pick reeds to start “playing-with” with a knife. Reeds that are too hard or too soft reed right out of the box are a good place to start. Another opportunity is once you current box of reeds pass “prime-time” (can you make them even 5% better with your knifing expertise?).
If you get addicted to the art of reed knife adjustment, practice care of reeds you already deem as good, and try to make them better with the reed knife. Just make sure you’ve honed your skills good before you destroy that already good reed.
Check out the reed routine "Break-in process" that New York Philharmonic Clarinetist Mark Nuccio uses here...
Other notes about clarinet reeds:
Dare to try your reeds out on notes other than open G. This is usually the common reed trial: G, GGG, GGGGG. Then, on to the next. Since the majority of clarinetists do this, try perhaps, a signature note for yourself.
Do not get too caught up in trying too many reeds before your performance. Someday, a time will come where you have to sit down, put on the first reed you look at, and play. Within the last year, I showed up to a clarinet quartet gig an hour and fifteen minutes before the performance. The concert hall was locked. I hung out. The rest of the quartet showed up. Phone calls were made. No keys, no sponsors, nothing. Anyway, by the time the 3 p.m. concert was supposed to start, we were still standing around in the cold. We discussed the thought of doing it in a building lobby not too far away. The crowd followed us, we set-up and started playing. It was not one of my top performances, but the crowd enjoyed it. Just so you know the concept of “instant clarinet” is not dead.
Now, you’ve heard my current concept of a reed routine. Notice the word CURRENT. More than likely I’ll learn more reed tricks, I’ll probably even start whittle ling on reeds again one day.
Need more help in clarinet reed adjustment? Try looking up or asking about these reed topics that many professionals and amateurs alike use: sealing reeds, rubbing the reeds, humidifying the reeds and soaking the reeds. Remember, there is a lot of bad information out there. If you read anything suspicious like, “holding the each reed upside down for fifteen minutes at a time on the first day of each month.” That falls more in line with reed superstition. That clarinetist did that one time and then played the concert of their life. And then that became part of the superstitious reed routine.
Learn all the concepts of good reed discipline that you can. Develop your own REED ROUTINE. Ask your clarinet teacher what his or her routine is. I’m sure answers will vary from the much more complex routine to “I open the box and play, what are you talking about?”
One simple fact happens for me about reeds. The more I practice, the better control I get over the clarinet and that includes the reeds. Now, I have to maintain and NOT play old reeds to make this true. But believe it or not, if you practice consistently, you will gain more consistency in your reeds.
The opposite also holds true. When my practicing is down, reeds are usually REALLY, REALLY BAD.
A synopsis about this page about clarinet reeds:
Have more than one reed to play at any time
Rotate your REEDS
Develop your own reed routine
Notable quote: “Life is too short to play bad reeds,” Kalmen Opperman