7 Reed Care Tips for Beginners

Installing an alto sax reed

It’s a scenario every band teacher has experienced: a student walks up with tears in her eyes and wails, “My clarinet is broken!” or declares, “My sax squeaks on every note!” You look under the ligature, and an ugly swamp monster stares back at you; the reed is nearly black with who-knows-what and chipped so badly you suspect it was used to carve rock. You shudder, tell the student to carefully place this reed in a disposable bio-hazard container, and put on a new one. In the end you’ve lost valuable time – and the focus of the band.

Avoid this scenario with a few simple reed care tips, saving time, money, and headaches for you and your students.

1. Clean Mouths = Clean Instruments

Simple, right? Encourage students to take a few minutes at the end of lunch to go brush their teeth. Their reeds, pads, and dentists will thank you for it.

2. Beware the Ligature

Make sure students start by placing the ligature on the mouthpiece. When inserting the reed keep the tip pointing out, away from the ligature as seen in the images above. Putting the reed on in this way (heel first) safeguards the tip from deadly encounters with the ligature.

3. Get a Case

Reed cases keep reeds flat as they dry, which prevents warping. The clear plastic cases reeds are packaged in don’t actually keep them flat; they simply protect the reed from getting chipped during shipping. Cases also help prevent accidental chips since students can more easily slide reeds into place. A small reed case that holds four reeds will suffice and are online for as little as $15. A case will quickly pay for itself in savings on reeds.

4. Pick a Goldilocks Reed

Reeds should be not too hard, not too soft, but “just right.” I suggest starting students on a strength 2 reed and moving up from there. If a 2 is too hard, it’s probably a sign that the student is not using air properly or even biting rather than the reed actually being too hard. By the middle of their second year, students should have enough wind power to move up to a 3. Don’t get too carried away with reed strength, though – a 3 1/2 to 4 is about as hard as most players need to go. We’ll leave getting red in the face to the brass section.

5. Have at Least Three Good Reeds at All Times

Accidents happen. Reeds will get chipped, and reeds will get warped. If students have three reeds in a case ready to go, then one can chip, one can warp, and one will still be just right (or at least playable). At the very least, the odds are in your favor.

6. Rotate Your Reeds

Playing the same reed day after day will wear it out very quickly, sometimes within a week or two! Play a different reed every day to give the others a break. Let students know that a reed should only be played about five minutes a day for the first week. The reed has been dry for at least two years before your student even gets it, and this “breaking in” process controls and slows the inevitable warping. Breaking in and rotating reeds will make them last significantly longer, saving parents money and helping students make consistent sounds.

7. Be Patient

Reeds are going to be difficult, finicky, and generally a giant pain – it’s a fact of life for a reed player. Help students be patient when a reed warps or chips. And just because a reed is warped, don’t throw it out! Moisten it daily and let it dry on a flat surface, and it may just straighten itself out over time.

Following these easy reed care tips will save time, money and frustration for your beginning reed players, their parents, and your entire ensemble.

Maggie GreenwoodMaggie Greenwood directs the woodwind studios and orchestras at the Colorado School of Mines.

An active teacher, clinician and performer in the Denver area, she holds the Master of Music degree in clarinet performance from the University of North Texas, where she studied with Daryl Coad.

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