Harder Reeds for the Beginner Clarinetist

One of last night’s lessons was a classic example of the importance of having the right reeds for a clarinet setup.

One of my beginner students has, for the last 4 weeks or so, being learning high notes (notes across the ‘break’). This student is one of the slow-but-steady types; doesn’t really practise much, but still improves over time.

The high notes, however, has exposed his weak embouchure. Getting the notes in tune is hard work and the tone is very weak and reedy sounding. He can get the notes in tune for a time, but you can tell that the reed is too soft. The extra embouchure tension required for tone and tuning basically squishes the reed up against the mounthpiece lip and stifles the sound. To loosen up is not an option, because then the pitch drops and the tone sounds ‘Australian.’

So I said to him for each of those lessons; “you know, you really need to go buy some new reeds (well, get your folks to buy you some reeds), and experiment a bit. Try some cheap Rico Royal 2 1/2 – 3s and see how different it all feels.”

But he hasn’t (yet) and so everything has been more challenging than it needs to be. He’s using a size 2 1/2 of the Flying Goose brand.

From what I’m hearing, that brand is rubbish.

Credit where credit’s due, the student did note that he didn’t like the reedy sound he was making. This is always the first step to improving; knowing that something is wrong. The challenge for the student is knowing how to fix it.

I took a punt.

I got out one of my ‘retired’ Vandoren V12 3 1/2 reeds. It had probably been sitting in the case for 3 years or something silly. It had ‘softish’ written in pencil on it, so it was probably only used a couple of times. I gave it to the student, told him to try it out and keep it.

This trick is touch and go. Sometimes kids can’t get a sound out of the things, but to my surprise, this time it worked a treat. Sure, the student really had to put some muscles in, but this time all that physical effort wasn’t crushing the reed against the mouthpiece; this thicker reed could handle it.

Better yet, not only did he get a sound out, much more in tune, with decent volume and didn’t have that reedy tone any more; it was far more richer with none of those horrible high frequencies sneaking in.

The student noticed the contrast too, thankfully (it’s all for naught if the student can’t tell the difference). He managed to endure the increased physicality for the remainder of the lesson too.

“Does your face hurt yet?” I asked.

“Yes”.

“Good, because now your embouchure is getting some exercise.”

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