You can have the finest clarinet from one of the finest clarinet stores with a top-of-the-line mouthpiece, but if your reed is not up to snuff, that same clarinet will sound muffled, squeaky and low quality. To choose the best reed for your instrument, you should consider your own playing ability. And once you find the right reeds, caring for them will help you sound better and will ultimately save you lots of money.
There are many brands of reeds out there but the most trusted amongst new and advanced players are Rico, Mitchell Lurie and Vandoren brands. Rico is recommended for beginners for the reed’s ease for a person who's still learning mouth strength and positioning. Reeds come in various strengths using a numbering system (numbered from 1.5 to 5 using every half-number) to show the hardness of each reed. The higher the number, the harder the reed.
Hardness refers to the strength and thickness of the cane the reed was made from. The goal for a clarinetist is to play the hardest reed they can handle. Hard reeds cause a student to work their embouchure and develop muscle strength in the jaw. But players should not jump to using a reed that’s too hard for them. This will make it harder for the player to produce sound – causing the player to blow harder and "bite" the reed. This will produce a small, pinched sound lessening the play quality. Beginners should go for at least a 2 reed, preferably a 2.5.
After a few years of play, players can advance to using harder reeds and more exotic reeds (German, French, American, ect.). Reeds all look very similar, but each different cut – with just fractions of millimeters of difference – produces big differences in sound. Specifically try to stay with Vandoren reeds as many clarinet teachers recommend them above others.
Along with getting the right reeds for your ability, maintaining your reeds is paramount as well. Reeds must be stored in a case that will allow them to dry and keeps out excessive heat or cold. While beginners only need to worry about it being dry and not broken, advanced players need to note if a reed is warped (weather changes can cause a reed to look wavy at the tip). Warping is (along with chipping and cracked reeds) almost always a cause for throwing out a reed. You can still use chipped and cracked reeds, but they tend to be difficult to play on and don’t produce a great sound. Players should have two or more back-up reeds in case one gets damaged.
Reeds, like shoes, go through a “breaking in” process. A new reed should only be played on for no more than 10 minutes a day. Any more and the reed may get waterlogged (the wood looks very wet and streaky and almost see-through) and should be put away to dry. A few weeks should be enough time for the reed to be strong enough to be played though an entire rehearsal or practice. Still, do not overwork a reed, and make sure to switch out your reeds often. Avoid playing the same one more than two days in a row.
As long as a player chooses the right reed (like those sold here at Musician's Friend) and maintains them properly, a player will get lots of mileage and great sound out of their instrument.
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