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I began playing the clarinet when I was 11 years old, back in 1984, after many months of pestering my parents. Although I wasn't particularly good when I started, I loved the look and feel of the instrument and I persevered, and I finally ended up as a music student at Leeds University with the clarinet as my first instrument. I didn't find the notes that hard when I was a kid; I could produce a tune without too many tears, but my tunes just didn't sound very nice until I'd got to about grade 6. A lot of young players experience the same problem, and the problem is really twofold- 1) producing a beautiful sound takes lots of practice, and 2) producing a really beautiful sound depends on your reed.
What a Reed is All About
If you don't play a reed instrument you may well be wondering what I'm talking about, so I'll explain a little bit here. (For the already initiated, feel free to skip this bit!)
A clarinet is fundamentally a tube which is approximately 2 feet long; in fact it's the same length as a flute or an oboe. The flute has a small hole which you blow across. This makes the air inside the tube start vibrating, (like if you blow across the top of a bottle and hear a note). The oboe and the clarinet, however, use reeds. These are small bits of cane, (or sometimes plastic), which are attached to the top of the instrument. The cane goes in your mouth and you make it vibrate with your lips and jaw; this sets the column of air vibrating, and hey presto a note sounds. (It's very hard to describe how you actually do this because it all happens inside your closed mouth!) You can't play the clarinet (or the oboe or bassoon) unless you have a reed attached to the top, and these essential bits of kit have, unfortunately, quite a short life span. How long a reed lasts depends on lots of things, like how often you play, what brand you're using, and even what the weather's like. (It's a natural material so it's affected by the humidity of the atmosphere).
The Reed you really Need
So now you know you need a reed, off you pop down to your local music shop, or find one online. The first question they'll ask you is what kind of reed do you need? Narrowing it down to just "a clarinet reed" won't get you very far. You have to specify the strength of your reed. And choose a brand. And choose one of a range of reeds within that brand. And how many do you need to buy?
So how can a little bit of cane be so diverse and complicated? How can you possibly choose?! Let's take a look at the first dilemma: Strength.
Reeds are categorised by their thickness, and given a grading from 1 to 5, including half grades. Basically speaking, the thicker the reed, the more difficult it is to produce a note, but the nicer the note will sound. So, if you are a beginner, (and therefore in possession of relatively weak jaw muscles compared to a veteran), you should choose a low number, known as a "soft" reed. Around 1.5 would be good, but go for a 1 if the 1.5 is too difficult to blow on. As you get better, you'll gradually be able to progress to thicker reeds (known as "hard"). To get a decent sound, you need to be playing on a minimum 3.5, and most professionals will be playing on 4.5 to 5s. Personally, I play on a 3.5. OK, let's move on to brand and product:
In the UK there are mainly 2 companies battling it out in the clarinet reed field, and they are Vandoren and Rico. I'll try to make a comparison between them, since your basic purchasing decision will be between these two brands. Here's what Vandoren say about their standard B flat clarinet reeds:
"The most widely played reeds in the professional world."
And here's what Rico claim about their most similar product:
"The world's most popular reed." One thing you may be able to deduce from this is that Vandoren reeds are better and also more expensive. They produce a better tone for professionals, who are more picky about these things than amateurs. However, there are many more amateurs piping away in their bedrooms on a Sunday afternoon than there are professionals, and they tend to choose Rico, so they can't be all bad.
Here's how the prices compare from 2 reputable online firms, for a box of 10, (the normal number you get in a box).
>From www.myatt.co.uk Rico Reeds cost £8.50 and Vandoren cost £11.00
>From www.dawkes.co.uk Rico cost £6.25 and Vandoren cost £10.25
Rico are well ahead in the tasty price league, so why is it that all these professionals are choosing Vandoren? It really boils down to the sound that comes out when you blow, which to the professional is the only major issue. For us mere mortals though, there are another couple of points to consider- how many of these 10 newly purchased reeds actually work properly, and how long will one last before I have to change it? I've played on both these brands of reeds over the 20 and a bit years I've been playing this instrument, and I believe that Rico are more consistent in the strength grades they put in the box, and they last for the same length of time as Vandoren's, but whereas a box of Vandoren sometimes produces a really stunning beautiful reed, a box of Rico never does.
