Experimenting with Reeds

Sometimes I go a little crazy experimenting with my reeds...

But if we want to make the best possible reeds, we need to have a full understanding of why we scrape each part of the reed. It’s helpful to read instructional guides (like this one from Martin Schuring), but if you’re like me, reading it will only go so far. Experience is the best teacher, so I always strongly encourage my students to use thoughtful experimentation to learn how to fine-tune our reeds.

For example, this week, I’ve been experimenting with the back of the reed. I made reeds with nothing removed from the back, reeds with far too much cane removed from the back, and everything in between. I learned quite a bit about how tone and pitch are affected and how much the overall vibrancy of the reed can be adjusted by scraping the back. Some things worked, and some things did not, but by making a conscious note of the effects, I can call my experimenting a success.

Not all of my experiments have worked in the past, though. Here are some common pitfalls.

1 – Not having a clear idea for experimenting.

2 – Not finding your way back to normal after experimenting.

3 – Not remembering how you scraped a particular reed (or part of a reed).

4 – Not repeating the experiment enough times to gain accurate insight.

The keys to these problems are thoughtfulness and making more reeds. In order to build our mental database, it really only takes a couple seconds of thinking about the reed and not thinking about anything else. With everything I try, I like to stop and ask three specific questions: “How does it look? How does it crow? How does it play?” Just making a mental note of these three things each time helps enormously, even if (especially if) I just made the reed worse.

Additionally, I like to keep a notebook with information on every reed I make. I number my staples so that I can write down any measurements I tried, anything unusual about the reed, and my overall impressions. This helps with the first three numbers above and provides me with a sort of lifeline so that I don’t go down a rabbit-hole of experiments without finding my way out. It also provides a small boost of self-esteem when I can open the notebook and think, “Wow, I’ve made a lot of reeds!”

Finally, trying something new on only one reed simply isn’t enough. Each piece of cane is different, so there is no way to identify a trend by working on one reed. Try everything a few times before deciding it works or doesn’t work for you.

Take new ideas from friends and colleagues when you get it. We all play a little differently, and we all want something different from our reeds, but you never know. Maybe it’ll work for you. Experiment whenever you can, just do it thoughtfully so you can get as much out of it as possible.