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Suggested Reading

1. Rehearsal Rooms

Struggling to improve the acoustics in your band room? Check out how the Medan Band did it.

2. Concerned about playing swing music properly?

Check out my guidelines

3. Ear training exercises for bands

Unlike piano players, ear training is essential for wind band performers. But how many band directors bother to give their bands suitable exercises?

4. Intonation problems

While tuning is simple act of adjusting a length of tubing on a wind instrument (often by reference to a single note), intonation is an ongoing process in which a player strives to match the pitch of others in the ensemble during performance. 

5. “Blowing” a wind instrument

A common misconception among wind players is to believe that the air moves through the instrument in order to produce the sound. This is simply not true. 

6. Conducting – suggestions for home practice

The best way for a conductor to improve is in front of a live ensemble. The unfortunate reality, however, is that this is not always possible. Aspiring conductors therefore have little choice but to find other ways of honing their skills.

 

Reeds

Introduction
Single Reeds
Double Reeds


Introduction

Woodwind players spend much more time fussing over reeds than brass players do over alternate mouthpiece designs.  The reasoning is simple enough.  Whereas brass instrument mouthpieces merely assist in the vibration of the lips, tone generation on most woodwind instruments depends on proper reed vibration.  The quality of the reed is therefore of great importance. Moreover, since no reed lasts more than a few weeks, woodwind players are constantly on the lookout for fresh ones. At least they should be!  As the reed begins to

deteriorate, the player attempts to adjust his embouchure to compensate.  While this can work up to a point, continued use of a weakened reed will inevitably damage the embouchure and encourage the player to accept a poorer tone quality.

Mouthpieces are still important to woodwind players, of course. Interestingly enough, some reeds can work perfectly well on some mouthpieces and not at all on others.

Stiff reeds tend to make the instrument play sharp.
Both double and single reed instruments make use of flexible slivers of carefully crafted cane.  As in the case of brass instrument mouthpieces, there is no such thing as a perfect reed for all players or all instruments.  Reeds that are too stiff tend to cause the instrument to go sharp and may produce a hard, strident sound.  They can also be difficult to control, especially for a beginner.  This is often true of reeds that have yet to be broken in.  Even so, regular use of stiffer reeds produces a better embouchure and a more satisfying tone.

Both double and single reed instruments make use of flexible slivers of carefully crafted cane.  As in the case of brass instrument mouthpieces, there is no such thing as a perfect reed for all players or all instruments.  Reeds that are too stiff tend to cause the instrument to go sharp and may produce a hard, strident sound.  They can also be difficult to control, especially for a beginner.  This is often true of reeds that have yet to be broken in.  Even so, regular use of stiffer reeds produces a better embouchure and a more satisfying tone.

Jazz players sometimes prefer soft reeds.
The latter consideration implies that it is better for young players to use reeds that are too stiff rather than those that are too soft.  Soft reeds may also cause the instrument to play flat and result in scooped attacks. That said, jazz players often prefer such reeds because of their greater responsiveness.

Old or poor quality reeds should not be thrown away.  Instead, students should be encouraged to inspect them closely for workmanship and even take them apart.  They may also experiment by clipping or filing them in various ways to discover how this changes the reed’s pitch and tonal response.


Single Reeds

On single reed instruments such as the clarinet and the saxophone, the reed is attached to the mouthpiece by a clamping device called a ligature. This is designed to hold the reed firmly in position while still allowing it to vibrate freely. The tip of the mouthpiece curves slightly away from the reed, leaving a small opening for the air to move through.  The positioning of the ligature is important: too high and the tone will sound stuffy; too low and the tone becomes harsh.  Since the reed itself has a resonant frequency, great care must be taken to ensure that when the air is blown through the instrument the resulting sound is determined by the fingering set by the player rather than the reed. 

Squeeks are often the result of too much pressure or too much mouthpiece in the mouth.
Embarrassing squeaks often occur on the clarinet when beginners either bite on the mouthpiece or put too much mouthpiece in the mouth, causing the reed rather than the instrument to respond.  Similar problems can take place on the saxophone when too much upward pressure is applied on the reed from a lower lip curled over the lower teeth (the classical or clarinet style embouchure).

There are, of course, other reasons why unwelcome squeaks can occur. A warped or badly positioned reed, for example, could be responsible. The increased compression produced by many jazz and rock saxophone mouthpieces can also produce squeaks, particularly when used with thin-tipped French reeds.

Clarinet and saxophone reeds are cut from tubes that are thicker in the center than on the sides.  There is therefore a danger that moisture will cause the reed to warp as it swells.  This swelling, which particularly acute in a new reed, can damage both the tone and the response of the instrument.  If warpage does occur, it is possible to flatten the underside by using a wood file.  However, since this risks thinning the reed (and thus producing a harsher sound) it is best avoided unless absolutely necessary. 

