That "Oh-So-Critical" Reed

by Rich Welker, Bronstein Music

Reeds are critical to all woodwind instruments (except, of course, the flute). They are important for the way you sound, how difficult it is to play, and should be replaced frequently, and there are all kinds of tricks to make them last longer.

The main difference between one reed and another is how soft or hard they are. Soft reeds are generally used by beginners on mouthpieces with wide tip openings. The more advanced the player, the harder the reed. The harder reed gives a heavier, darker, fuller sound. It's not as easy to correct the pitch when playing a hard reed -- but this also means the pitch is more stable when the player changes volume. Softer reeds vibrate more easily and speak in a bright, lighter voice.

Reeds are made from a species of bamboo. They are cut and shaved, exposing countless hollow miniature tubes with a fibrous pith in between. The pith becomes softer with prolonged exposure to your saliva, until it gets so soft that the reed stops working altogether. The length of use depends on each persons' saliva as well as the care you use in handling the reed. Reeds can last between two and four weeks. Cracked or chipped reeds do not work. They will chirp and squeak, and generally make life miserable for the player.

To prolong your reeds' lifetime:

  • Always store the reed in a reed case or guard. It gives protection and prevents warping.
  • Rinse your reed in clean water after playing and carefully dry it off.
  • Rotate reeds between playing sessions.
  • Always use the mouthpiece cap when taking a break.

Mouthpieces (in a minute)

Mouthpieces are an entire world unto themselves. We will give you the basic nuts and bolts of what makes the woodwind mouthpiece work.

  • Dimensions: You can become very bogged down in trying to understand mouthpices using the dimensions. These describe the "tip" opening, the "facing" length, the "chamber" size, the "window" opening and size. For the beginner, you need to listen to the advice of your teacher or an experienced salesperson.

  • Materials: Mouthpieces are made out of plastic, hard rubber, metal, or crystal. The material does alter the tone and longevity of the mouthpiece. Student instruments come with plastic or ebonite mouthpieces. They are cheap, but easily broken or chipped. For a modest amount you can greatly improve sound and easy of play by upgrading to a middle priced hard rubber mouthpiece. Be aware that mouthpieces can cost as much as $100 or even more! A jump to one of these may not be needed to improve the fun.