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