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Reed Clinic - Reeds

John Robert Brown

The plant from which we make clarinet and saxophone reeds is gramineous, meaning that it is of the grass family, as are wheat and sugar cane. Thus, a hollow reed-cane stalk is not wood but a sort of large straw. It differs from wood in that wood grows from the centre outwards. Grass (reed-cane) grows rapidly inwards from the hard exterior. Reed-cane has a Latin name, Arundo Donax. Common names are Giant Reed, Spanish Reed and Canne-de-Provence. It is tall, tallest of the European Gramineae, and reaches a height of six metres in one year. During the second year it thickens towards the centre, and hardens. Reed makers cut the cane after two years.

In Britain you can see Arundo Donax growing at Kew Gardens in London. Reed can grows all over the world. The best known area for reed cane is the Var region of Southern France. Most grows in the alluvial planes to the east and west of the Mediterranean port of Toulon. The Var soil has a high silica content. The Adelaide area of South Australia has ideal soil conditions for the cultivation of Arundo Donax. Reeds have been grown there successfully during the last twenty years. An Australian reed-making industry began in 1991.

Variations in the cane arise from the time of year when growth takes place and from the prevailing microclimate. After cutting, the cane is sun-dried. Then the harvesters cut it from knot to knot and season it for eighteen months.

In this Reed Clinic I am not going to discuss reed-making from the raw cane. I disagree with those players who claim that one cannot master the art of reed adjustment without first making reeds from the beginning. Like most players, I prefer to leave the time-consuming fashioning of reeds to the expert companies whose names we all know. Instead I devote the time to adjusting their finished products. However, if you wish to carve your own you can find help in Clarinet Reeds: Definitive Instruction in an Elusive Art, by Norman M. Heim (Norcat Music Press), or in the Handbook for Making and Adjusting Single Reeds, by Kalman Opperman (Chappell and Co. 1956). Unfortunately the latter is out of print. Ask your local library to obtain it for you. If you would like to obtain reed-cane for making your own reeds, the Internet lists thirty-two suppliers at: www.sneezy.org.

Cane can also be obtained as reed blanks, known as Ready to Finish (RTF). Some makers supply these with square tips. You can shape the tip to suit your own mouthpiece.

To understand the anatomy of a cane reed, dip a new unblown reed into a glass of tap water. You must not have played the reed at all. Hold the reed horizontal with the bark of the wood and the blade of the reed (the cut part) upwards. Make sure that there is water lying on the surface of the blade. Now place the thick end of the reed in your mouth and blow. You will see a 'frying' effect on the blade of the reed, as bubbles of air escape and disturb the water. The air you are blowing is travelling along the hundreds of tiny tubes which make up the cane. The bubbles escape through the open ends of the tubes.

Now do this with a well-played reed. Few bubbles will appear. Most of the tubes are blocked. The tubes have taken up moisture from your saliva. Transporting moisture was their function in the living plant. From the clarinettist's saliva the tiny tubes also take up viscous substances and small solids. These clog the tubes. This clogging actually stabilises the condition of the reed. However, there is also the possibility that saliva enzymes and bacteria attack the cane. They are trying to digest the wood!

Old reeds can be cleaned and rejuvenated chemically. Try giving your reed a five-minute soaking in hydrogen peroxide, which is an oxidising agent and widely used antiseptic. It is used in oral antiseptic agents, (mouthwashes) widely and cheaply available over the counter, and as a dental whitener or bleaching agent, and dentifrice. Uses also occur in hairdressing as part of permanent dyes and in colour removing preparations. It is used to clean hot tubs and swimming pools, and to destroy chlorine in waste water plants. Some alternative health care therapies offer Food Grade Hydrogen Peroxide, allegedly as a cure for arthritis. These uses are all at low concentrations. However, at 100% concentration it is used as a constituent of rocket propellant! Therefore, take the advice of your pharmacist, read the instructions, and keep the bottle away from children. Several interesting films on the internet, showing the early German rocket plane, the ME 163B Comet, which used hydrogen peroxide ('T-Stoff') as one of the fuel ingredients to give it a sensational rate of climb.

To rejuvenate a reed, soak a well-used example in dilute hydrogen peroxide. The effect is instant. Vigorous bubbling takes place along the blade of the reed. Even after five minutes, when you have removed the reed from the liquid and swilled it with water, you can still hear the bubbling. There is a palpable restorative effect on the playing quality of the reed. Considering its efficiency and cheapness, it surprises me that this treatment is not more widely used by reed players.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that because hydrogen peroxide is a bleach, then any other household bleach will do the job. Common domestic bleaches such as Domestos are entirely different chemically. They do not have the same effect (I have tried), and can be dangerous.

Understanding the tubular structure of a woodwind reed helps us to devise ways in which we can adjust reeds. Some players soak reeds in ordinary tap-water every day for a couple of weeks before playing on them. This is to let the reed take up moisture, and hastens the settling-down period. Others occasionally soak their reeds in warm salty water. They claim that this maintains the humidity and keep the reed from crinkling. Keep your reeds flat when not on the instrument by using a commercial reed holder.

