Can you teach an old reed new tricks?

Sent Thursday, June 14, 2012

Clarinet Mentors
For clarinetists who want to perform more easily and beautifully
In This Issue                                            June 13, 2012                              
  • A Note From Michelle Anderson - the joys of playing with a good ensemble
  • Clarinet Tips - how to make an old reed perform better
  • Free Training - video on how to adjust clarinet reeds for better performance
  • Michelle Recommends - ATG Single Reed Finishing System
A Note from Michelle Anderson
Hello Everyone!
Welcome to summer. I hope you are enjoying some nice summer weather wherever you may be. I have recently finished the last of my regular season performances with a very inspiring concert with the Pacific Symphonic Wind Ensemble. PSWE is a group of professional and advanced amateur musicians who play high-level wind band music together. There are a few special things that I love about this group. One is that we all play "just for fun". Even though there are several professional players in the band, this one group is our chance to play music that we love, just because we love to do it. I also love playing in the various professional groups that I perform with, and they can be very inspirational. However, they don't quite have the same community spirit that I find in a group that is completely run by the members for the purpose of making great music together. I also love that this group seeks out new music written especially for wind band, and defines itself as a slightly different type of ensemble than an orchestra. I love both orchestra and band, but I find that the wind band music is often much harder to learn, and so I am challenged as a musician to master more difficult rhythms and technic.
If you are not currently performing with any groups on a regular basis, you may want to investigate the community bands and orchestras in your own community. Bands, in particular, often need more clarinetists. Having the structure of regular rehearsals is a great way to motivate us to practise regularly. It is also an ideal place to meet other musicians at a similar level to you, and perhaps pursue chamber music activities. For most of us, it is challenging to keep up a regular practise routine unless we have an upcoming concert or rehearsal to help motivate us. I know in my community, there are great ensembles available for clarinetists from a virtually beginning level, right up to professional players. If you think you are not "good enough", you'd be surprised at how welcoming most conductors are, and how quickly you will learn in that environment.
I hope you enjoy the special clarinet tips in this newsletter, and enjoy summer time!
Clarinet Tips
In today's newsletter, I want to show you some easy ways to help your reeds perform better. I usually like to keep my pointers fairly quick and to the point. For this week, I have created a bonus video which explains these concepts in more detail. I recommend that you check it out, and it will explain how to test your reeds "side-to-side", which is a really useful technic. The short version of these tips can be written as follows:
You were likely taught a system for putting your reed onto the clarinet mouthpiece when you learned how to put the instrument together. That system was useful, and guaranteed that you would reliably have the reed in a position to make a sound (as opposed to backwards, or upside-down, or some other creative variation on reed placement). It may not be, (and usually isn't), the position that will allow that reed to respond best.
You have some leeway to move a reed around on the mouthpiece. It is important that it covers the mouthpiece hole completely when it vibrates shut. That means you want to make sure that you don't have a reed so low, or off-centre, that there would be a small air hole if you were to push the reed shut against the mouthpiece. You can also adjust the reed to sit with the reed tip slightly higher than the tip of the mouthpiece. You can experiment to find the height limit of a reed on your mouthpiece. When you move it too high, it will feel quite resistant, and have an "airy" tone quality.
Why would you want to move your reed around on the mouthpiece? It will affect how the reed responds. The video has full details, but here is the shorter version.
  • If a reed is too soft, move it higher up
  • If a reed is too stiff, move it lower down
  • If a reed is more resistant on one side than the other, move the stiff side towards the center
A reed will get softer as you play it - both during a long rehearsal, and little by little, each day that you play on it. A generalization would be to say that your reed will work better if you move it up after about half an hour of playing. New reeds, which are generally stiffer, you may want to place lower on the mouthpiece, and older reeds, which have become softer, you may move up. Of course, you should experiment with your reed to discover what height feels best, and responds best, and just remember that it may need more upward movement after it has been played on for a while.
A perfect reed (oh, what a lovely and yet elusive, ideal) would be completely symmetrical. At the reed tip, each half would be cut in a mirror image of the other, with exactly the same thickness and quality of cane. Alas, like the fantasy of a perfect reed, that reality is rare. Usually one side is more resistant than the other. You can experiment with simply moving a reed a bit off-center, and see if responds better or worse. If it gets worse, move it the other direction. A reed will often respond better slightly off-center. Again, you need to ensure that it would still completely cover the hole if you gently pushed the reed against the mouthpiece. For a more precise way to explore the sides of the reed, watch the video to learn the side-to-side testing technic.
There are many ways to improve reeds by altering their cut, and this is useful to know about. I recommend knowing what you are doing before you take a knife or sandpaper to a reed, because you can damage it. Next newsletter, I'll show you some of the simplest ways to modify your reed to make it respond better.
For now, I recommend you try experimenting with the adjustment tips above with every reed that you put on the clarinet. I usually test out my reed as soon as I put it on the instrument, and I can have it moved into a better position within about 5 seconds. This is one of the quickest tools that I know of to sound better!
Free Training 
Here is the link to my video entitled "How to Adjust Your Clarinet Reed - pt. 1"
Michelle Recommends
If you are really interested in learning about how to adjust your reeds, Tom Ridenour has creating a fantastic DVD and toolkit entitled the ATG Single Reed Finishing System. This has a wealth of knowledge about reeds and reed adjustment. You can find it at:
About Michelle Anderson
Michelle Anderson is a professional clarinetist and teacher who currently lives in Vancouver BC. She has been a professional performer for 30 years and plays regularly with the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, the Pacific Symphonic Wind Ensemble and the West Coast Chamber Music series. She has performed with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the CBC Vancouver Orchestra, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet Touring Orchestra and many other groups. Michelle currently specializes in teaching adults to play clarinet more easily and quickly, and conducts the Vancouver Clarinet Choir.
Michelle Anderson, Clarinet
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