Fact #1: On August 2nd, 2013, I wrapped up two weeks of what I may in hindsight refer to as the gigs that broke me.
Two band camps in a row. Easy-peasy, right? I mean, I marched 4 years of high school band, majored in music in college and worked at least one band camp each summer of my degree. I’ve played Mahler & Shostakovich symphonies and walked away unscathed! I’m basically the Dread Pirate Roberts in my immunity to ear damage by now!
It's important to observe that my faulty overconfidence in this matter is brought on by the fact that I’ve never actually done anything dangerous or health-threatening in my life. My daily conversation with myself is apparently as follows:
Me: “What did you do today, Kevy?”
Me: “Well, I ate a ton of healthy locally grown food, didn't smoke or drink hard liquor, walked to and from work, when I did need to drive I drove slowly while carefully obeying all traffic laws, didn’t go out late at night by myself and had healthy, non-dramatic social relations with my roommates and acquaintances. Also, no bricks were thrown at my head."
Me: “Hm, if my calculations are correct, it seems like nothing bad will ever happen to you. You can look forward to a life free of health scares since your tranquil existence protects you from dangerous uncontrollable elements such as tornadoes, grenades, and the plague.”
With this conversation being the the source of my inner joviality, I packed my bags and ran along to 14 consecutive days of loud music with no earplugs.
Fast forward and we arrive at just in time for...
Fact #2: 5 days of uninterrupted 'humming' in my ears. This is an actual thing and it's called Tinnitus. Jackpot.
When I play, I hear a sub-tone underneath each pitch and I'm perceiving many notes as flatter than they actually are. This morning I woke up in the dark and upon standing up, felt like I had no balance whatsoever and had to grab hold of my bed to steady myself. This feeling continued in the shower and all the way to work.
Realization: I legitimately damaged my inner ear to the degree that it's affecting my balance and my ability to perceive correctly the music that I play. Not a great, I-can-take-over-the-world feeling. In fact I'm actually feeling very scared and vulnerable. It sucks. My master plan to start the rumor that I'm a badass is temporarily thwarted.
AVOID THIS FEELING, don't take for granted one of your senses and WEAR EARPLUGS.
Here's a silver lining though, when I put a reed in my mouth to soak today I noticed that my fingers smelled like cheese. And I thought, "My fingers have never smelled like cheese before...what if my other senses are now heightened due to my lack of hearing? Like Daredevil!"
Then I remembered that I had actually dug into a fresh ball of mozzarella the day before.
Oops. But, there's nothing like a fresh surge of optimism to get you off your cantankerous high horse and back to work. Sub-tones or not, this instrument isn't gonna practice itself.
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.
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.