Woodwind Studio

This web site contains information about Beth Purkhiser and her woodwind studio. Visit for help with choosing equipment, performance and practice techniques, and to contact Beth concerning lessons at her studio in Lafayette, Indiana.

Equipment Suggestions / Reed Adjustment

This post contains information as was presented in Harrison High School’s reed class.

A quality mouthpiece, ligature and reed are crucial to good tone production. The right combination with a beginning instrument will sound much better than a poor combination with a professional instrument. Bad equipment affects EVERYTHING: tone quality, response, even technique (tongue/finger coordination). You could be a far better player than you realize once you eliminate these equipment problems. Playing/practicing also becomes much more enjoyable without the struggle just to produce a decent sound.

There are many important differences between mouthpieces. These differences include type of material, (hard rubber, metal, plastic, crystal) chamber, baffle, side rails and tip rail, all of which determine shape and size. For a good classical sound, you must be playing on a hard rubber mouthpiece. These look and feel very similar to plastic but the difference in musical result is profound. The best two classical mouthpieces for saxophone are the Selmer S80C* and the E. Rousseau 4R classic (not new classic.) The Rousseau is cheaper than the Selmer but the Selmer is more consistent so if buying a Rousseau, it is strongly recommended that you try before you buy. Some stores allow a trial period before charging so you can compare up to 3 mouthpieces at a time. The difference between mouthpieces of the same make and model can be extreme and easily noticed, even by a novice. Many people assume I refer to some minor difference only a professional would notice which just isn’t the case. Careful mouthpiece selection is well worth the headache and expense involved. Clarinet mouthpieces I recommend include many of the Vandoren models such as the Profile 88/13 series. The top of the line Clark Fobes mouthpieces are absolutely amazing but the price is extremely high – around $160 – but if you’re serious enough, it is well worth the price.

Once you’ve spent the kind of money required for any professional mouthpiece, you’ll surely see the value in maintaining the quality of the mouthpiece by keeping it clean. You must remove the saliva from your mouthpiece after every use and all that is required for this is a soft cloth. (Please do not use the mouthpiece brush that is sometimes included with new instruments!) A piece of material from a discarded t-shirt can make an excellent mouthpiece swab. If you leave the saliva in your mouthpiece long enough, the bacteria in it will harden into a white crust that cannot be removed and you lose the precision of the facing that is required for excellent tone production. If there are visible specks of foreign matter in your mouthpiece that won’t come off with gentle wiping, you can try soaking it in lemon juice but this will not always work if it has been in the mouthpiece too long. Never wash your mouthpiece with hot water. At worse this will warp and thereby ruin your mouthpiece and at best, it can discolor the mouthpiece. Simply keeping it dried out will eliminate all problems. It takes hardly any time to run a cloth through the mouthpiece and along with proper reed storage; this is the most important aspect of instrument maintenance.

Although I find the ligature to be the least important of the reed/mouthpiece/ligature combination, the very best ligature can still make enough of a difference to be worth the cost for the serious student. The Vandoren Optimum ligature provides the absolute best response and tone quality of any ligature I’ve ever tried. Unfortunately it is about $45 and that is not including a matching mouthpiece cap. If going with this ligature, I do not recommend spending the extra bucks for a matching gold or silver mouthpiece cap – just about any mouthpiece cap will work. Another very good ligature is the Rovner, which is made out of a special hard rubber material rather than metal. You can drop it and even step on it (not that I particularly recommend this) and it will not bend or break. It is around $14. Just about anybody will notice a difference between these two ligatures with most reeds but unless you need to play extremely demanding music, the Rovner is adequate.

Reeds are absolutely the most important part of the tone production. They are an ongoing headache because they don’t last very long. Most people deal with this expense by buying the cheapest reeds possible. There is a much better way to keep your expense to a minimum so you can enjoy a more musical result though. First, buy from a discount store and if possible, buy more than one box at a time. Many places will give you more of a discount for multiple boxes and you are going to need these reeds eventually anyway – it will cost less to buy several boxes at a time. If you simply cannot afford this, try getting together with a few other reed players in your band and ordering together so everybody can save some money! I order from a place in South Bend called the “Woodwind and Brasswind.” Their website is www.wwbw.com and the phone number is 1-800-348-5003. I have also provided a link to this store from my website (www.bethpurkhiser.com) as well as that of a competing company in New York.