A common treatment is to crush the ends of the tubes by smoothing or polishing the blade. You can do this with a hard object such as a knife handle or a mouthpiece cap. Try it on the new reed through which you have blown bubbles. Smooth the blade of the reed, and test repeatedly until the bubbles no longer appear. You have now sealed the reed-and have softened the strength slightly. More important, the reed should now behave more consistently. This sealing of the reed was the thinking behind the commercially-available reeds that had a thin plastic coating painted onto the blade.

If you subsequently cut or scrape the reed, the ends of the tubes will be opened. This applies whether the reed has a painted plastic coating applied at the factory, or if you have sealed it yourself by crushing the fibres.

Reeds vary in strength. Most players use reeds of strength two to three and a half. Several reed manufacturers have revealed that they can measure reed strengths to a far finer scale than halves on a scale of one to five. They could offer reeds that they have graded 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, etc., yet manufacturers deliberately place a variety of strengths in one box. A box of three-and-a-half strength reeds may contain an assortment graded from 3.3 to 3.7. This makes the box universal, allows for an individual's change of circumstances and avoids selling a box of reed which is so consistent as to offer no choice. If the reeds were all 3.7, for example, and this strength was not acceptable, then the whole box would be useless. Yet one manufacturer grades to twenty levels of strength! Within the conventional half-grade system they mark their reed boxes with a seven-character code. The letter at the end of this code (A-T) represents the sub-strength of the reeds in that box. Devise a personal system of marking your reeds, so that you can identify the grade, age or playing quality.

Apart from the above treatments, all adjustments remove some cane. The most common adjustment is to remove a tiny sliver from the tip of the reed. This is done when the reed becomes a touch too soft. For this, you can use a reed cutter, or 'burn back' the tip. A reed cutter is a tiny guillotine. Manufacturers make reed cutters in various sizes to suit the clarinet, alto saxophone, baritone saxophone, etc. Choose your reed cutter carefully. It should cut the tip of the reed with a profile that exactly matches the profile of the tip rail of your mouthpiece. Take your mouthpiece with you when you purchase a reed cutter. Go to a shop that can offer you a choice. Burning back the reed tip is quick and precise. Slacken the ligature and pull the reed over the mouthpiece so that it protrudes about 2mm. Use a large coin to sandwich the reed between the coin and the mouthpiece tip rail or - if you are concerned about damaging your mouthpiece - use two coins. Align the sandwich carefully so that the soft tip of the reed protrudes. With a match or a cigarette lighter burn away the tip of the reed. The coin and mouthpiece both absorb heat and control the amount of the reed burned. The reed should burn to match the contour of the tip rail. Practise on an old metal mouthpiece with an old reed.

Benny Goodman is said to have adjusted his reed in this way. The story is that he would find himself on the bandstand without a suitable coin, and regularly borrowed one from tenorist Vido Musso. The absent-minded Goodman would fix his reed, then slip Vido's dollar into his own pocket. Vido's job in the band was to dismantle and pack Benny's expensive custom-built Selmer clarinet. Vido is said to have reclaimed his losses by slowly exchanging his own less fancy clarinet for Benny's, a joint at a time!

Scraping the reed is the other major method of adjustment. Use a very sharp knife. If the knife digs in, it isn't sharp enough. A scalpel blade, a fine-tooth file and carborundum paper, or flour paper, can be used. Dutch Rush is often written about in this context, being a hollow tubular stem of a species of horsetail or scouring rush - Equisetum Laevigatum. It has a very delicate action, too delicate for some.

When scraping, be careful with - or totally avoid - the tip of the reed. Remove only small amounts between testings. Working with a moist reed is best.

In my own experience the most effective adjustment is to ensure that the reed offers a balanced resistance when comparing sides. Stop one side of the reed with your thumb and blow on an open note. Alternatively, put the instrument in your mouth at an angle. With your lower lip you can clamp one side of the reed, holding it against the mouthpiece side rail. Blow on one side of the reed only. Then compare its resistance with the other side. Remove material from the stiffer side and check repeatedly until the two sides balance. This is a most effective cure for squeaks.

The only practical scraping that I can recommend is on (a) the area below the tip and (b) the sides. Avoid the thick heart of the read. If the reed needs reduction here, better to start again with a different reed. After all, what you are seeking is a quick and efficient method to obtain a good playable reed. Surely the nearer you can approach this by buying the correct reed, the better? Therefore, if the reed requires much adjustment, you are starting from an unsuitable initial choice of reed. Incidentally, doing anything useful to the back (mouthpiece side) of the reed is difficult though it should be regularly cleaned, of course.

I have not mentioned synthetic reeds. These proved useful during the Second World War when the harvesting and transporting of cane became difficult. Keep an open mind about synthetic reeds. It is said that Artie Shaw used one when he recorded Stardust. Lester Young claimed to use plastic reeds.

The famous classical clarinettist Rosario Mazzeo has admitted that with the Boston Symphony he played on such reeds. For hundreds of rehearsals, concerts, recording sessions, broadcasts and many lecture demonstrations he confessed that "despite the drawbacks no one ever knew I was playing a synthetic reed until I told them". However, in The Clarinet, Excellence and Artistry (Alfred Publishing, out of print) Mazzeo admits that the drawbacks are sufficient to keep synthetics from being the final answer for the finest playing.

www.usd.edu/smm/Mazzeocollection.html

First published in Crescendo magazine. Reproduction forbidden
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