Reeds and Mouthpieces: A perfect marriage?
Recently, a store owner contacted me to talk about a request he received from one of his regular band director customers. The instructor had asked the store to order number five reeds for his students. The owner wanted to find out if this was common or a good idea to start stocking reeds of this strength.
This is not the first time I’ve seen this phenomenon of students trying super hard reeds. The theory is that harder reeds have darker, nicer tones and better intonation. This is a common error. Among students, I believe it’s more competitive. I can hear a group of middle or high school clarinetists arguing with each other about it.
Student 1: I play a two and a half.
Student 2: Oh, honey. (snarky tone) I stopped playing two and a half’s last year. I’m up to threes.
Student 3: That’s nice. (sneers a bit) Let me know when you get to three and a half.
Student 4: I’ve been playing fours for years. (Dismissive as only mature people can speak)
Student 5: I gave up on fours. Too easy. (Even more dismissive and above it all) I’m using custom carved Popsicle sticks now.
In the most southern accent possible, let me say, y’all need to stop. That’s it. Just stop and read the rest of this post. Are you ready for this concept? The appropriate strength of a single reed is determined by the facing cut of the mouthpiece. Read that again and take a moment to let that sink in before I go on to explain.
The structure of a single reed mouthpiece is complex and we have the potential to go down a rather deep rabbit hole in this subject, but for this purpose, we’re going to keep it simple. The parts of a mouthpiece band directors should know are the tip opening, the table, and the breakpoint or facing length of the mouthpiece. The table is the flat area where the reed sits. The tip opening is the space between the end of the reed and the mouthpiece beak. The breakpoint is the spot where the reed stops touching the mouthpiece surface and determines the facing length.
Single reed mouthpieces come in a variety of facing lengths, but we’ll boil them down to short, medium and long. Same thing for tip openings and we’ll call those open or closed. These are the two biggest characteristics that determine how a mouthpiece responds and performs. The rest (chamber, baffle, throat, window) have some influence over response, but will affect more of the tone quality.
I believe the facing is the more important of these two factors. Think of the vibrating reed being on a fulcrum. The breakpoint is where the reed will start vibrating. It will travel at lightning speed to beat against the tip of the mouthpiece, thus producing a pitch. Move that fulcrum up or down the facing, the reed can become harder to make vibrate or easier, even with the same tip opening. Long facings will be able to support harder strength reeds because of this concept. Medium facings are more difficult, and short facings, well, we’re back to trying to play a Popsicle stick.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, long facings cannot handle lower strengths. The reeds are too thin at the tip and will close up instead of vibrate. If this is happening to a student, this means the player and the mouthpiece can support a higher strength reed.
Remember when I said even with the same tip opening? The reed’s travel distance to hit the tip plays a role in the efficacy of the mouthpiece. First time students are learning to use different muscles and have a lot of challenges in just finding where their fingers are placed. A more closed tip opening will help as they start their band journey, making the mouthpiece one factor they don’t have to fight. A medium facing will give them some growing room as softer reeds (two or two and a half) can be used for a short time on them and still get results. Once the student has some months of practice under their belts, this facing/tip set up will easily support up to a three. Three and a half is pushing it.
My favorite recommendation in this category? Vandoren B45. It’s consistently made, reliable and reasonably priced. It will support a number 2.5 or 3 strength reed comfortably.
More advanced students will benefit from a long facing mouthpiece, which along with a short tip opening will work with a 3.5 or perhaps 4 strength reeds. The tone quality should be richer and darker, but the student will have to have developed chops to get the full range of sound. Open tips with medium to long facings will need to find the balance between the mouthpiece and reed strengths. The player may have to experiment to find out if a 3 or a 3.5 works better.
At this level, I’d try a Vandoren M13 or M30. If the student needs something more advanced, the Vandoren 5RV-lyre might fit the bill.
Other possibilities are Selmer HS-star, C-star, or C-85 mouthpieces. They will support higher strength reeds, however, let me point out that none of them will support a number 5 reed. Not many pros I know play number 5s, therefore, middle and high schoolers shouldn’t try. Improper mouthpiece set-ups will lead to bad habits and poor embouchures that will take years to correct.
I’m not forgetting about saxes, however seldom do I see the same issue of players trying to make a number 5 reed vibrate on their student Yamaha alto. The mouthpiece facing concept is still the same. I recommend a Yamaha 4C as the go-to for most student saxes. For more advanced players, a Selmer C-star is a good choice for general playing.
With saxes, there is the bonus of having a specific set-up for jazz. This is where many players will descend into a giant rabbit hole as the range of possibilities just quadrupled. The biggest rule of thumb for specific jazz mouthpieces is short facing, wide tip opening, and softer reed strength. This set-up will give the player a lot of flexibility in the many jazz styles out there. This is a topic on its own and perhaps a future post.
Mouthpieces can get expensive. They range from thirty dollars to over eight hundred. If the local music store has the ability for musicians to try before you buy, I’d take that option first rather than searching the internet for random bargains. Everyone has opinions on what is best for students or pros, however, it’s the player who should get the final call. In order to test mouthpieces, the player will need to use the same reed, ligature, and instrument on each one. This will eliminate variables and give a clear-cut picture of how the mouthpiece functions. The questions to ask and answer are: how free-blowing is the mouthpiece? How hard or easy is it to control? Is the sound focused or wildly distorted? It helps to have an extra person in the testing room to listen.
There is more to this topic such as the materials used in the making the mouthpieces, variations of different reed brands, and the resonance contribution of different ligatures. This rabbit hole can become an entire confusing warren. When all else fails, the previously mentioned mouthpieces are great fall-backs. They are reliable and consistently made from mouthpiece to mouthpiece. Anything more advanced would be a good time to work with an experienced private teacher.