When I first started playing the oboe, I had no idea that salespeople didn't always have a firm grasp on the different types of reeds. Could they even tell the difference between an oboe and a clarinet? Sometimes I wondered...
This is a real conversation I had with the salesman at a music store when I first started playing oboe: "I need 3 medium-hard oboe reeds." He looked at me and said, "is that like a 2 1/2?" I had no idea what he was talking about, but trusted that since he worked there, he must know more than me, so I just agreed. He returned with a box of clarinet reeds. When I pointed out that I needed "oboe reeds" he actually said: "Oboe? Is that some kind of clarinet?"
My story is not uncommon, unfortunately, and I have had students come to their first oboe lessons with a box of clarinet reeds in their case...
Parents take a trip to the music store to rent a new instrument for their child, expecting to walk in, sign the papers for the new oboe or clarinet or saxophone, and expect that 30 minutes later they will be on their way home. But the salesperson begins talking to you about buying reeds to go with your instrument, and at this point you realize 1) you didn't know you needed to buy reeds, and 2) you don't even know what the reeds look like!
You are probably feeling a little overwhelmed and uninformed, and perhaps a little anxious that the salesperson is taking advantage of you for these very reasons. Don't worry: you're probably right.
If you are already a client of mine and reading this article, you probably already have purchased several boxes of reeds at this point in the year. If you are a new student or just surfing the web looking for information on woodwind reeds, you've come to the right place!
"Mom! I need new reeds!!"
You need to answer some important questions before walking up to the sales counter or clicking that link online:
What instrument are you buying reeds for?
What strength reed does your child need?
How many reeds should you buy at once?
1. What Instrument Are You Buying Reeds For?
Like my story illustrated above, you need to be 100% certain which instrument you are buying reeds for! Sometimes, the salespeople will be part-time or holiday help, maybe not even musicians at all, and really not all that interested in much more than getting their commission on your sale.
There is a HUGE difference between all the types of reeds available to purchase.
We will start with OBOE REEDS, the easiest to recognize of the woodwind reeds.
Oboes are called "double reed" instruments because what we play into is actually two reeds tied together with thread, on to a metal tube which is lined with cork.
Most student oboe reeds will cost you between $8 and $20 EACH. With regular use (for practice, school band/orchestra rehearsals, and lessons) a reed should last 3-6 weeks. This is as long as the student doesn't destroy the reed themselves.
CLARINET & SAXOPHONE REEDS
Both the Clarinet and Saxophone are what are known as "single reed" instruments. Knowing what you know now about oboe reeds, you can deduce that these reeds are exactly the way they sound: one reed. They are flat on one side, contoured on the other. The reeds come in boxes of 10.
The problem is that Clarinet reeds and Saxophone reeds all look alike - except for size. Because there are so many versions of single reeds, when you order your reeds, always specify "B-flat Clarinet" or "Alto Saxophone" reeds.
Remember: there are Eb clarinets, Bb clarinets, A clarinet, Eb alto clarinet, Bb bass, Bb contrabass... and soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, so there are reeds for all of these; they are not interchangeable so you don't want to end up with a box of the wrong reeds!
Clarinet and Saxophone reeds will last a child 2-4 weeks with regular use.
2. What strength reed does your child need?
Machine made oboe reeds, like the ones you will be purchasing for your students in the beginning, are classified by their hardness: soft, medium-soft, medium, medium-hard, hard. When ordering your reeds, you will refer to them with these exact words. I will specify what reeds your child needs. If a salesperson is asking you for a number, run away!
CLARINET & SAXOPHONE REEDS
Single Reeds come in strengths labeled by number. Beginners will start with strength 2, intermediate 2 1/2, advanced 3. Beyond that, the players progress depending on their physiology and the instrument and mouthpiece they own. Most brands run in 1/2 strength increments (2, 2 1/2, 3, 3 1/2, etc), while some actually use 1/4 strength (3, 3 1/4, 3 1/2, 3 3/4). I will always let you know what brand and strength reed to buy for your student.
3. How many reeds should you buy at once?
The first order you place: buy 6 reeds. Give 3 of them to the student (to keep in their lovely new reed case!). When they wear out (or break) a reed, give them a new one from your personal stash. When you are down to 1 reed, order 3 more, and continue on this path.
Do not throw away the corks! Save old reeds in a plastic bag for when the kids start to learn to make their own reeds. Trust me: you'll be saving yourself a big chunk of money when buying their reed-making kit if they start off with dozens of old reeds.
CLARINET & SAXOPHONE REEDS
Begin by buying 1 box of reeds, giving 3 to your student to keep in their clarinet case. As they break a reed, give them one from your box, replacing broken reeds as needed until you have 3 reeds left in your own box. At that point, order a new box! Always check with me, before ordering the new box, to be sure of the strength I want your child to have.
Care of Reeds
I try very hard to impress on the oboe students that they should never walk with their reed in their oboe (they should hold it in their mouth or in a safe reed case), and that they should not store their reeds in the small plastic tubes that they come with. Most kids mash the reeds back in to those tubes, break the tips of the reeds, and end the life of the reed immediately. You should buy your student an actual reed case to store reeds.
Kids should never make "adjustments" to their reeds no matter how "easy" it looks when they see me do it. It takes years to learn to make reeds, and a pair of scissors is not a sanctioned tool for reed making.
An oboe reed, being two reeds, has double the opportunity to have something go wrong. Corners of the reeds will break off, tips will chip, and the reeds themselves can crack in half. Kids have a false sense of security when it comes to cracked reeds: even if one reed cracks, the other might still be working and allowing them to continue to produce a sound. This is not ok, they need a new reed.
Clarinet & Saxophone Reeds
I show the kids how to protect their reeds while putting them on the mouthpiece -- ask them to show you the technique, just to reinforce how serious this is to making reeds last longer.
Just like Oboists, single reed players should not walk around with their reeds unprotected on the end of their instrument. All mouthpieces come with a cap, so they need to leave that cap on when they are moving around with their instrument.
Your child can no longer play on a reed if it is chipped or cracked. If you happen to see their reed and it looks like it has "teeth", then it's time for a new reed!
Always take the reeds off the mouthpiece, and put it back into the small plastic reed case when putting away your instrument. Reeds breed mold and bacteria if left on the mouthpiece - they are unable to completely dry out if left on. I always tell the kids an incredibly disgusting story from when I worked in a music store repair department to reinforce the habit of removing reeds from the mouthpiece after each playing session.
Occasionally, you should wash their mouthpiece with gentle dish soap, taking care not to get the cork wet. The mouthpiece is the only part of the clarinet that can touch water.
As always, if you have any questions regarding reeds, you know where to find me! I'm always available and very happy to answer all your questions!