Here's a scenario for you: it's the middle of April, the weather has finally taken a turn for the warm, and it has wiped out every one of your decent performing reeds in the process. Oh, and just as an afterthought, it's the beginning of the week and you have a performance at the end of the week.
During this period, reed playing time is precious. It's treacherous to spend lots of time practicing on the reeds that you plan on using for your actual performance, because every minute spent out of the case is a potential alteration from the weather.
When I begin to break in my reeds, I always date them like this. These reeds are called F27-1&2 because I started them on February 27th, and they were the 1st and 2nd reeds that I played on. (I absolutely recommend that you date your reeds; you can label them using any symbols you like as long it's clear to YOU)
I stopped playing these about 2 weeks ago; I used them exclusively on the ROK Tour and they decided to check out early. OR SO I THOUGHT.
Turns out, with a few different rules to follow than reeds in their prime, old reeds (that you thought were spent) can give you a few decent practice sessions, meaning you don't have to wear out your performance reeds before a concert. So hang onto those oldies just a little longer and put them to work!
1. Make sure you've got a reed that is TRULY old.
That reed you started two weeks ago is not old. It is a teenage-reed at most. Here are my requirements for what counts as an 'old' reed.
2. Once you've decided to play on an old reed, soak it for a REALLY long time.
Even if you're an avid mouth-soaker, I would encourage you to use water to reawaken your old reeds. Not only that, but put your chosen reed in your container of choice (empty prescription pill bottles work great), get up, and go take out your recycling. Or go to the kitchen and wash a dish. Watch this funny video. Your thirsty reed has a lot of moisture to catch up on! Unlike a new reed, which is easily water-logged and should be soaked only for about 30 seconds at a time, old reeds are sealed up from lack of use, dry, and benefit from a full 3-5 minutes in water.
3. Re-break it in gently.
It doesn't need a full week of breaking-in like a new reed, but like an athlete fresh from a coma, it won't like it if you make it run sprints on its first time back in action.
This is a great time to play some long tones! Start in the easy low register on an unresistant note like E-natural. Set a metronome at 60 beats-per-minute (or just watch the second-hand on a wall clock) and hold the note for 8 beats. The sound may take some coaxing; don't lose hope if it doesn't speak right away! Continue descending chromatically with your long tones, so play Eb next, then D, etc. If the tone is a bit fuzzy at first, it should start to clear up and find its center by the time you get all the way down to low E, and as an added bonus you've also just played a great warm up!
Don't be afraid to experiment with a little more air than you're used to, I've found that old reeds can be much more sturdy and stand up to a bit more blowing than more sensitive newer reeds.
Close the pores again if you need to by rubbing gently with a spoon or a pen (or even just your finger for a quick fix), and ease into the upper register by playing the same long tone exercise described above, this time starting on B-natural and ascending chromatically up to C above the staff.
Carry on, clarinetistas.
It only takes about 15 minutes to revive an old reed and consequently have a pretty lengthy practice session. Compared to my usual several hours of panicked despair, I think I'll take it. Old is the new NEW!...well...for a few days and then it truly will die a final yet honorable death.
Tonight I had the pleasure of performing a clarinet duet with my good buddy Francisco Brunner for the doctoral composition recital of our IU colleague, Chris Renk. In the second movement, I observed one measure of rest and resumed playing only to realized that my reed had literally dried out in the air within seconds of leaving my mouth. Consequently, my long-tone entrance was not the liquid-smooth-multi-overtoned-yet-scarcely-audible pianissimo B-natural that I had pleasantly imagined inside my head moments before. Instead, it was a thin, strident, and uncharacteristically resistant sound. (Think middle-schoolers learning upper register for the first time)
Naturally this sudden change in resistant shocked me, but I was able to recover decently enough to finish out the phrase with some dignity.
Humidity was low today in Bloomington. When I checked the weather report later it was listed at 50%. Now, this is nowhere near as bad as it could be (ideal humidity for clarinet reeds is about 73%), but it was accompanied by a temperature rise of about 10 degrees from the day before, which always makes reeds act a little funny (in unpredictable ways!).
Why I should have seen it coming...
The signs were all there.
1. I had two coachings and an etude jury this very day in which I warmed up before-hand with a decent playing reed only to play minutes later feeling like I had never gotten it wet.
2. Moments before taking the stage for the Renk duets I frantically changed the reed I had been using because it suddenly responded scratchily and horridly resistant to my soft open-G test notes.
Open G... No response... Red flag.
All this having happened, I should have been on the lookout for the aforementioned catastrophe, but my replacement reed had a nice easy response so I figured I was in the clear...
No reed is safe!
In dry weather, reeds are best in the first few seconds that you take them out of their case, but don't be fooled! They're time-bombs of dryness!
What to do?
If you know the weather is dry, keep your performance reed in water up until it's time to take the stage.
Keeping a reed from drying out while you're performing (like, the clarinet is physically in your face and you're blowing some serious sexy tunes) and can't do anything about it?
Well, grasshoppers, when I figure it out I'll let you know.
In the meantime, here's an awesome picture of Francisco and me playing Chris's duet!
Blogging about reeds? I must be MAD!
.Here are some tools and tips of the clarinet and reed trade for younger players to supplement the musical education received from band directors and music teachers. I've tailored these methods (used by professional clarinet players!) to be accessible and user-friendly for the beginner to intermediate clarinet reed-hater.