This was a question in response to the last post on reeds. It deserved it's own post.
"Hey David - This brings up the question regarding how one moves from one reed strength to the next. I usually play 2 or 2.5 and am always astounded that people playing my same size mouthpiece are sometimes playing 3, 3.5 or even 4. I've read that the harder the reed, generally the better the sound and the longer the reed life. But if forcing yourself to play on a harder reed is not recommended, what is the process that a player goes through that allows them to one day play on a harder reeder? I've tried working out on harder reeds, and you're right, it really does not make practicing fun. And you're not the first person that I've heard of that suggests it's not like lifting weights - that forcing the issue with brute force is not necessarily the way to go. Can you offer any more insight on this process? Thanks, Roman."
Great question. I usually forget that a reed that feels perfect for me is probably a little too hard for my students. I'm generally against starting students out on really soft reeds. I don't think that it is very helpful because it trains you to play with a much different embouchure than a professional would use. There is some amount of muscle and air-stream control that needs to be developed over time, but it's not like you need to become iron-lips in order to have a good sound. I was talking to Ralph Morgan, the master mouthpiece maker and former head engineer during Selmer's Mark VI production, and he was saying how he thought that no one should ever play anything harder than a 2 1/2 or 3 reed on a 5 tip opening mouthpiece.
He didn't think there was any way to have enough control pieces like 8s and 9s with hard reeds. In fact he was thought that there was no way I could possibly have control over my Slant 6 Otto Link and my 3 1/2 reeds. Of course I disagree with his assessment of my set-up, and I even think I could move to a 6*. He does have a point in general though. So many of the Jazz greats used softer reeds and smaller tip openings then many players today and they sounded amazing. Cannonball played on a 5 tip opening with a 2 1/2 or 3 reed, so did Phil Woods and many other great players.
You must remember that the strength of the reed varies from brand to brand and always must be considered in relation to the mouthpiece. A smaller tip opening, shorter lay, smaller chamber or larger baffle will make a harder reed easier to play. Also an stuffy immature 3 reed may feel harder than a 4 reed from really good cane. Dead and stuffy can't always be fixed be sanding or shaving. If the reed looks green after you soak it then it most likely will play like a much harder reed.
Personally I don't recommend extreme set-ups, like a 9 or 10 tip opening, which is what George Garzone sounds so great playing. He runs 10 miles every day to keep up that king of air-stream. I think student should start out on a strength or reed that is close to what a seasoned professional would play, unless of course the student is a little kid. I wouldn't suggest that anyone play anything more open than around a 7 tip opening, and that's even kind of extreme for alto. I was playing on an Early Babbit 7 alto piece for a while last year and it felt like I could put about twice as much air through it. My sound was MASSIVE! I ended up selling it after a few months because it was just a little to hard to control. I could have gone down to a softer reed, but I didn't want the extra buzz that would have added to my sound.
If I were your teacher Roman, I would probably move you up to a hard reed (3 or 3 1/2) and if you really couldn't cope I would have you get a mouthpiece with a smaller tip opening. I also like the warm dark sound of a large chamber piece, and dislike the overly buzzy sound of a high baffle. I recommend a 5-6* tip opening on alto and a 6-7* tip opening on tenor, with
2 1/2 to 3 1/2 strength reeds. This will get you a sound closer to Zoot Sims than Lenny Picket, and closer to Cannonball than Sanborn. If the reed is not hard enough then you won't have enough resistance to control it as as well, unless of course it a 4 reed. There needs be be enough resistance from the reed in order to be able to make subtle timbre changes.
If you are still having real problems playing harder reeds, even though you have a reasonable mouthpiece, then you need to get into the woodshed and spend some time doing overtone exercises. Overtone exercises are the fastest way to develop air-stream, embouchure, and upper oral tract control. There is no quicker way to a gain control of of your set-up. Here are the exercises that Joe Viola gave me to practice overtones-
OVERTONE EXERCISES from the Bb fundamental. Continue them from Bb up to low C#.