More reed problems

Q: "I play on Vandoren Java's. My M.O. is to go through a box of reeds and find the good one's; maybe practice/play on a good reed for a short while after it manifests; then mark an "x" on it's plastic holder and put it back in a box with the other 'good ones' as arsenal for my upcoming gigs. The "bad" (more stiff, difficult, cumbersome) reeds I save to practice on - sort of like baseball player swinging 2 bats in the warm-up area before going up to the plate. This of course makes my practicing less enjoyable. My question is: is this a bad philosophy? Reeds aren't cheap. I'm mainly doing this to make sure I have good reeds to play gigs on without buying boxes and boxes of reeds each week with money I don't have. But I'm also wondering if it makes sense, if it is constructive, to practice on more difficult reeds."
- Adam

A: First of all, sorry I haven't written much lately. I've had the flu, it kicked my butt.

Ah, the constant reed struggle, the bane of all reed players. Now that you have a baby, I'm sure that reeds are even less a priority than before.

Your tactic
is to practice on the shitty reeds and save the good ones for gigs. Bummer, who wants to really practice on a bad reed? It seems like if you always practice on bad reeds, then your chops will be unprepared to play on a good reed. I could be way off here. Personally, I can't even practice on a really bad reed. It's no fun.

I don't think that it is helpful to 'work your chops out' by using a reed that is too hard. If you do this regularly you may get used to putting too much bottom pressure on the reed. Contrary to some opinions, the saxophone embouchure should be very relaxed and almost loose. How can you practice relaxing properly on a stiff reed? My answer to your question then is to adjust your reeds to where they are no longer too stiff. These reeds may still not be concert worthy, but they won't force your chops into any unnecessary contortions.

When I first play reeds I categorize them with two factors in mind, hard or soft and good or bad cane. If a reed is too hard or too soft but the cane feels and sounds good to me, then it has the possibility of being playable. If the cane is immature and feels dead or chirpy then no amount of adjusting will make it good. I'll first pull the playable reeds out of the box and put them in a reed holder. Then I'll ditch the really bad ones back in the box, which goes to the bone yard in case a day of pure desperation arrives. Then I'll separate the reeds that have potential, except for the strength. If I were you Adam, I would be practicing on these reeds. Once your reed adjusting skills are honed, these reeds will even make it to gigs. The next time I practice I will soak these questionable reeds again and see if they're any better the second go 'round. Remember the thing that breaks down hard reeds the most is going from wet to dry. Each time you dry out a wet reed you really break down the Xylem and Floem (the fibers in the reed that carry water up and down the plant).

Break out your reed tools! You should never really need to play on a reed that is too stiff or too soft. A reed clipper, fine water proof sandpaper, a reed knife, reed rush and a piece of glass is everything that you will need to work on reeds. I also recommend Vandoren's reed resurfacing glass also. This is simply a piece of glass with sandpaper on both sides. They also have a model with rough glass instead of sandpaper.There is a strip of glass at the top that has no sandpaper on it. This is so that when you resurface your reed your can leave the tip as it is. The re-surfacer is a great way to make the entire reed softer and also to flatten out any warping on the bottom of the reed. Many times it is a safer bet it take a little off the bottom of the reed than to sand down or shave the top of the reed. Make sure you also have a reed clipper that fits the tip of your mouthpiece, or at least the reeds you like to play. For example if you always play Javas then buy a Vandoren reed clipper. Remember only to clip the tiniest sliver at a time off the tip of your reed!

Always check to see if the rails are equally hard. To do this turn your mouthpiece at at 30 degree angle and blow normally so that only one side of the mouthpiece is really touching your bottom jaw. Then do the same thing on the other side. You should be able to tell which rail is harder, then make adjustments with a knife or sandpaper. If a reed is shitty, then what do you have to lose by experimenting on it? Go town, carve the f%&# out of it! There have been many very strange things done to reeds for the sake of good tone. People have methodically split the tips of reeds with razor blades, carved circular divots out of the tops of reeds, cut channels into the tops and bottoms of reeds, and reeds have been treated with everything from Hydrogen Peroxide to highly refined Pig oil. Bacon flavored reeds aren't really my thing, but I'm willing to try just about anything else in order to get a reed to play.

