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Why the Reed is So Important and How to Treat it Right

The reed is one of the most important parts of the saxophone, but it’s the thing most of us complain about. When you first start playing, it’s the tingling vibrations and the consequential lip-numbing that irks us.

But after you grow accustomed to not feeling your mouth, you find that reeds can be fickle. Humidity levels affect the way the reed feels and plays, and temperature fluctuations can mean the difference between a good practice session, and sounding like a dead cat. Adding to that, reeds from the same box can behave differently. Some are stable no matter what environment you throw them in, while others are complete duds right from the start.

Despite all of the complaints we have about reeds, they’re still a vital part of the saxophone. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to achieve that smooth, mellow sound we love.

sax reed

The Reed’s Lifecycle

A brand new reed is springy and a bit stiff. That’s what adds vibrancy and life to the saxophone’s sound. Each time you play, the fibers that make up the reed start to break down. Eventually, all reeds lose their springiness and have a hard time vibrating.

Reeds are incredibly vulnerable to changes in climate and moisture levels. Fluctuations in the weather can cause a reed to feel stiffer or softer.

How do you know when a reed is going soft? In my experience, I know that it’s time to toss out my reed when high notes start sounding flat. Reeds that are past their prime are usually easier to blow through, too.

How Bad Reeds Can Hinder Your Performance

Once a reed goes soft, you can hope that colder weather will stiffen it up a bit, but if not, there’s not much else to do but throw it away.

A skilled player can make up for a softer reed with good voicing and breathing. But if you play with a bad reed for long enough, your embouchure pressure will start slacking and you may have a harder time playing with a normal reed. On the other hand, if you haven’t developed your voicing, you may just boost your embouchure pressure if your reed starts to soften to improve the pitch.

In either scenario, players may find themselves unsure of new reeds – sometimes they feel softer; sometimes they feel harder. Even after giving the reed a day to adjust to the moisture levels, you may find that it just does not play well because your embouchure is out of whack.

To prevent this from happening, do yourself a favor and throw out any reeds that sound dead, or feel soft or hard. If you force yourself to play on a dud reed, you’ll wind up messing up your embouchure (and possibly your breathing) in the long run.

In some cases, it’s not necessarily the reed that’s forcing your embouchure to compensation. You may have the mouthpiece too far in, or too far out, which would cause you to sound sharp or flat respectively. When this happens, it can feel as if your reed is too hard or soft. Make sure that you’re in tune, so you can properly gauge whether your reed is normal, soft or hard.