Adjust and Improve Your Reeds with This Technique

Did you ever open a box of clarinet or saxophone reeds only to find out that some of those premium reeds don’t play up to your expectations while others in the box do?

Well welcome to the club! I have seen sax players going through entire boxes of brand new reeds (while on stage) looking for a suitable reed. Maybe pre-gig preparation should have been incorporated. I’ve heard of symphonic clarinetists throwing out 7 out of 10 brand new quality reeds from a single box. I wish I was there to pick up the rejects. I could have saved a ton of money.

While throwing out reeds may be an option, it isn’t very economical, unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth or have money to burn. An alternative is to improve your reeds by adjusting and balancing them.

When I was in college, I learned to make and adjust oboe reeds, a skill I brought with me in my private teaching career. One day I woke up and wondered why I couldn’t apply the same basic techniques to sax, clarinet, and even bassoon reeds. Even though I didn’t formally learn the bassoon I was drafted to teach it as I was the only double reed player in the city at the time. You know, the “Have fingering chart and reed cutting knife, will travel” scenario. I also carried a disclaimer that I wasn’t a real bassoon player…..I just had experience with playing and cutting double reeds along with a lot of research. In spite of that, I still sent students to all-state.

That led me to experiment with single reeds. I used the same concepts for where to adjust the bamboo. A little bit of common sense came into play. Bamboo, like any other type of tree has more dense areas, depending on which side was facing north or south. Though the cane was shaved down to precise dimensions at the processing facility, the density may have varied from side to side on a finished reed so it might have been unbalanced.

Ok, fix it! Some people say never use sandpaper on a reed and I have been chastised for using it, but if a reed plays better after working on it I’ll stick with that method.

Here’s what to do. Take a new reed that is very uncomfortable to play. Prep it to play in the usual the way. Now turn the mouthpiece counter clockwise about 10 degrees. Next lightly crush the left side of the reed against its corresponding rail of the mouthpiece and blow. Take note on how the reed responds on the right side. Repeat this procedure by lightly crushing the right side and blow. Compare the results. If the two sides don’t match, the reed is not balanced. Which ever side is harder to blow on is more dense and needs to be shaved or sanded a little. Think of the reed in thirds. (Two sides and the heart in between) all about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch down from the tip. Carefully sand the outside third just a bit with 220 grit paper. You can find it in any hardware store.

Play both sides again and compare. If the same side is still more resistant, sand it some more. After two or three times, the sides should start to feel equal. Play them together. Your response should be “WOW”

I balanced a senior high school student’s clarinet reed during his private lesson years ago. Within three minutes, he proclaimed that it was the best reed he ever played.

If you can’t get the reed to play better, remember “It was crappy in the first place!” Also, if a 2 1/2 reed is too soft, and the 3 reed is too hard, go with the 3 and take wood off. You can’t put wood on a softer reed. An added benefit of going with the 3 reed is that the heart is thicker and it will last longer.

And for those who feel sandpaper is taboo, I get nine out of ten in a box to play beautifully rather than three of ten! I usually give them a “S#@t roll”. You know, I roll my eyes and say s#@t under my breath.

You might find diagrams on line that will reinforce what I just shared with you. If not, just know what I described really works!