Friday, March 11, 2016

Reed Frustration

People complain about reeds all the time. It's true; they are frustrating. If you don't keep them at a relatively constant humidity level, the weather can really affect them. Even then, if the temperature drops down or shoots up far enough, the change in moisture can screw it up. Often times, reeds from the same box can feel harder or softer, and some can just be duds from the get go.  All that being said, I think reeds play more consistently and better than we give them credit for. 

There are a couple additional factors that can really mess with how a reed plays, and these don't have anything to do with the quality of the reed. In fact, I propose that what we bring to the table can have a huge effect on how an average new reed plays.

One dead reed in humidity-controlled lock down
The Life of a Reed
A fresh reed has a springiness to it that gives its sound vibrancy and color. As we play it, the reed slowly loses springiness as the fibers break down. Each reed ages a bit differently, probably having something to do with varying moisture levels, but eventually the reed starts to have serious difficulty vibrating. This can either make the reed feel softer or stiffer, but either way, it sounds deader than a new reed. You can tell the reed is getting softer when the high register doesn't speak as easily and maybe sounds flat, and the reed feels easier to blow, likely too easy. You can tell the reed is getting more resistant when you have to start blowing harder, you feel like your embouchure is working harder, and the sound is a bit thinner and edgier or brighter. 

As this evolution takes place, our embouchure, voicing, and breathing, can change to accommodate the changing reed. As the reed becomes softer, a player with good voicing will attempt to accommodate via breathing and voicing. At the same time less effort is required of that particular player's embouchure and therefore it slackens pressure, and if done for long enough, his or her embouchure pressure will become habitually less than what is required for a usual reed. On the flip side, a player that hasn't developed their ability to voice might respond to a softening reed by increasing embouchure pressure in an effort to bring up the intonation.

If the reed has begun to feel stiffer, our response is to apply more pressure in an effort to make the reed vibrate more. Unfortunately, added embouchure pressure becomes habitual fairly quickly, so if you spend too long on the old dead reed the added embouchure pressure remains even when you slap on a new reed. Added embouchure pressure also tends to discourage proper breath support as it becomes less needed in the reed-vibration equation.

The results of either of these scenarios is that a new reed then feels either harder or softer than it should. Even after you've given the reed a good 24 hours to fully adjust from dry to a higher humidity level (that's how long it takes), you still may find that the reed doesn't play as well as you'd like because your embouchure is essentially set for a different reed strength. At this point many people figure it's the reeds problem, that it's too soft or hard, and they throw it out or work on it.

What to Do Instead
One way to avoid this is to just not play on a reed that sounds dead, hard or soft. It's most likely going to screw up your embouchure and maybe your breathing as well. Instead, throw it out, and the problem is solved. Fortunately, increasing embouchure pressure after playing on too soft reed comes naturally. Practicing typical long tone and other tone oriented exercises can be extremely helpful in making the transition. However, decreasing embouchure pressure can be more problematic.

For those who find themselves in the predicament of needing to relax their embouchure, here are a few ideas:
  • Focus on breathing. Added embouchure pressure and overly hard reeds generally discourage proper breathing, so work on breathing deeply. A little bit of this goes a long way.
  • Play some heavy vibrato. Try to get a clear and easy sounding wide vibrato. Interestingly, this can cue your embouchure into relaxing. This is particularly helpful on overtones. 
  • If all else fails, take a break. Take the day off, and come back fresh the next day. Giving your embouchure some time to recover can help it relax.

Intonation and Reed Strength
One other problem to watch out for is having your mouthpiece placed too far in (sharp) or too far out (flat) on the neck. Your ears pick up on the intonation difference, and your embouchure tries to compensate. If you're flat, your embouchure tightens up which can make the reed feel harder, and if you're sharp, your embouchure loosens and jaw drops which makes the reed feel softer. Essentially, sometimes your reeds feel harder or softer just because you're not quite in tune.

So, stop crying about your reeds, and figure it out already! OK, maybe it's not that simple, but if you take good care of your reeds and pay attention to intonation and when your reed is dying, I guarantee your reeds will sound and play more consistently.


  1. Thanks. As a player who tries to get the last few plays out of every reed, I need to be reminded to throw the damn thing out!

    And, not to be a grammar Nazi, please check your use of "your" and "you're". "If YOU'RE flat, your .... if YOU'RE sharp .."

    1. I need the reminder too, so I wrote myself a nice long one here. :)

      Thanks for the heads up on the couple grammatical errors. I wrote this fairly quickly.

  2. Dam, I feel like this article was written for me! I have always been burdened with ilthe inability to throw out old reeds and as a result have had intonation daemons forna long time. It wasn't until very recently I had somewhat of a break through regarding this problem. I stopped overflowing and bought a mouthpiece silencer but, I also noticed that when I changed reeds I had to be careful again. I am considering making a permanent switch to a synthetic reeds to prevent this slow decline even though I think the sound isn't quite as good. What are your feeling on this?