Saxophonist and clarinetist Ken Robinson who now lives in New York City has offered to share a very interesting article on the preparation of reeds. You can read his complete article below my own introduction.
Introduction to Reed Preparation
Like many others, I have dabbled in reed preparation and at times attempted to make a science of it. When I was 17 or 18 years old, my teacher Jim Odgren of Berklee College of Music went to great lengths to teach me his preparation ritual. At that time we used regular Rico reeds in the old brown wood grain box of 25. We would cut back the shoulder of each reed with a utility knife making the vamp of the reed much longer extending past the window of the mouthpiece. Each reed would then be filed smooth and finished with sandpaper. It was a tedious process but aided in achieving a very vibrant, open sound not dissimilar from that of Jan Garbarek.
Later at Berklee and while on the road I came to settle on simply soaking reeds in water for about 10 minutes and then play-testing them. Even later I started buying premium clarinet reeds and soaking, adjusting and “sealing” them with nose grease.
Most recently I have settled on soaking reeds for something less than those 10 minutes and occasionally using a file, reed knife or sandpaper to help their responsiveness. The most useful reed preparation product I have found in recent years is the Vandoren Reed Revitalizer – a piece of sandpaper or etched glass on a flat surface used to flatten the back of each reed.
Whatever methods have worked for me in the past are now shared with students and fellow players when the need arises. Each method has its merit and each person may decide how much time, money and effort he or she choose to spend on a particular process.
Only this week Ken Robinson offered to share his enlightening article on reed preparation at the same time another friend asked the question, “Skip, have you ever soaked your reeds in hydrogen peroxide?”
I have not tried soaking my reeds in vodka or hydrogen peroxide. I’m not sure that I have ever owned an actual reed knife or reed rush. What I am sure of is that I will continue to stay open-minded in the pursuit of a better reed!
Please REED Ken’s article below and see if this unique method works for you. You know I’ll be giving it a shot…
Positive Advice for Single Reed Players
By Ken Robinson
As any saxophonist or clarinetist knows, reeds are what make or break your sound. It is all too often that I hear people complaining about reeds. I frequently hear players blaming the reed for a poor quality sound. Many reed players let the quest for the “perfect” reed hinder their enjoyment and true potential of their playing. If you’re one of those people or just someone looking for a different viewpoint on reed adjustment then keep reading.
What Methods Are Currently Being Used
Most single reed players have their own routine already established and keep trying to perfect it. I am not in any way trying to discredit or insult anyone’s method in this article. I’m simply stating what works and has worked for me for many years.
The traditional idea with any reed is that you should always begin with soaking them in water. The point being that the reed will soak the water in and be able to withstand the acidity (causing the breakdown of material) of the players saliva for an extended period of time. After about five minutes of soaking, people then try the reeds for potential. If the reed has potential they hang on to it and if it doesn’t they throw them out. The reeds with potential are then filed and cut a particular way and broken in for a period of about 2-3 days. I have read some articles that use a 10-day break-in period. I have heard some players say that they may only get two reeds that play out of a possible ten. It’s no wonder there’s so much frustration out there regarding this art form.
Another very important aspect of every reed player is the arsenal of tools used. These can range anywhere from a simple reed knife to; 5-6 types of knives, sand-paper, reed rush, measurement tools, and many gimmicks that are available on the market.
There are also the don’ts of reed prepping. Many players say you should not touch the reed if possible; others have very intricate methods of storing their reeds.
Never Buy What You Don’t Need
As I previously mentioned, there are many gimmicks on the market that prey on the frustrated reed musician. Again, this article is simply my opinion and is not meant to discredit what already works for people.
Any type of device that proclaims to remake the same type of reed again does not work. Also, devices that measure reed heights are not accurate and do not address the true issue of what makes reeds play. I will discuss what does make reeds play in just a moment. My best advice to anyone out there is if something states it can make the “perfect” reed, it is a gimmick and a waste of time and money.
What I Do and Why It Works
Don't spend valuable music-making time stressing over a two-inch piece of wood. I will describe what I do and why I think it works. Again, I understand that many people will disagree with these methods. All I’m asking is for you to give them a try.
Start out with a new box of clarinet or saxophone reeds. Play on five or six of them. Do not spend time soaking them in water. Many people propose that soaking their reeds protects them from the enzymes in their saliva. I believe that it is more important for the reed to get to know your saliva immediately. Just wet the reed in your mouth for a few seconds and play it. If you think it has potential put it down. Find two reeds that feel like they may have potential. Next, put the others away for another time. They may work during a different season. You're almost finished. Take a sharp reed knife and gently make two or three passes over the entire back of the reed. This must be done with a feathery touch; the idea is not to gouge the reed but to smooth it as though you were using 1500 grade sandpaper. Now, put the reed on a flat surface and rub it really hard and slowly with your thumb. Try the reed and see how it feels. It may still need some minor adjusting. Maybe a slight shave at the tip and sides. The key is to always rub the reed slowly and hard with your thumb. I feel this creates a more solid and controllable feel when playing. Every time you take the reed out to play it; wet it, slide it between your thumb and index finger 3-4 times, and enjoy. Again, I believe that touching the reed each time you play extends its life. I don't have any other proof except that it has always worked for me. This method does not in any way compromise the sound. If anything I feel it makes it better.
If you remember from before I spoke about shaving the reed a bit. This should be done using a simple system that I call the “available light” system. Measuring the reed using tools like I mentioned earlier does not account for the most important and neglected aspect of the reed; density. Shaving the reed to different height measurements does nothing if the density is not correct. The only immediate way to see a reed’s density is by holding it up to an available light in the room. What you are looking for is the dark section to form an upside-down “U”. That is the heart of the reed. Gently remove the dark portions that don’t form that with a knife or sandpaper. Keep rubbing the reed with your thumb after each shave. This also pushes down on the wood and makes the density level higher and more consistent.
Remember that there is no guarantee that my method will work or have some mystically dramatic effect on your sound. If you are having serious issues with your reeds you may want to consider a different brand, a new mouthpiece, or your ability to adapt your embouchure to different reed densities.
Throughout this article I’ve mentioned the “perfect” reed. This is probably the biggest stumbling block for most players. The perfect reed does not exist. Great reeds do exist and can be found and made all of the time. The sooner someone accepts this, the happier they’ll be. Don’t spend time looking for something that doesn’t exist. Enjoy playing on great reeds and you’ll be a much happier player and person.
-Ken Robinson , NYC