The following illustration shows the main sections of a single reed:

The “heart” is the thicker central portion of the reed.  Its function is to provide resistance when blowing.  If it is too thick, the instrument becomes unresponsive and the pitch tends to be sharp.  If it is too thin, on the other hand, the tone loses its richness and the pitch tends to be flat. 

The steeper the angle, the easier it will be to play in the high register.
The “profile” is the surface of the reed (including the heart) that has been cut away.  It should be as smooth as possible.   This will allow the vibrations to return evenly to the reed’s shoulder, resulting in steady intonation.  Smoothness is especially important at the tip of the reed.  The angle of the cut from the shoulder to the tip also has an important bearing on range.  The steeper the angle, the easier it will be to play in the high register.  A steep angle will also make low register playing more difficult, however.  In attempting to decrease the angle, care must be taken to ensure that this does not damage the reed’s heart.  The “rails” are the edges or sides of the reed.  They should be as smooth as possible.

Many jazz players prefer the “American” style reed.  This has a thicker tip and a flatter heart than the more standard varieties.  Such players are sacrificing some cleanness at the start of the note in return for greater stability and a more aggressive tone color, particularly in the lower register. 

Many advanced players like to shape their own reeds to suit their particular preferences.  It is important, however, to delay making any such adjustments until the reed is sufficiently broken in and has assumed its regular shape. A useful chart on single reed adjustment can be found in Larry Teal's The Art of Saxophone Playing (Sammy-Birchard Publishing, Evanston, 1963, page 29).

While it is almost impossible to tell the quality of a reed merely by looking it, the following widely accepted characteristics of a good reed may prove useful:

 
  • Look for a straight grain.
 
  • Prefer gold or darker colour (green absorbs moisture too readily).
 
  • Check for balance.  Hold the reed up to a strong light.  Thicker areas appear darker. 
 
  • Check the rails for smoothness.
 
  • Flat underside.
 
  • Heavy fibers should be evenly spaced.






Double Reeds

A double reed consists of two blades of cane bound together.  Whereas the area within the mouthpiece of a single reed instrument acts as the vibrating chamber, in the case of the oboe and the bassoon the vibrating chamber is the tiny area between the two reeds.  This design gives the performer greater control over pitch, volume level and tone color than a single reed player. 

Double reed instruments played in unison by inexperienced players can often result in intonation problems.
The flip side is that double reeds played in unison by inexperienced performers often result in annoying intonation problems, particularly in the case of melodic passages. [the problem is so serious that writers of orchestration texts such as Cacavas advise wind band arrangers to avoid writing for oboes in unison. See John Cacavas Music Arranging and Orchestration, Belwin Mills, Miami, 1975].

The following illustration shows the main sections of a double reed:

The “blend” is that section of the reed that connects the tip with the hump.  Its shape has an important influence on the sound.  A sharply defined blend produces a more stable pitch but the sound is generally weaker than a blend with a more elongated shape.  Most players go for a compromise. 

The “hump” or heart of the reed is the raised portion between the tip and the window.  As in the case of single reeds, its function is to provide resistance.  This hump should taper smoothly towards the tip.  Optional cutout portions at the back of the reed are called “windows”.  Some players use them as a means of improving the tone and response of the instrument.  However, windows should probably not be introduced until reed already plays well without them.

The edges on single reeds should be smooth and taper towards the tip.
As in the case of single reeds, the “rails” or edges of the reeds, should be smooth and taper towards the tip.  Although thicker rails tend to produce a brighter and more responsive tone, they can also make the instrument play sharp if they are too thick.

The “staple” is the corked tube that is attached to the reed.  On bassoons, a metal tube called a “bocal” has a similar function.  There is no real consensus about the significance of either the length of the staple or the material it is made of.  Some oboists argue, for example, that a longer tube produces a more stable and penetrating sound quality while others say that there is no difference.

While performance rather than looks should be the deciding factor in selecting a good double reed, the following characteristics should assist those unable to play one before purchasing it:

 
  • No jagged edge at the metal staple.
 
  • Golden or yellow rather than green.
 
  • Avoid reeds with a feathered tip (it suggests faulty workmanship).
 
  • The two blades should be symmetric with each other.
 
  • Choose thin reeds (for good tone production).
 
  • Reed tips should be oval shaped when dry. Avoid tips that are flat.

It is also a good idea to “crow” on a double reed before inserting it into the oboe or bassoon. This sound is created by placing the reed much further into the mouth than would be required in normal playing.  The student blows through the reed until a loud “crowing” or siren is heard.  This sound is an indication that the reed is vibrating properly and is in good working condition.

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