When should you change a reed?
Cane Reeds are extremely annoying. They are sent here to try our patience in more ways than one:
- You buy a box of reeds and it’s often the luck of the draw whether all, some, or even any of them will work well.
- Once you get a good one, it doesn’t stay good. There is no immortal reed (not even synthetic reeds can make that claim) and sooner than later (usually sooner) it will die, sometimes without any warning.
Before you think about determining when a reed is no longer any good, it’s important to establish that any possible defective performance is incurable. In other words is it dying or just feeling a bit under the weather? (Literally if it is due to low humidity).
You may have noticed that sometimes a reed seems to get worse (less responsive or stuffy) after playing on it just for a few minutes. But after taking it off and then coming back to it a bit later it seems fine, only to deteriorate again after a while. If this is happening it could mean the reed is swelling and distorting, in which case it can probably be cured using the method describe in the Cane Reeds page: Conditioning a Reed
How long should a reed last?
So let’s assume we now have a reed that we know is nicely run in, and is playing well so this is definitely a reed we can use with confidence. However we are aware that reeds don’t last indefinitely (even synthetic reeds) but how do we know how long that is? We know when to change the ink in a printer because either there is a warning indicator or else we print a page and we can immediately see there is something wrong. Obviously we don’t know when that is going to happen as it is dependant on how much printing we have done, not how long the cartridge was in the printer.
Same with reeds: unfortunately we can’t say whether a reed will last two weeks or three months. It all depends on the amount of use it has been getting. And not just the amount of use in terms of playing hours, but in many cases the type of playing. getting back to our printer cartridge analogy, if you were printing pages of double spaced light grey text you would expect to get more pages per cartridge than if you print single spaced bold black text.
How do we know when to change the reed then?
It would be nice if we got a warning indicator, so we know to go out and buy a new reed, or start running one in. But sadly we don’t and the worst of it is that a reed can suddenly either die all of a sudden, or (more often) die a slow and horribly painful death possibly along with all the coughing, spluttering, rattling and squeaking you may expect form something dying.
This is the reason it can be a good idea to have several good reeds that are nicely run so that there is always a spare if the reed dies just before an important performance. Many players like to uses these reeds in rotation, but as long as you have one or two ready that is the main thing.
The biggest problem is of course knowing when it is about to happen, as opposed to knowing that it has just happened in the middle of an important solo in front of an audience or a panel of judges. This is not such a problem for experienced players and professionals who know their abilities and so are generally confident that various issues are not their fault. Also they very aware of subtle changes in the response of their equipment.
It may be a bit harder for beginners to know when they are struggling with a dying reed, as opposed to struggling with the saxophone in general, so here are some general words of advice.
- Keep your saxophone in good condition, don’t scrimp on servicing – if in doubt about leaks take it to a good tech
- Get the tech, or a good teacher, to check that the mouthpiece is not damaged, the ligature fits securely.
- Learn to look for visible signs of reed wear: a dirty appearance, splits and divots, taking on a permanent bend (due to the mouthpiece curve contour)
- Make notes about your progress in regard to tone, range and response. Is there a high note you could get a couple of days ago but can no longer sustain? A low note that you could play quietly but now you have to honk it out? These are al tell tale signs the reed is “on its way out.”
- Always make sure you have some back-up reeds ready to go. For important performances use a reed you have confidence in, one that is quite new but comfortably run in.