Goldilocks would have made a discerning clarinet player: like every successful clarinetist she knew not to settle when it wasn’t just right.
Is there one recipe for a reed strength that is just right? In short: no. This is largely subjective and the formula will vary from player to player. However, the same principles remain true: aim to match the player’s mouthpiece and natural air support to a reed strength that produces a clear, easy, and even sound.
Here are some basic reference points to guide you to your own Goldilocks moment.
Players generally start on a soft reed due to its ease of playability. Most will outgrow this strength as they develop other fundamental skills, such as proper embouchure physique and air support.
Attuned aural perception is key to spotting a soft reed. Most noticeable is a shrill, honky tone that tends to be pitched flat no matter how warmed up the instrument is. This distortion of sound is most noticeable in the altissimo register. This reed will feel very easy to play, but at the expense of just about everything else. Further, articulation will sound/feel uncontrolled and the slightest touch can result in a sound explosion.
Key Indications: perpetual flat pitch; buzzy, shrill, honky tone; wild feel and sound to articulation.
The Fix: Go up to the next ½ strength harder. For example, if your reed is a 2.5, try a 3.0.
True or False: a harder reed means you’re a better player. FALSE! Even the best of us (read: myself) have fallen for this. It is often necessary to move to a harder reed, but how do you distinguish between the normal adaptation curve and a poor fit?
In moving up to a harder reed, it is common to experience a noticeable change in resistance the first few practice sessions. When it is an appropriate fit, the player adjusts to this change within a few days.
When the reed is indeed too hard, producing a sound will feel physically difficult even for the best players. This improper fit creates an imbalance of back pressure that is overcome only by compensating the delicate fundamental structure necessary for fine playing: biting, overblowing or using too much tongue to articulate. The result is a stuffy, fuzzy tone in most registers, with the altissimo register sounding the most controlled. Articulation will be heavy and unclear, often sounding stuffy and labored.
Key Indications: extreme sharpness of pitch; difficult to produce a sound; stuffy or muffled tone; heavy or stuffy articulation.
The Fix: Try a ½ strength softer. For example: if you’re on a 3.5+, compare to a 3.5.
Then there’s the Goldilocks moment: you affix a reed to the mouthpiece, set your embouchure, and blow air through the horn. The reed responds easily, but maintains a clear sound. There is a small amount of resistance, but this is easily overcome with air support. Tone isn’t distorted in any of the registers or by articulating.
When these characteristics are present, you have found the proper reed strength! Clarinetists should seek a reed whose strength (resistance) matches that of the player's air support, embouchure control and mouthpiece. The result: tonal control and responsive articulation throughout the full range of the instrument.
Key Indications: easy to produce sound; focused tone across registers; even, clear articulation.
The Fix: None at this time. For best results, rotate reeds after 30 - 45 minutes of playing each day. Note that advancing players may eventually need to move to a harder reed, and that changing mouthpieces may require a different reed strength.
Goldilocks found her own just right through trial and error; finding your own reed strength is much the same. Remember that no piece of equipment is designed to be one-size-fits-all and there is great value in discovering what works for you. Trust that if it sounds good and feels good to you, it is indeed just right.