Monday, February 6, 2006
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Before I even touch a reed with sandpaper or a knife I always soak them in water until the piles are filled with water and then I play test them. It is only after this that I start manipulating the reed if it doesn't play well. Remember to go slow. You can always take more wood off a reed but you cannot put it back on!
As a very general rule if the high register is a little stuffy you can work on the tip of the reed, if the middle range is giving you a “thuddy” quality then you can take wood off in the center. Be very careful here! This is where the heart of the reed lies. Without a strong heart the reed will be thin, buzzy, and strident no matter what you do to it. It is best to stay along the rails of the reed when taking wood off here. If you low register is non-responsive then you can work at the collar of the reed. Again, these are very general guidelines for all reeds. With double reeds you need to be sure to always have a plaque inserted between the blades to protect them from cracking whenever working on them.
The next most important issue regarding reeds is how you clean them. When you are finished playing you should put your reeds in water and not in your mouth. (The whole point to this is to dilute the acids that were present in your mouth and saliva. If this is not done the reed will break down faster and you will spend more time and money looking for that perfect reed!) Leave the reed in the water while you put the rest of your instrument away. With single reeds gently wipe the excess water off on a dry cloth and lay flat to prevent warping. With double reeds blow the water out by blowing air though the bottom of the reed (the water will come out of the tip).
All reeds need to be kept free from dirt and dead skin cells that will normally collect on the reed while being used. To do this simply take you fingernail and gently scrape the surface of the reed while it is still wet. You will notice a grayish film on your nail. If this were left on the reed, it would quickly cause dead spots (spots with no vibration) to occur. In the case of double reeds the inside of the reed must be cleaned as well. Take a pipe cleaner (a very small size for oboe reeds) and cut a length of about 3 to 4 inches. Push the pipe cleaner up through the base of the reed until it sticks out from the tip then gently rock it across the width of the reed while pulling it out though the tip. This will do the same thing that you did with your fingernail on the outside of the reed. This process should be done once a week or so to keep your reeds in good playing condition.
Double reeds have an extra problem associated with them and that is their wires and strings. With bassoon reeds it is very common for the wires to slip after several dunks in the water. Unfortunately the wires can never seem to be tightened back up. You will need to cut the wire off with wire cutters and re-wire it with a new piece of 22 gauge brass wire about 4 inches long. (This length should give you enough to handle it easily.) Begin by holding the wire with your forefinger behind the reed at the height that you need to re-apply the wire. Push the ends toward the front and wrap the wire back around the reed being careful not to overlap the wire on itself. As you do this you will notice that the wire is now pointing on the side that you were originally holding with your finger. Turn the reed over doing your best to keep the wire in the same place. As you continue to push the wires closer together you will notice that one wire is naturally on top of the other. Cross the wires fairly close to the throat of the reed and take your needle-nose pliers and pull and twist the wire (at the same time) in the direction of the bottom wire. (If your top wire is on the right you would twist the wires rotating your pliers to the left, toward the bottom wire.) When the wire it tight against the reed you can clip the excess with the wire cutter and then bend the rest down so it is touching the reed.
You might also have to re-string either an oboe reed or a bassoon reed. If the string is beginning to come unraveled it will affect the playing qualities of the reed. You can re-wrap the reed by taking the old string off and replacing it with a new one. Just make the string as tight as possible and any even wrap will work for this quick fix. For oboe reeds you will want to tie the string first to a very heavy piece of furniture like a piano leg because you will need to pull on this very hard to get the tightness needed to stabilize the reed. The string you will need is FF for bassoon and EE for oboe, although people have been known to use crochet thread (not yarn!) and that works fine. When wrapping bassoon reeds you will need to glue the string when you are through to give it stability. The best glue for this is Duco Cement and you can find it at hardware stores or super stores. I have saved many disasters before important contests or festivals using these methods, however if you move the blades at all while taking the strings off you are better off getting a new reed.
The last issue in caring for your reeds is storage. For single reeds it is best to let them dry on a flat surface that is well ventilated. Using the plastic reed holder that the reed originally came in would not be the best idea (but definitely better than nothing!) There are many reed cases out there that have a flat surface. For double reeds ventilation is even more important because they have to be able to dry on the inside as well and also keep their round shape. In this case I would recommend cases with the little mandrels or pegs in them so the reeds will dry round like they were made.
Dr. Cheryl Cifelli, Assistant Professor of Music, is Director of Woodwind Studies and teaches applied woodwinds, woodwind methods, form and analysis, music appreciation, and assists with the marching band at Missouri Southern State University. She holds all of her degrees from the University of North Texas where she was the principal clarinetist of the Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Eugene Migliaro Corporon..
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