Reed companies go to great lengths to be sure their customers are receiving high quality products. They test the pH levels of the soil in various regions where their cane is grown in order to find ideal locations and optimal harvest times. They are constantly exploring various aging methods and processes for cutting and creating blanks, and for measuring and shaping the finished reeds we receive. Their employees examine reeds by hand for quality control before moving them forward to be packaged. Once we open a new box of reeds, it becomes our responsibility to ease the reeds into their jobs of responding and vibrating for us as well as possible and for as long as possible.
There are many approaches to breaking in new reeds and each person has to find what works for them. One thing is for sure: Reeds are at their most porous when brand new and therefore most susceptible to becoming waterlogged. If nothing is done to condition a new reed, it is likely that the reed won’t last very long and that it will neither sound nor respond to its full potential.
I often use the grossly exaggerated analogy of giving birth to a child: No one delivers a child and expects it to immediately go out into the world, get a job, and function independently. The child requires care and nurturing. In an obviously less significant way (yet still very important to us as clarinetists!), it isn’t reasonable to take a reed straight out of the box, immediately begin playing on it for long periods, and expect it to perform optimally for what we hope will be a long period of time. To that end, it’s important to have a method for breaking in and conditioning reeds when we open a new box.
Straight out of the container, reeds are not accustomed to the regular process of becoming wet, vibrating, and drying out. When a new reed is moistened and then allowed to dry, the wood particles on the pores curl up, making the reed even more susceptible to becoming waterlogged. (When viewed under a microscope, this image makes an indelible impression!)
The first thing I do is introduce the reeds to moisture using either bottled water or saliva. Some people have saliva that turns reeds dark and causes the fibers to break down more quickly, in which case water is the obvious choice. Using bottled water bypasses any concerns about mineral content in tap water, as “hard” water can also cause the reed fibers to break down more quickly. I immerse the reeds tip down (see photo) and leave them for a couple of minutes, then take them out one at a time and play a couple of brief notes in the low register. When using saliva, I soak each reed in my mouth for several seconds immediately before playing.
It’s a good idea not to play the reed too long the first few times. The goal is is to introduce the reed both to moisture and to vibrating, but a little bit at a time. Following this initial play test, take the reed off the mouthpiece and rub it from the shoulder to the tip between the thumb and index finger (i.e. toward the tip) several times. This is one of the most important steps in the process, as it helps to train the wood to lie down (rather than curl up) and helps to slightly seal the pores so that the reed can accept just the right amount of moisture without being susceptible to becoming waterlogged.
I repeat the above steps once a day for 7-10 days. Every day I play each reed a little longer and move up a little farther in the register.
By this time, each reed will have begun to establish its own personality. I’m often surprised by how much a reed can change during the first week, becoming either softer or harder, but at the end of this process, each reed usually settles into how it will sound and respond, absent variables of humidity, travel, changes in elevation, and any manual adjustments we may choose to make.
The sheath of each reed is then marked: VS=Very Soft, S=Soft, MS=Medium Soft, MH=Medium Hard, H=Hard, VH=Very Hard. The reeds that are most clear, resonant and responsive (and therefore my favorites) are marked with a star, an asterisk, a plus sign or, in some cases, all of the above if it seems like it’s going to be an especially terrific reed.
At this point, reeds that I’m going to be using for practice sessions, rehearsals, and concerts begin rotating into my reed cases. I like to use Vandoren Hygro Reed Cases and airtight containers made by “sistema” that I buy at the Container Store. (Both are pictured above.)
The balance between dryness and moisture plays a direct role in how well and consistently reeds perform for us, as well as how long they last. If they are too dry, they will accept too much moisture and have a brittle quality, too wet and they will swell and become stuffy and less responsive.
One of my former students is particularly concerned about reeds becoming too wet and goes so far as to keep his reeds in a refrigerator during rainy weather. I was at a music festival in Taiwan this past summer and the weather was particularly humid, so all my reeds became swollen and less responsive than I wanted. I put my reeds in the fridge overnight and it made a big difference in making my reeds more clear and responsive!
Maintaining moisture during storage can make a positive difference during airline travel. Cabin pressure causes the air inside the plane to be incredibly dry which stresses both wooden instruments and reeds. Keeping humidity in one’s instrument case and reed cases can greatly ease the stress of travel, allowing reeds to change less from one location to the next than they might otherwise.
Taking such detailed care when breaking in new reeds not only improves the quality and duration of a reed’s lifespan; it also allows us to move more confidently through various changes in weather and location knowing that our reeds will be more consistent.
“Practice like you’ve never won. Play like you’ve never lost.”