Reeds for Beginning and Intermediate Students

Dear Mr. Friedland,

Would you speak to proper reed choice for beginning and intermediate
clarinet students? I’m interested to know if you share my thinking
that most teachers recommend reeds that are too soft (given a decent
“medium” mouthpiece), and this cause problems later on.

I routinely get students from the local band programs who come to me
playing 1 1/2 strength reeds on mouthpieces with medium tip openings,
Aside from very thin sound, most of these students have trouble with
squeaking, pitch, and register changes (typically with a strong habit
of trying to muscle the reed into hitting notes in the clarion from
below and in trying to get the “short tube” notes somewhat in tune),
not to mention articulation problems.

I start my beginning students with a 2 at minimum if they’re 10 years
old or younger, Over 12 years old, I start them with 2 3/4 and
sometimes 3s or stronger, depending on the individual, and I have had
little problem with students squeaking, being horribly out of tune,
having percussive articulation sounds, or having poor timbre–as long
as I consistently reinforce concepts of stable embouchure and
sufficient and constant breath support.

Intermediate students who come to me playing soft reeds I generally
bump up to 3.5s or stronger (on a “medium” mouthpiece, again), and
their improvement is nearly instantaneous after they get used to
needing more breath support to get the reed vibrating. (They complain
that they’re “hard to blow,” but that generally doesn’t last further
than the first lesson.)

Within limits, for my own and my students’ playing, I’ve come to the
conclusion that the hardest reed one can reasonably handle that
accommodates one’s tonal concept is also the reed that is ultimately
is easiest to play and produces the best results with the least
effort, and that using too-soft reeds introduces more problems than it
alleviates.

What do you think?

Thanks for your reply

B M

Dear BM:

thank you for your interesting letter concerning reed strengths for younger and intermediate players. First, defining a medium mouthpiece opening with a medium reed,is difficult to ascertain, epecially since all of the above vary from one to another and certainly so indeed, do the students.

I would think that most would tend to agree with your idea of “ultimately” the easiest playing reed probably produces the best results with the least effort. All well and good.
Your conclusion is however, not necessarily true in all cases, especially these days where there are some very fine players who to play the most resistant reed they can make vibrate and continue to work with that principle.

All kinds of excellent players some to mind. I remember well, the playing of Manuel Valerio who played 2nd with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and First in the Boston Pops for several years in the 50s or 60s. He used the closest Selmer mouthpiece, I think it was called the A facing and he used to play on clipped #5 Van Dorens. When he played, I thought that his sound actually floated above the rest of the orchestra in a  shimmering edgeless quality that was difficult to describe, it was so beautiful. Here is a player who completely defies your conclusion, and in many ways, my own, which is somewhat similar.

I would have to add one more facet of your ideal reed, and that would be the ability to play the complete range of the clarinet with that same medium quality and medium mouthpiece. Why? Because you do not speak of the embouchure and its development along with the reed , and also the most important facet. The sound ideal, the particular sound which the student hears in his head, his model. Perhaps it is a recording of a clarinetist or of a clarinetist within an orchestra, or perhaps it is the first sounds you played for he or she in the first lesson. The first lesson or lessons can be absolutely huge for the student, especially the student who may have that special ability to hear and recreate,perhaps the sound that has driven him to study or the sounds that you first played for the student

I speak of my own experience, remembering my first lesson, and subsequent lessons on the instrument. I will never forget the first notes that I tried to play and those which my teacher played. His were shockingly beautiful, mine were , as I recall, simply shocking. Horrible squeaking and strange noises, ugly beyond anything imaginable. I left that first lesson vowing to myself that I would not squeak for the next lesson, no matter what else I did, I would not make those horrible noises.

Perhaps I was an average kid, perhaps more or less sensitive than the next kid. But that is the vow I made and kept for the next lesson. I couldn’t count, read music, couldn’t do anything else, but copy my teachers sound. That is why I absolutely insist that the student have someone who actually plays the clarinet, for a teacher. If one does not one can progress but without a sound to listen for and emulate, one can be at a disadvantage.

What I have said in general is that each and every student is different. They have different faces, eyes, ears and mouth and they will react more or less with sensitivity to those very first sounds,as did I and many more students. The teacher is the model, his sound is the very first thing the young student hears. Students more advanced, those who come to solve a problem, fix their staccato or change their sound, each is completely different. But the younger student is the most sensitive, some more than others, and their response to you, the teacher is the most important . My teacher played for me the most beautiful sound I have ever experienced, and I remember it to this day.

My favorite clarinetists of the past are Harold Wright, who played double lip embouchure and a medium reed on a medium mouthpiece, (but of course not just any) Gino Cioffi, also a double lip player who played a softer reed and was the most natural clarinetist.He played a crystal mouthpiece,with a medium tip opening. I did not like the quality that Drucker made for all those years with the NY Philharmonic, though I will always admire his quickness and receptivity to the conductor and the mood of the piece.Larry Combs is one of my admired players, simply clean correct and great for 30 years in Chicago. He started playing Eb in that orchestra, but worked his way into the principal position and distinguished himself as one of the very best . The fellow who plays first in Cleveland, Franklin Cohen supposedly uses very resistant reeds, yet his playing can be extremely beautiful and delicate. Marcellus of Cleveland was the most consistently excellent player of any orchestra during his time. Those days and times seemed to be the time of distinguished players of note. Nowadays, simply everybody plays beautifully. How they start out is most probably a varied story. Each can play and imagine and be sensitized to different aspects of the sound of the clarinet. So,as to my conclusion,it varies from student to student.

I hope this has been of some help.

best wishes,
sherman

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