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  • Writer's pictureQueen Reed

8 Reed Myths That Are Ruining Your Clarinet Playing!

It’s time to address Reed Myths that many musicians, including music directors and clarinetists, have fallen prey to. And it’s high time, because believing these myths can bring you frustration, heartache, and feelings of inadequacy. What’s more - acting on these myths has a real chance of messing up your playing, keeping you from improving, and making you sound terrible - all of which can add up to you hating your barkystick. And no one wants that for you, especially not me. So let’s clean the slate and get rid of these myths once and for all!

Coming in at NUMBER ONE - most misunderstood aspect of reeds:

1. Myth: Higher Number Reeds (i.e. size 3) Are Thicker Than Lower Number (i.e. size 2.5) Reeds

Fact: Reeds of different strengths are actually the same thickness. But they do have different densities and flexibilities. In a higher strength reed, the fibers are more densely packed and they are less flexible. So when you blow against the reed, it doesn’t bend back as easily.

2. Myth: If A Reed Looks Bad, It Plays Bad

Fact: I hate to say it, because I don’t want my students playing on chipped reeds, but I have been in a dire situation or two when my only real option was to play on a reed that was chipped (imagine walking on stage and snagging the edge of your reed on your clothing - now picture The Scream here). And you know what? It can turn out okay. I don’t know what juju goes on to make one reed with the slightest chip sound like a kazoo, while a reed that looks like the windows of a haunted house can sound like pure gold. But every once in a while it happens that way. Go figure.

3. Myth: All The Reeds In A Box Will Feel Like The Same Strength

Fact: Reeds don’t all grow in perfectly differentiated levels of density and flexibility. Machines test the flexibility of the cane during processing, and if a reed falls within a certain range, it is placed in a batch with other like-density/flexibility reeds. This results in a range (sometimes wide!) of flexibility levels within the same box. You may have a box of 3’s, but a couple feel like 2.5’s and a couple feel like 3.5’s. It’s normal.

4. Myth: You Should Move Up A Size When You Move Up A Grade In School.

Fact: Absolutely not. You should move up when the size you normally use no longer provides enough resistance to your growing powers in air speed and embouchure.

5. Myths about playing on harder reeds:

  • You Should Force Yourself to Adapt to Harder Reeds

Fact: If you feel like you’re really forcing yourself, you are actually not ready for those harder reeds.

  • Playing A Harder Reed Will Make Your Sound Improve, Will Force You To Get Better

Fact: Playing a harder reed will only make your sound improve if you were on reeds that were too weak. If you were on the perfect level for you, then moving up a size is going to be frustrating and counterproductive.

Passionate Side Note Here: Trying to play a harder reed when you aren’t yet ready with air and embouchure, when your mouthpiece isn’t built for that strength of reed (or if you try to skip a size by going straight from say, size 2 to size 3, instead of working at 2.5 in between), is like trying to go from weightlifting 5 pound dumbbells to lifting 50 pound dumbbells, without building up to it. It’s NOT good.

The first bad habit you have a real chance of developing is Biting. And Biting is the bane of every clarinet player. It’s insidious. You don’t even know you are doing it until you’ve been playing for years and all of a sudden everyone else in your cohort is improving and you aren’t. You can’t execute leaps, your high notes are tight and thin, and you can’t smear or bend pitch at all. And is it fun to spend 2 years of your life unraveling a bad habit? No it is not.

If you’re not biting, then you’ll probably start playing with not enough mouthpiece in your mouth in order to get the reed to vibrate at all. This will result in your high notes not coming out and your low notes not sounding full. On top of all of this, your air isn’t going to get you very far along a phrase with a too-hard reed. And on top of that topping, your sound will be unfocused, rough, airy, and cold. Who wouldn’t start to hate their sweet little barkystick if all that was going on?

  • Playing On A Higher Number Reed Than Someone Else Means You’re A Better Player

Fact: The number on your reed has as much to do with how good you are as the size of your shoes. Zilch. The appropriate reed strength has a lot to do with your mouthpiece. Every mouthpiece has an angle at which the beak (tip) bends backwards. Sometimes it’s hard to even see this with the naked eye. But if you put your reed on and hold your mouthpiece sideways and hold it up to the light, you can begin to see that the reed is flat against the mouthpiece at the bottom, but as your eye travels to the tip of the reed and mouthpiece, you can see that the reed and mouthpiece separate from each other. This distance (called the tip-opening)- whether it is a large distance or small distance - has a really big impact on what size of reed you need to play. A larger tip-opening needs a more flexible reed (a smaller number size). A smaller tip-opening needs a less flexible reed (a larger number size). Sometimes when you move UP to a better mouthpiece, you have to move DOWN a reed size because of the new different tip-opening!

6. Myth: You Should Play The Size Of Reed That Other People Play

Fact: You should play the size of reed that gives you a medium to medium+ amount of resistance when you blow. Think Goldilocks -- not too easy to blow, and not too hard.

7. Myth: There Is A “Best” Reed Brand

Fact: There are lots of good reed brands - experiment so you can find what you like best!

8. Myth: You Should Clean Your Reeds With Toothpaste/Hydrogen Peroxide/etc.

Fact: If your reeds are starting to look like they need cleaning, I’m betting they are OLD or MOLDY. If they are old and worn, it’s time to wish them well on their journey to the big pile of old reeds in the sky because playing on reeds that have lost their spring of life is just as counterproductive as playing on too-hard reeds. If your reeds look MOLDY - eww. Don’t put that in your mouth! Instead, it’s time to trouble-shoot your reed storage system so they don’t get moldy to begin with. And one last point: if you have recently had a bacterial infection in your mouth or throat (hello, strep), toss your reeds and break in a new batch once you’re better.

There you have it -- 8 Huge Reed Myths Busted! Right on.

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