Tag Archives: music

Don’t Hate, Rotate!

Opening my reed case used to be an emotional roller coaster. Not the fun type of roller coaster, but the type where eating a chili-dog two minutes before was a bad idea. I hated feeling that I had no control over how the reed I selected would play. Would it sing or be stuffy? Would soft notes speak or run and hide?

Learning to break in reeds properly was the first step off of this anxiety inducing ride. Then I upgraded to a humidity controlling case. Finally, I focused on how I cycle through reeds. I’d like to offer three simple practices that have made a big difference in the life and performance of my reeds and hopefully can be helpful to you too!



Labeling reeds is a simple method for keeping track of their age and condition. I’ve been using this system for a long time and felt pretty smug when David Shifrin (one of the the world’s top clarinet players and music educators) recommended this exact method in a master class. Every time you start a new reed, record the date in pencil at the base of the back of the reed. The reed in the picture below was started April 24. If you start more than one reed on the same day, add letters. For example, if I began breaking-in additional reeds on April 24, they would have been labeled “4/24B”, “4/24C”, and so on. Dating your reeds (how romantic) will help you keep track of when a reed is broken-in as well as micro- and macro-rotation (described in the sections below). Additionally, if a reed is particularly firm I will write a “+” and if it is particularly soft a “-”. I refrain from doing this until after a reed is fully broken-in because so much can change during that process.


Reed started on 4/24



While you’re probably thinking this section describes hula-ing with a very small hoop…Micro-rotation addresses reed use choices during a single playing session. The main idea here is to play more reeds for shorter periods. I like to switch reeds every 30 minutes during a practice session and during breaks in an ensemble rehearsal. By limiting time on each reed, it becomes easier to avoid water-logging and maintain ideal reed humidity. This prevents good reeds from wearing out too quickly and extends the life of reeds in general.

Pairing labeling with micro-rotation makes it easier to remember characteristics of different reeds. For instance, I might think, “I’ll start my warm up on 4/22(-) because I know it’s a softer reed,” or “5/2b will be great for the recording session tomorrow because it plays with an open, singing tone.” By playing more reeds for shorter periods each day, it becomes easier to remember the qualities (good or bad) of each reed, to be more attuned to subtle differences between reeds and in the same reed over time, and to make reeds last longer. Woo!



While micro-rotation deals with day-to-day reed selection, macro-rotation looks at the entire lifecycle of a reed: from out of the box to into the trash can. The number of reeds in rotation at a time and how long each reed lasts will vary based on performance needs and practicing habits. I have found that eight reeds (per instrument) works well and conveniently is how many reeds my favorite case holds. Playing an average of three hours a day, most reeds last about six weeks. However, the performance of the reed varies over that lifetime.

Reeds can potentially progress through five stages:

  1. Newbie: All reeds start by being broken-in. I usually have 1 or 2 new reeds in my case.
  2. Playable: These are reeds that can be used for practice and rehearsals with confidence. Typically 2 or 3 of my reeds are in this category.
  3. All-Star: These are the best reeds in the case. They can very confidently be used to perform. If you have any upcoming performances, shoot for having 3 of these ready to go!
  4. Exiting: Over time, reeds stop playing as effectively. Reeds in this category are still Playable, but will soon be replaced with Newbies. Often a reed or two in my case will be at this phase.
  5. Trash: At some point, all reeds must die. Some reeds were doomed out of the box and others play fantastically for months, but as soon as it’s clear that a reed is causing stress and eating up precious practice time, it’s time to make way for some new cane.

The key point of rotation is between Newbies and Exiting/Trash. With eight reeds, I find one becomes Trash every week or two. At that point a Newbie enters. What I’m trying to say is… Regularly replace Trash reeds with Newbies.

The one problem I occasionally run into is having too many good reeds. While this is only a dream for most wind players (and is certainly a high quality problem to have), it presents the risk of having multiple reeds become Trash simultaneously. The key here is to be proactive and always have a few All-Star reeds. Keeping a high standard and being fastidious in deciding which reeds will stay in the rotation will ensure a case full of helpful reeds, rather than a case full of fear.



  1. Label each reed with the date it was first used. Add a “+” or “-” to indicate extremes in firmness.
  2. Develop a habit of micro-rotation by switching reeds every 30 minutes or so.
  3. Consistently start new reeds as old reeds expire.
  4. Strive to have at least three performance-ready reeds available at all times.


Click here for more saxophone lessons.

Stating My (Reed) Case

Update on 26 July 2015: I recently discovered it is possible to get 10 humidity packs for the price of one! Check it out here. I’m very excited I found this!

“I feel prepared for my recital,” I told my teacher, “I just hope I have a reed that works!”

“You should have at least three good reeds to choose from for a performance,” she responded matter-of-factly.

Three good reeds?! All at once? At the time, I was shocked. I felt I had no control over the quality of my reeds and that all I could do was hope. Now, I regularly have more than three performance-ready reeds on hand. So what changed?

