3/23/07

Harder reeds?

This was a question in response to the last post on reeds. It deserved it's own post.

Q:
"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."

A: 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 embouchu
re 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 stude
nt 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#.

6 comments:

Gandalfe said...

I pointed to this from my site. Cool stuff David. Keep 'em coming and thanks for sharing.

MonksDream said...

This is a good posting. I think that everyone's anatomy is different. Some people are able to play on extremely hard set-ups. My old saxophone teacher met Coltrane when he first came to New York. Trane asked him if they made reeds bigger than 5's and he just told him "I don't really think so, man." Trane let him try his setup and he said that he took it in a back corner, gave it a blow and barely got a peep out, and came back and told him, "nice set-up."

A couple of guys, Steve Lacy and Ken Vandermark come to mind, play 1 1/2's on extremely huge tip openings, and I've noticed that a lot of "clarinetish" players like to play hard reeds on smaller tip openings, as this is typical on a clarinet. Flute players, I would expect, and have noticed, like to play soft set-ups.

Dave's advice is sound, around a #3 reed on a medium tip opening. One question I've always had, David, is how come one can play a larger tip opening on tenor than on an alto. I've also noticed that the lower register on an alto can become much more difficult with too hard a reed, when an analogous set-up on a tenor would be playable.

Are there any acousical physics that relate to this??

Anonymous said...

Ive always felt that people bite more, when using hard reeds on tenor, with open mpcs. They have a mpc, with a long facing, play on the time & bite a little...an voila! they are playing a 5* w/#4 reeds, instead of a 9.

It also seems that, the older one gets, the softer the set-up...generally.

I remember quite a few guys, now, who use soft or moderate setups, who, when in their 20s, used ALOT harder reeds.

Geo. Coleman once said, play on the softest read that you can do all your sh*t on & not have the tone break up. I think he's right.

Anonymous said...

Ive always felt that people bite more, when using hard reeds on tenor, with open mpcs. They have a mpc, with a long facing, play on the TIP & bite a little...an voila! they are playing a 5* w/#4 reeds, instead of a 9.

It also seems that, the older one gets, the softer the set-up...generally.

I remember quite a few guys, now, who use soft or moderate setups, who, when in their 20s, used ALOT harder reeds.

Geo. Coleman once said, play on the softest read that you can do all your sh*t on & not have the tone break up. I think he's right.

monksdream said...

So, David, if I switch from rico jazz select #3hard, would I go to the #3 1/2 hards in Rigotti Gold? Also, what's your thought on breaking reeds in? Ellery Eskelin has this super elaborate method (http://home.earthlink.net/~eskelin/reeds.html) that he uses but I tried it and it added too much stress and took too long, and besides, my normal method of just getting my reeds gooped up with saliva and playing them for a minute the first time and then not worrying about it seems to work just fine. Hopefully only sax players will waste their time on this part of your blog dealing with reed obsessions er, i mean, questions.

David Valdez said...

Bill,
I do think the the Rigottis run softer than Rico Jazz Selects, so I would start out by trying 3 1/2 strongs in the Rigottis.

I can’t be bothered that much with elaborate methods to break in reeds. I probably don’t even give the bad reeds as much playing time as I should. I mostly rely on the stress on the reeds on going from wet to dry to break down the reeds. The method on boxes of Alexander reeds seems like it should work, not too elaborate. If I spend a half hour playing shitty reeds in hopes that they will eventually get softer I think I’d lose my drive to practice. I can usually tell if a reed has potential even if it is too hard. Reeds that are too hard AND shitty simply aren’t worth bothering with. I only have so much time to deal with reeds. Usually I just have enough time to find a reed that works at all before a gig.