It is important that you play on the strength of reed that is appropriate to your embouchure development. No high school musician should be on a number 2 reed or lower. The average strength for most saxophonists is 3 and for clarinetists, 3.5 to 4. To determine the appropriate strength for you, consult an expert if possible. If you must determine it for yourself, know that the reed is too soft for you if your upper notes won’t speak or go flat or if your tone “spreads” easily. The reed should be a little resistant when you first play it. Reeds soften through the breaking in process that should occur over a 7 to 10 day period. Your reed strength is too hard for you if all the reeds are consistently difficult to play and sound stuffy. The correct reed strength should allow you to play equally well in every register and over a wide dynamic range and should respond well to articulation. Please don’t expect every reed in your box to be equally hard or soft. Consistency is sadly lacking and it is normal for some reeds to be on the hard side when you are on the proper strength. I would also like to point out that there is no direct correlation between reed strength and musical competence. What number reed you end up on has more to do with physical characteristics than how good you happen to be so don’t move up a strength just because you think you should be at a certain level, go by how the reeds sound and respond.

Taking good care of the reeds is essential! Reeds break down through normal usage but far more stress and break down occurs during the drying out process than in performance. Reed players have traditionally dealt with this problem by storing their reeds tightly on a flat surface to minimize the warping that inevitably occurs during drying. Recently, a new method of storage has emerged that has eliminated this warping process thereby extending the life of reeds many-fold. This process involves storing the reed in an airtight tube – the plastic candy tubes that mini-M&Ms come in are perfect for this. After eating the M&Ms – ☺ – rinse out the tube and add a few drops of mouthwash. Then simply store the reeds in this tube and they will not dry out. There is no need to secure the reeds on a flat surface using this method but I like to protect my reeds with the plastic cases the reeds originally come in. Add a few more drops of mouthwash every day. Do not fill the tube with water; the reeds would become waterlogged and not respond well at all. Since the tube is virtually airtight, the moisture in the reed itself in addition to the few drops of mouthwash will be sufficient to keep the reed from drying out. You can store multiple reeds per container and a side benefit of using this method is that the reed is ready for use instantly the next time you play.

Other important factors for getting the most out of your reeds include buying a quality reed rather than the Rico or Rico Royal brand. I usually use Vandoren or Zonda reeds for Saxophone. The Vandoren V16 saxophone reeds are an American cut reed (thicker at the tip and thinner near the shoulder) and many high school musicians prefer this cut. The regular French cut Vandoren take longer to break in but have a darker, more traditionally classical sound that I prefer. Vandoren reeds are best for clarinet. The V12 clarinet reeds (one step up from the regular Vandoren) are worth the extra $5 per box and the top of the line Vandoren Rue Lepic 56 reeds are outstanding but cost an extra $10 per box. I find the excellence of these reeds worth the extra cost but for normal use, the V12s are perfectly fine and even the regular Vandoren reeds are a huge step up from the Rico reeds. Rotate between at least 2 reeds rather than using the same reed over and over each time you play. This will extend the life of the reeds. Since the pores of the reeds are wide open when they are brand new, it is extremely important that you break them in slowly. You should not play a brand new reed for more than 10 minutes the first time you use it. If you play for much longer, the reed will become water logged and the warping that occurs after this happens is much more extreme and damaging to the reed than usual. The next few times you should limit the use of the reed to 15 or at most 20 minutes. By the second week, it is ok to start using the reed normally.

For the truly serious student, adjusting the reed is also an important option. Even the most expensive, highest quality reeds will not all play well right out of the box. Every box contains a wildly varying quality of reed due to the organic nature of reeds. To cope with varying reed problems, adjustment is often necessary. Tools of adjustment include sand paper of varying strengths, reed rush, files, and reed knives. A small, hand held flat surface, such as that provided by a piece of glass or plexi-glass is also needed. It is necessary to become familiar with the different type of reed problems that require the various adjustment solutions. Some typical reed problems include reeds that are too hard – reeds that are warped over the entire surface – and imbalanced reeds. You always want to start with the least invasive treatment possible for each problem. Never adjust a reed until you have broken it in by playing for short periods every other day over a span of 7 to 10 days. When removing material from a reed, be patient and try your reed after making small adjustments. You might have to repeat these small adjustments several times before you reach the desired result but keep in mind that while you can always take more off, you can never add back on.

