I have recently begun breaking in the fifth box of reeds that I purchased in July 2014. No, I have not been blessed with an incredible run of great reeds. This is my usual pace of going through reeds. Since I purchase far fewer reeds than most clarinetists, I thought I would share my tips for maintaining decent reeds throughout the year. They may not work for everyone, but they are worth a try.
I have several assumptions that govern how I take care of my reeds. They are:
1. The same reed will feel more resistant (stuffier) in a more humid environment and less resistant (lighter) in a drier environment.
2. Reeds are flexible pieces of wood that respond to how you play them. If you change your embouchure or way of blowing, the reed will first react strangely before it adjusts to your new way of playing.
3. Many reed problems are problems of inconsistency of the player. Flautists have good days and bad days. So do violinists. It cannot be that all the problems that clarinetists face are due to inconsistent reeds.
I use Vandoren V12 3.5 reeds with a B40 mouthpiece and a Woodstone ligature. Standard stuff, except for the ligature, but my consumption of reeds was not any higher a year ago when I used a simple Bonade ligature. My guess is that if you use a mouthpiece which was not designed in tandem with a specific reed (like Vandoren mouthpieces and reeds), fewer reeds will work with your mouthpiece.
Breaking in reeds:
Every time I play a reed, I soak it in water for about 10 seconds. My first teacher explained that this would ensure that the reed is moistened more evenly than through putting the reed in the mouth.
Whenever I throw away an old reed, I start breaking in a new one. That means that I am always breaking in a couple of reeds at a time, but that I am never breaking in a whole box (which is of course physically taxing and prevents you from practicing your repertoire effectively).
If a reed is too resistant in the summer, I mark the backside with a blue highlighter and put it away to try again when the climate is drier in winter. If it is winter, and the reed is too light I mark it with a yellow highlighter and put it away to try again in the humid summer. Reeds that are too light in the summer or too hard in the winter I usually throw away. All other reeds I keep and attempt to break in. (You should modify this logic to your own climate. Perhaps winter is humid and summer is dry where you live)
I break in a reed with scales and arpeggios, not repertoire. I play the reed for 5-10 minutes on each of the first couple of days. On the third and fourth days, I play the reed for up to 20 minutes. (It goes without saying that you must keep track of which reed is which within your reed case). I always try to stop playing the reed before the tip reaches a saturation point. You can see this quite clearly with a new reed – after a few minutes of playing, the tip will start to turn a darker shade than the rest of the reed. This darkness means that the tip of the reed is saturated with moisture. It will respond differently, too. It is best to stop playing the reed before this begins to happen.
Days 1 and 2 – Play scales and arpeggios on the new reed for about 5 minutes.
Days 3 and 4 – Play scales and arpeggios for 10-20 minutes.
Then on Day 5, I let the reed rest and do not play it. And from Day 6, I consider the reed to be a normal broken-in reed, which means that I play it only every other day.
I have two reed cases. I usually cycle through around 8 reeds a day (sometimes less, not often more) which means that I rarely play the same broken-in reed two days in a row. I keep my reeds in the standard blue Vandoren cases that can hold 8 reeds. The numbering system in the cases helps me keep track of which reed I am supposed to be playing. If on Monday I start with reed 1 in reed case one and then play reeds 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, then on Tuesday I will start with reed 7 in case one, and then play reed 8 and then move to reed 1 in case two. I am not too strict about how much I play each reed that has already been broken in. If everything is going great, I might practice for an hour and a half on a single reed, but usually not more. If I have a four hour orchestra rehearsal, I try to play the first two hours with one reed and the next two hours with another.
About four days before an important concert or audition, I make a list of my favorite reeds. On the concert day, I pick the reed at the top of the list, and, if I like it as much as on the previous days, I play it in the concert. If not, I try the next reed on the list. This means that on concert and audition days, I do not follow my normal cycle of going through reeds.
My reeds always last for three weeks and sometimes much longer. I keep each reed case in a different resealable plastic bag with a Rico humidifier pack. Rico makes some nice bags billed as ‘two-way humidity control systems,’ but you can also find something acceptable at any supermarket. One of these bags will hold one reed case and a Rico 73% humidity pack. The other bag will hold the second reed case and a Rico 84% humidity pack. The lighter reeds go in the 84% pack and the more resistant reeds go in the reed case which is stored together with the 73% pack. If a reed is stored with the 73% pack and it becomes too light, (you guessed it!) I move it to the reed case stored together with the 84% pack and vice versa. Therefore, I try to store my reeds (which of course are all slightly different) in different environments. I find that I am able to coaxe new life into my old reeds by putting them in a more humid environment and not playing them for a few days.
Since I never break in a whole box at once, I don’t keep track of how many reeds I throw away straight out of the box. I would be surprised, though, if I threw more than 3 reeds away immediately after trying them from the box. I try to give every reed that does not feel too resistant a chance. If, after the break in process, a reed still does not play well then I throw it away.
Another important thing I do is to remove the metallic wrapping from each reed when I purchase a new box. I just let the reeds sit in the plastic sleeves inside the box until I decide to break them in. I do not like the reeds when I have just taken them out of the Vandoren ‘flow-packs.’
My method ensures that I am constantly cycling through many reeds which are decent. I always have a reed that I can practice on, and I feel that I do not waste much time trying to find good reeds. And, of course, I save a lot of money.
I don’t worship the perfect reed. It is rare that I play on a reed that I feel is perfect from the instant I begin playing. I usually feel from the first few sounds that a reed is acceptable to play on, and after about 10 minutes of playing I find that I have adjusted to the reed or it has adjusted to me. And this point I need not worry about the reed and I feel comfortable enough to make really great music.