CLARINET REED TIPS
Buy a better brand of reeds, such as Vandoren or Mitchell Lurie.
Buy reeds a box at a time.
Not all reeds are the same, even from the same manufacturer and in the same box. I usually discard three out of ten reeds as being unplayable before I even start working on them. If you can't make a reed sound as good as others from the same batch, THROW IT AWAY! There's no reason you should sound bad just because the reed manufacturer put some "duds" in your box.
Don't leave your reed on the mouthpiece after you're done playing
As reeds dry out, they warp. A reed on the mouthpiece will warp into the mouthpiece slot and create a bump on the back of the reed. Allow your reeds to dry, and store them in the little plastic or paper sleeves they came in. Better yet, read further down the page for more professional storage solutions.
Break in and rotate your reeds
When you first play a reed, write the date on the back. For the first few days, play the reed for only five minutes at a time. Gradually increase the time as the reed ages. This means you will need to change reeds every once in a while during band rehearsals and practice sessions. This is a good thing.
Don't play on chipped or broken reeds
If little invisible differences between two new reeds in the same box make one sound good and the other sound bad, what do you think it means if your reed has a chunk missing? Also watch out for reeds that get slightly broken at the tip: sometimes they have a "crease" or "fold line." They're dead. You cannot sound your best on a chipped or broken reed, and you *always* want to sound your best. With these broken reeds, perform the "Final Adjustment" (see below).
Play the correct reed strength
If your reeds are too soft, you will play out of tune and you won't be able to play higher notes with a good sound. If your reeds are too hard, your sound will be fuzzy and you will get tired easily. Listen to your teacher or band director if they suggest you move to a harder reed. There's also no point in "finishing" your old box before moving - you want to sound better NOW!
By the way, reed strength is heavily dependent on mouthpiece shape. Some mouthpieces require stronger reeds, and some will only work with softer reeds. There is not a direct correlation between reed strength and ability. In other words YOUR REED STRENGTH HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH HOW GOOD YOU ARE! You need the right strength for you and your setup (mouthpiece-ligature-clarinet), NOT whatever the best kid in band is playing.
Adjusting a very bad reed: the "Final Adjustment"
- Grasp the reed firmly by the butt end between your thumb and first finger
- Locate a black metal music stand
- Bring the blade of the reed down quickly and firmly directly into the sharp edge of the music stand
- Leave the reed sticking up from the top of the stand as an example to other clarinet players of what should happen to a bad reed
Alternatively, a cinder block wall will do in an emergency
For Intermediate Players
Read everything in the "beginner" section.
Store your reeds sensibly
You can purchase many different styles of reed cases and holders. Clarinet players can argue for days about their relative merits, but anything is better than the box the reeds came in, or the little plastic sleeves. You can make a reed carrier from a piece of glass or plexiglass and some thick rubber bands (I don't recommend glass as it could break in your case). You need room for at least eight reeds, because you're rotating and breaking them in (like the beginners are - see above). Reeds warp badly when they dry quickly, so I keep my reeds in a reed case in a plastic bag along with some small pieces of damp sponge so that they dry more gradually. This is more important during cold dry weather and in home heating season.
Flatten and polish your reeds
Buy or make a flat surface to work on reeds; I have some small pieces of plexiglass for this purpose. You can use glass, but make sure you store it so it doesn't break in your case. After playing a reed, take it off the mouthpiece and wipe the moisture off. Put the reed on your working surface, flat side down, and rub the front with your thumb, from the reed's butt end towards the tip (careful not to break the tip). Now put a piece of clean paper on your flat surface, put the reed flat side down on it, and rub the back of the reed briskly back and forth on the paper, avoiding the very tip. Now remove the paper, put the reed flat side down on your working surface, and rub the paper back and forth on the front of the reed, being careful not to break the tip. Now put the reed down, flat side up, and allow it to dry. You can use fine sandpaper to polish the back of the reed as well, especially if it is very warped or uneven.
Start to experiment with adjusting reeds
You don't need a knife; sandpaper will do as well for now. I usually use #320 or even #240 if I intend to actually take wood off. Cut the sandpaper in little strips so you can be accurate about where you're removing wood. The basic rule: the reed should be symmetrical from side to side, and should slope gradually to the tip. Inspect the reed carefully. If you can improve it in those areas by carefully sanding a portion of it down, go to it. You can also experiment with thinning the reed in certain places and see what effect that has on your sound. Expect to ruin a lot of reeds! Eventually you will find a "shape" you like to put on store-bought reeds. Final adjustment of reeds is pretty personal, and you will probably change your technique continuously through your playing career. Just have patience and a *lot* of reeds.
Me: That reed doesn't sound too good, does it?
Student: No, I guess not. It sounded good yesterday.
Me: Is that one of the good ones we picked out of the box for you last week?
Me: How long did you play it today?
Student: Well...band was 45 minutes, and then I went home and practiced for an hour...
Me: You did this every day this week?
Me: (strangled scream)
Moral: break in your reeds slowly, and don't play a good reed into the ground
For Advanced Players
If you consider yourself to be an advanced player, if the above concepts are old hat to you, you should at this point be studying privately with a professional teacher. If you haven't done so, ask your teacher to work with you on reeds: the following areas are too complex and individual to be simple tips learned over the internet. Read this brief article on finding a teacher.
Learn to use a reed knife
A reed knife can be much more precise than sandpaper. You have to choose one carefully, and learn to sharpen it. I asked an oboist once (they're the real experts) "How often do you sharpen your knives?" She answered "Every few minutes!" Get your teacher to help you choose a knife, learn to sharpen it, and learn to use it.
Note for these troubled times: Every so often you read about some idiotic case where a third-grade student brings a butter knife to school in his lunchbox to spread his peanut butter, and is suspended or even arrested for "bringing a weapon to school." Unless you know your school really well, think twice before throwing your reed knife in your case.
Think about alternative brands of reeds
If you find yourself heavily modifying your Vandoren reeds, you might get closer to your preferred contour with a different brand. You have to give them a good honest try, break them in carefully, and try different strengths (a strength of one brand does not necessarily correspond to the same strength in another). Vandoren alone makes several different reed styles, and clarinetists have had good results with reeds from Queen, Zonda, Rico (!) (Grand Concert style), and other more exotic brands. Just because Vandoren is by far the most popular brand doesn't mean it's the right one for you. In evaluating reeds, pay attention to the basic sound, articulation, dynamic range, intonation over the dynamic range, and longevity.
Okay, okay I do play Vandoren V-12 4's on a Johnston mouthpiece. That doesn't mean you have to...
Changing your mouthpiece? Re-evaluate your reeds
Your mouthpiece, ligature, reeds, and to some extent barrel exist as a system. A change in one may necessitate a change in one or all of the others. Be flexible, and willing to experiment.
Make your own reeds
You'll have to find a teacher willing and/or able to teach you to do this. The initial expense for the equipment is high, but proponents of reed-making claim that the cost over time is less than that of store-bought reeds. They also claim that home-made reeds last longer. If you've shopped all over and just can't find a brand of reed that comes close for you, this may be your best option. It does, however, take a lot of time.