In my last post I wrote about breaking in reeds, which led to my biggest advance down the path to reed mastery. But what do you do once a reed is broken in correctly? How do you make sure your reeds continue to play well?  One answer is proper storage. Ideally, a reed case does three things: protects the reed tip, prevents warping, and controls humidity.

Level 1: Protect the Tip

The most basic level of reed storage is protecting the tip of the reed. If the tip chips, you can start drafting another reed eulogy. Luckily, protection is easily found with any case and even the plastic sheath most reeds are packaged in can suffice at this level. Remove the reed from the mouthpiece after each playing session and carefully place it in a case. This is a starting point, but a good case can offer much more!


Level 2: Prevent Warping

While a warped tip doesn’t toll the same death knell as cracking, it is generally a sign that a reed is in (rapid) decline. There are some tricks to flatten a warped reed, but I find a proactive approach to be the most effective. Basic reed cases like the Rico Reed Guard are an inexpensive option that can maintain a flat tip a bit better than the generic packaging.


Level 3: Control Humidity

Here’s where a case can go from passively holding your reeds to actively improving their consistency and longevity. In a case that maintains constant humidity, reeds are always ready to play, rarely warp, and are more dependable from playing session to playing session. Most serious saxophone and clarinet players I know are now using the Rico Multi-Instrument Reed Storage Case. I have a case for each of my saxophones and one for my clarinet. (Clearly I’m a fan!)

Each case contains a humidity pack that helps maintain homeostasis. I use the 72% packs which are intended from “minimal wetting.” With this humidity level, I barely need to moisten both ends of a reed and it is good to go. The Reed Vitalizer packs must be replaced every 45 to 90 days. If the pack feels like it contains a solid rather than a fluid, it is time for a new one. Each pack’s lifespan depends on a number of factors which can include external humidity and temperature, altitude, frequency of case use, and how moist the reeds are when they’re stored.

A note on drying: With the 72% humidity pack, I find I get the best results when I wipe off excess moisture with my fingers before storing. This also prevents any mold from developing.



  1. Reed storage plays a real and important role in managing your reeds.
  2. Ideally a case protects from damage, prevents warping, and controls humidity.
  3. The Rico Multi-Instrument Case is my top recommendation for successful storage.


Click here for more saxophone lessons.

Break-in Reeds… Before They Break You

I’m not sure how to start this post without sounding like a cheesy infomercial, so here it goes: Are you tired of reeds sounding bad? Do you hate it when a reed is great one day and completely unresponsive the next? Then boy do I have good news for you pal! With these simple steps, all your reeds will play great, all the time, forever!

Ok, that last line was a bit of an exaggeration, but learning how to break in reeds properly has exponentially improved the consistency and quality of the reeds I use. With better-behaved reeds, practicing is more enjoyable and performing is less stressful. If you feel like you’re spinning the roulette wheel every time you set up to play, read (reed?) on!

The most frequent mistake when starting a new reed is using it too much, too soon. Reeds are made of porous cane, which must seal properly.  During this sealing process, it is crucially that the reed does not get oversaturated and become waterlogged. Waterlogging a new reed is like dropping an ice cream cone on the pavement. There’s so much potential and then…whomp whomp. The solution: only play a new reed for 3 minutes per day for the first full week of playing.

In addition to sealing the reed properly to avoid waterlogging, breaking in a reed is an opportunity to improve responsiveness and consistency for the life of the reed. To do this properly, you will need a piece of flat glass or plastic. Before and after each three-minute session, you will need to massage the vamp and polish the back.

To massage the vamp, place the back of the reed on the flat glass, hold it in place, and vigorously massage the filed part of the reed with your thumb for a few seconds. (Check out figure numero uno.) I find it helpful to focus on any rough patches and smooth them out over the course of the break-in.

Massage the Vamp

Massaging the Vamp

After massaging the vamp, place your fingers on the reed and, applying equal pressure with each finger, rapidly slide the reed back and forth on the glass to polish the bottom.  (Figure deux.)

Polish the Back

Polishing the Back

With this simple process, I hope you will experience the same jump in reed quality that I have!


  1. Only play the reed for 3 minutes per day. Use a timer.
  2. Do this for one week.
  3. Massage the vamp and polish the back of the reed before and after each playing session.


In my next posts, I will go over how to store and cycle your reeds to make sure your reeds are always in great playing condition.


Click here for more saxophone lessons.

Blanket Fort Concert

DF will be putting on a concert in a giant Blanket Fort on February 20! We love finding fun new ways to share what we do. When the inspiration struck to do a show in a giant blanket fort, a wave of pillowy nostalgia came crashing over us. Blanket forts are a hallmark of childhood joy, something we’re hoping to recreate for our audience on a wintery evening.

Be a part of making this awesome event happen by joining our Indiegogo!