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Raisin’ Cane: Clarinet Reeds – Facts and Fiction

Mitchell Estrin, Clarinet Professor, University of Florida Educational & Creative Development Manager, Buffet Crampon USA

Vandoren Performing Artist

Whenever there is more than one clarinet player in a room, the conversation inevitably turns to the subject of reeds. In my many years as a performer and teacher, I have endeavored to take some of the mystery and myth out of this open-ended subject. Here are some practical information and time-proven tips for finding success with clarinet reeds.

Reeds come from Arundo donax, a fibrous perennial plant. Arundo donax is a member of the grass family and a cousin of bamboo. It grows all over the world, but commercial reed cane comes primarily from Spain, Italy, Mexico, Australia, China, Central America and South America. The best cane for clarinet reeds comes principally from two countries: France and Argentina. Historically, the absolute finest reed cane comes from the south of France in a region near the French Riviera known as the Var. This is also true for the finest wines in the world. The climate is perfect and the soil contains exactly the right chemical balance for growing great reed cane and flavorful wine grapes. Arundo donax is known as “music cane” by the natives of the Var region.

There are two critical factors that formulate the creation of a good clarinet reed:

  1. Quality of the material
  2. Design and precision of the cutting

It takes more than four years to go from the planting of the rhizome (seedling) to a finished clarinet reed. In today’s market, Vandoren is unique among reed companies, as it owns its own cane fields, has a staff of growers with generations of agricultural expertise, and production techniques utilizing state-of-the-art technology, hence the consistency of their reeds.

Reed tubes are selected for each woodwind instrument on the basis of the diameter and thickness of their walls. The larger the tube, the larger the instrument the reed will be made for. It is important that the tube be perfectly cylindrical. Reeds made from cylindrical tubes have a symmetrical pattern in their physical structure, which will insure that the finished reed will possess its maximum tonal power. It takes over a hundred precision cuts to create the vamp of a clarinet reed. The rough shapes are beveled to an accuracy of 1/100 mm. The process each reed manufacturer uses to achieve the exact dimensions and parameters of the lines and curvatures remain highly-guarded secrets. At Vandoren, if a reed is rejected on the production line, it is used to heat the reed factory in the winter months! Reeds coming off the production line are constantly play-tested by professional musicians and company testers to continually insure the highest quality of reed.

Each piece of cane has its own character, with which the strength of the reed is determined. It is a myth that the higher the number of the reed (the harder the strength), the thicker the reed. All Vandoren reeds, within the same product line, are cut to exactly the same dimensions. Their strength is determined by flexing the reed with a specially designed and highly-sophisticated electronic reed flexing machine. In the past, this process was done by hand. Reeds are classified in strengths by the amount that they flex. Much of this is related to the strength of the fibers (xylems) and the density of the mass (vascular bundle). As a reed was once a living and breathing organism, reed cane reacts to variances in humidity, temperature, barometric pressure, altitude, and each individual player’s own metaphysics.

General Guidelines for Choosing Appropriate Reed Strengths:

Proper selection of reed strength is directly related to the mouthpiece used, and particularly the mouthpiece facing length and tip opening.

  • With the same tip opening: Longer facing = stronger reed Shorter facing = softer reed
  • With the same facing: Close tip = stronger reed Open tip = softer reed
  • Classical and symphonic playing normally requires medium hard to hard reeds, as most players utilize a mouthpiece with a close tip and a medium to long facing.
  • Jazz playing often requires softer reeds, as many jazz artists utilize a mouthpiece with an open tip and shorter facing length.
  • As a general rule, start beginners on a No. 2 strength reed and move them up to a No. 21/2 when they begin playing above the break.

What to Look and Listen for when Trying Reeds:

  • Do you like the way the reed responds?
  • Do you like the way the reed sounds?
  • Does the reed offer appropriate resistance (not too much, yet not too little)?
  • Is the reed flexible?
  • Does the reed perform well in all registers at all dynamic levels?
  • Does the reed allow you to articulate freely and cleanly?

Basic Reed Maintenance:

  • Wet reeds with water. Saliva contains enzymes and acids that are detrimental to the reed and will shorten its useful playing life. Remember, the Arundo Donax plant is 80% water in its early growth.
  • Break reeds in slowly by playing on them a few minutes a day for several days. This will allow them to stabilize and lengthen their useful playing life.
  • Rinse reeds in water when finished playing. They will last longer as a result.
  • Use a clean cotton handkerchief to dry them after rinsing, squeezing lightly from the top of the vamp only in the direction of the tip.
  • Store reeds on glass or in a secure reed case.
  • Dead reeds and rejects can be useful! Try them again in 3-6 months.
  • Be very careful with a good reed!!

Remember the words of the great clarinetist and teacher, Daniel Bonade, “The greatest tool needed for working on reeds is a large wastebasket”. My own personal credo is, “The rule about reeds is there are no rules about reeds”. Find what works for you.

Good luck and have fun!

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