The solution for dealing with hard, stuffy reeds is to sand the back, flat part of the reed with very fine wet/dry sandpaper. I use within the range of 600-800. Some suggest sanding with the grain of the reed and some use a circular motion. I suggest you experiment to find out what works best for you. Be careful not to reuse the same part of the sandpaper over and over because the sandpaper gets worn down and your sanding will be uneven. Never sand all the way to the tip, as that part of the reed is too thin to withstand any adjustment whatsoever. Often reeds sound okay except for the low notes in which case, sanding the front of the reed in a U shape – avoiding the heart of the reed – with 320 sandpaper will help. Sometimes a combination of these two adjustments is necessary. Reeds only tend to warp over the entire surface when they are older. Often these reeds have played well for you for quite a while but suddenly they are not as responsive and feel and sound very hard. You can diagnose the warp by placing the reed on a flat surface and testing it to see if it stays flat or rocks to and fro when you press back and forth on opposite sides. Remember that the least invasive adjustment possible should always be tried first. You can try soaking the reed in warm water for 20 minutes. This will sometimes eliminate the warp. If this does not solve the problem, sand the flat side of the reed with the finer sandpaper until the warp is gone. For clarinet reeds with this type of a warp, using a reed knife on the side of the reed that is seating lower can do wonders.

Occasionally older reeds will also start to sound somewhat “dead.” A more resonant sound can sometimes be achieved by “polishing” the reed with paper. Rub the flat side over the paper and rub the paper over the top of the reed with the grain. This polishing procedure can also be helpful in diagnosing a warped reed. The polished part of the reed will be shinier when held up to the light and if part of the reed is still dull, the reed is warped. Another trick musicians use to extend the playing life of their reeds is to soak them in hydrogen peroxide when they get older and the pores of the reed get clogged. A fluid called “reed life” is also commercially available but hydrogen peroxide seems to do just as well and is cheaper. Remove the reed when the bubbles stop forming on the reed. Eventually, even the best reeds reach a point beyond which they should not be played, even if they are not chipped or cracked. Please don’t torture yourself and those around you by playing on a chipped or cracked reed or continuing to play on a reed that is past all ability to sound good. If necessary, form a support group with your fellow reed players to help each other through the heart-breaking process of throwing away the reeds you once loved and still look playable but aren’t. I know it’s painful!

Identifying and correcting an imbalanced reed can be an extremely gratifying experience. Sometimes a reed will sound and feel like a really bad reed simply because there is a little too much material on one side of the reed. This adjustment requires either reed rush or a reed knife. I prefer using a knife because I feel this allows me better control over where and how much of the reed I am removing. To identify the imbalanced reed, simply play with a normal embouchure but with more of one side or the other of the reed exposed in your mouth. This entails putting the mouthpiece in your mouth at an extreme angle on one side and then the other. If the reed is imbalanced, one side could sound great while the other is more difficult to play. Removing a bit of the reed from the side that is harder can have dramatically positive results. If one side of the reed is too soft, taking material from the harder side is not the advisable. In this case, removing some of the material on the side rail of the soft side of the reed, thus narrowing that side, can be effective. Learning to use a reed knife properly requires some one-on-one training and if you are serious enough to purchase a reed knife, you are probably serious enough to be taking private lessons. This aspect of reed adjustment would definitely be best addressed in the private lesson setting.

I feel it is important to note that there are many different theories regarding reed selection, storage, treatment and adjustment. Sometimes what works well for one person doesn’t work as well for another and experimenting until you find what works best for you is encouraged. I have presented the more standardized theories and what has worked best for me. It has been my experience that reed adjustment is particularly individualized. Nobody can adjust your reed for you as well as you can for yourself after you’ve had some experience. If you do decide to develop the ability to adjust your own reeds, expect to ruin a few along the way, especially in the beginning when you are still learning. Ultimately however, it is a rewarding process that contributes to a more enjoyable playing situation and makes more reeds per box performance worthy.

Please understand that regardless of how good your equipment is, and how much expertise you develop in reed adjustment, all can be ruined by sloppy placement of the reed. Take the time to position your reed VERY carefully. Get in the habit of putting the ligature on first and sliding the reed from the top underneath the ligature thereby eliminating any chance the tip of the reed will come into contact with the ligature and chip. More reeds break this way than in any other. When handling the reed, never touch the tip. This may seem awkward for a while but you will develop the facility with practice. Oh yeah – practice! I promise it will be much more enjoyable now that equipment problems aren’t getting in your way and holding you back!

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