Reed Advice for Beginning Clarinetists

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The clarinet is a wonderful instrument, but it certainly does require several pieces of equipment, including reeds!

For beginning clarinetists, selecting and caring for these reeds can be confusing, so here’s everything you need to know:

Learn the lingo:

  • Strength. Reed strength measures the flexibility of the cane, and this is typically measures in half or quarter strengths (generally ranging from 2-6+).
  • Brand. The brand indicates which company manufactures the reed. (This is often confused with the brand’s cut).
  • Cut/Model. Many reed manufacturers offer several different cuts, or models, of reeds. The tailoring and shape differentiates one cut from another. Think of cut like your preferred style of jeans – skinny, boot cut, flare, etc. There is no single “best” jeans or reed style, but you should try as many as you can to determine what is your favorite and what works best for you.
  • Softer/Harder reeds. When clarinetists refer to “soft/light” reeds, they mean that the strengths, or number printed on the reed or box of reeds, are lower. “Harder/stronger” reeds are reeds with higher strengths, or higher numbers on the reed or box of reeds. For example, a reed with a strength of 4.5 is harder than a reed with a strength of 2. These are general descriptors and do not refer to specific strengths, unless otherwise indicated.

What strength should I use?

I generally recommend beginners start on a strength 2 or 2.5 reed. Generally, this will provide an easier response without producing the need to bite or overcompensate for stronger reeds. However, reed strength greatly depends on the mouthpiece you play, so it is best to ask your teacher for reed strength recommendations.

Reed care

Once you’ve chosen your reeds, there are a few things you can do to protect and prolong the life of your reeds:

  • Always put the ligature on before the reed. Many clarinetists accidentally chip their reed while putting the ligature on over it, so an easy solution is to switch the order of assembly.
  • Avoid touching the tip of the reed. The tip of the reed is very thin and is the most fragile part, so it is the most prone to chipping. Avoid touching this part when putting your reed on the mouthpiece or adjusting your reed’s position.
  • Use a reed case. Most reeds come packaged in individual sleeves, but having a reed case that holds 4-6 reeds prevents your reeds from scattering in your case.
  • Rotate your reeds. Ideally, you should play on a different reed each time your practice or perform. This will extend the life of your reeds and ensure that they are all performance-ready.

Reed myths

  • Myth: Playing harder reeds means you’re a better player. Truth: Reed strength is not an indicator of your ability level. Choosing the right reed strength includes several factors, such as mouthpiece, embouchure, instrument equipment, and is different from person to person.

When should you go up a strength?

I advise my students to move up to a strength 3 or 3.5 (depending on the player) when they begin learning the upper clarion and lower altissimo notes on clarinet, or when they begin learning notes above the staff. Having a slightly harder reed will help make these notes easier to speak.

Reed recommendations for beginners

I recommend that my beginning students use Vandoren JUNO reeds, which were specifically made for students and beginning players of all ages. I use Vandoren brand reeds, and I like the V12 and V21 cuts. However, I encourage each clarinetist to find their ideal sound and setup.

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