When you buy a box of reeds, it is quite normal to find that some of them just won't work. This is rather annoying, (especially if you're paying more than a pound a piece), but it's a fact of life. The cane is rigorously tested by both companies, and left to mature for a considerable time, but nothing can stop the cane from becoming slightly modified once it's been packaged up in its box. My personal average from Vandoren is 50% usable reeds per box, while Rico usually gives me 7 or 8 that are playable. So, in effect, they work out even cheaper than you'd bargained for. I think that Rico's testing technology is perhaps superior to Vandoren's, to produce these results. They are more effective at eliminating inferior cane earlier in the process, before it actually gets in the box. In my mind there is no doubt that Vandoren Reeds sound better, but the large difference in price is not justified by the small difference in sound. Going back to my earlier point about the quality of!
my early attempts at the clarinet, I should point out that playing on the correct strength of reed, (and one that isn't too old), will ensure an acceptable sound from anyone. So how to find the correct strength? Read on!
How Strong is your Jaw?
Rico Reeds come in strengths 1-5 (not all brands do). If you're a complete beginner, buy a 1, a 1.5 and a 2. (You can buy reeds singly, both online and in shops. Some shops let you try the reed out before you buy it just in case it's a duffer (see above), but not all of them.) Try the 2 first. If you produce a sound quite easily and without pain, congratulations! You've found the right strength. If you find it takes lots of breath to get a note and you can hear air escaping from the side of your mouth as you blow, the reed is too hard. Try the 1.5, and repeat the process. Remember that with clarinet reeds, the only way is up! When you have been playing on your 1.5 for some time, try the 2 from time to time. Don't play for too long, as your jaw will tire easily and you may bite into your bottom lip. If this happens, your mouth will be too sore to play until it's healed, and you'll have to start with a softer reed again. Gradually increase your playing time, until you can play on the 2 with no problems. Then move on to the 2.5, and repeat the process.
If you stick with a softer reed once your jaw muscles have become stronger, your sound will deteriorate. Playing on a soft reed produces a buzzy kind of tone and can sound flat. Higher notes on the instrument are more difficult to reach with a softer reed, which is another reason why you need to climb that reed ladder! Sometimes reeds are a little bit too hard or a little bit too soft, without being impossible to play on. You don't have to chuck them away in cases like this, you can "doctor" them slightly to make them more playable: if the reed is too soft, trim a VERY narrow (hair's breadth) strip from the tip of the reed with a sharp knife. Or push another reed between it and the mouthpiece of the instrument, pushing it away from the rectangular hole in the mouthpiece slightly. If the reed is too hard, you can sand it a little. Use a piece of 220-grain sandpaper. Rub just a little, then test the reed- a tiny rub can produce a large difference (which is why they don't always get it right in the factory- it's a precision art!)
Breaking in Reeds
All new reeds need to be "broken in". They won't produce a consistent sound until they've been used a few times. Rico reeds are faster to break in than Vandoren. You need to wet the reed (in your mouth or with water- I prefer my mouth, but Rico advise water, as some people have very acidic saliva apparently, eeww), then play on it for just a few minutes each day, until the sound becomes consistent. It's good to have a few reeds "breaking" as you never know when you'll need a new one.
It's easy to tell when your reed needs replacing- after serving you well for a week or 3 (depends how much you play), one day it'll just sound rubbish, completely different to the last time you used it. Every time it goes in your mouth the reed is getting attacked by various germs and other organisms, and your saliva begins the process of breaking down organic matter ready for your tummy, so it's no wonder that they don't last forever! Another obvious sign that you need a new reed is when you accidentally slice it in half while attaching it to the instrument, a tragically common event. (It's held onto your plastic mouthpiece by metal band called a ligature. This has quite sharp sides and if you're not careful it'll cut right through in one go. Don't worry though, I've never heard of anyone cutting their finger on one!)
This is the technical name for the reed plant which Rico and Vandoren use to make their reeds. It grows in India and the Mediterranean, and can get as high as 6 metres tall. If you live in the right climate you can grow it in your garden, but I wouldn't suggest trying to grow and make reeds yourself from scratch, although some fanatics do.....
Other Types of Reed
For the standard clarinet, you will be buying B♭ clarinet reeds. It's unlikely that you would buy the wrong reed size, as this is what 99% of people play on, but just for the record, there are also E♭ and bass clarinet reeds. E♭ reeds are for a smaller instrument, and bass clarinet reeds for a beast of an instrument, so neither will fit. The A clarinet takes the B♭ reed, as it is only very fractionally bigger than the B♭ instrument. (Orchestral players need two instruments, an "A" and a "B♭"; see http://www.mymusictheory.com/lessons-html/8-transposinginstruments/8-transpint.html for more on transposing instruments).
The Rico clarinet reed is a great choice for the amateur player. They are reasonably priced, reasonably consistent within the box, and produce a nice sound. They are easy to get hold of and excellent value for money, especially if you frequently slice them in half! If you want to get serious on the instrument, you should probably move on to more expensive reeds from Vandoren.
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