Here is a very helpful reed adjustment chart to help get you started.

Remember these things abut reed adjustment:

A little at a time, not a lot.
Keep trying, you'll never run out of bad reeds to practice adjusting.

Terrible cane will always sound terrible.
Die Vandoren, evil scumbags! You'll burn in hell for all the suffering you've caused!

One more thing Adam, do yourself a favor and switch to Rigotti reeds.
Order them from Roberto's or WWBW. You'll never go back to Vandorens, I promise.



Gandalfe said...

What no link to Roberto or WWBW? ;o)

David Valdez said...

I spend so much money on reeds that I have WWBW on my speed dialer....

MonksDream said...

Great comments David. I typically try and play all of the reeds and just have a bunch of reed holders that I continually let them dry out in. I find that for my own personal frustration-avoidance, using Dutch rush seems to work just fine. The main thing to do is to only work on the back (bottom) of the reed when it's in the mouthpiece, and, supposedly, avoid the heart (center) of the reed.

Most reeds need some rail balancing, usually pretty evident on a visual inspection. With a piece of Dutch rush, you can "sand" it down pretty fast. I usually go ahead and work on the heart if the low end is too hard to play. You can just put reeds that suck back in the holder, and as Dave says, soak them, and let them dry out, or just let them dry out.

Another method that can work, is to subject difficult reeds to altissimo notes and a kind of up and down the horn finger freak. I've found this will also loosen them up some (is it in his mind??)

My two cents. One other thing. WWBW has a dealer program, and I've found that most local music stores are willing to charge you that low retail (plus WWBW shipping) if you order through them. As a local business owner, I try and do this to keep our Portland cash flowing.

cheers, Bill

calisaxman said...

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?


Michael Powers said...

Is there any conversion factor to be aware of when switching from VanDoren to Rigotti reeds?

I.e., if I'm playing a VanDoren Java 3.5 now, should I order 3.5 in Rigotti, or go for a 3?

Also, what's the significance of the light, medium, and strong? Are they gradations of hardness (so a 3.5 light is softer than a typical 3.5) or does it have some other significance?

David Valdez said...

Rigotti reeds run a little softer than Javas do. They have a light, medium and strong of each half size.

I used to play a Java 3 1/2 on alto, now I play a 3 1/2 strong or a 4 light Rigotti. The 3 1/2 strong are a tiny bit too soft and the 4 lights are a little too hard, so I usually sand the 4 softs and clip the 3 1/2 strongs. Even though the 3 1/2 strongs ad a bit soft, they usually are still very responsive and sound good. On tenor I play a 3 1/2 medium Rigotti on an Otto Link 6* mouthpiece.

David Valdez said...

Oh, WWBW doesn't carry 4 lights. You can inly get them from Roberto's Woodwinds.

Anonymous said...

As you say, reed problems are the sax=players obsession and torment. I don't think this will ever change, but I have found that the Rico Reed Vitalizer system actually works. It's actually changed the way I play (emboucher looser).

Tom T.

David Valdez said...

I have also found the Rico Reed Revitalizer system to be very helpful. It is basically just a zip-lock plastic bag with a little packet of silica gel inside. They have three different levels of humidity control- long term storage (drier), short term storage (a little wetter) and ready to play (wet). As I have said before, the thing that breaks reeds down the most is going from wet to bone dry. By keeping your reeds from ever totally drying out you can extend the playing life and also have them play really well as soon as you slap them on. Tom says that he can relax his chops more by using the Revitalizer because now he doesn't have to keep fighting reeds that aren't yet ready to play.

These little plastic Revitalizing bags run about ten dollars. Well worth the cost. I'm going to order a few more for myself.