Clarinet reeds are traditionally made of cane from a plant that makes a reed temporal in nature. What is the typical lifespan of a reed?
A clarinet reed can last between 1 and 6 months after thorough break-in and by rotating through at least 5 reeds at a time. Many clarinetists, however, find that about a third of the reeds they use don’t last beyond the break-in stage.
Some cane reeds (e.g. Vandoren reeds) tend to last longer than others (e.g. entry-level Rico reeds), although consistency is also a factor to consider.
Synthetic reeds also have a longer duration than cane reeds, though often at the expense of sound quality.
It is important to select the type of reed most suitable for the demands of your practice and performance level, and to implement a break-in process for each reed to extend its lifespan.
See also this post on Vandoren vs Rico reeds.
Do clarinet reeds go bad?
Clarinet reeds are considered to be bad when the reed is damaged in any way and/or no longer produces the proper sound.
Reeds made of cane can crack, split, and chip for multiple reasons. Oftentimes this damage occurs during the assembling of the instrument when placing the ligature over the reed and mouthpiece.
When a clarinet reed is bad the performance is not crisp. A bad reed causes frequent squeaks and loss of control.
Reeds do not go bad in the sense of expiring. From the factory, reeds are packed and sealed at proper humidity level for preservation.
How long do specific clarinet reeds last?
The longevity of a reed can vary by brand because of varying cuts. Rico reeds are typically American cut whereas Vandoren reeds are French cut.
The different cuts determine whether the top, bottoms, or sides are thicker. This thickness contributes to the longevity of the reed.
Rico reeds, for example, are not as thick as Vandoren reeds. These reeds are great for beginners and will last longest for these players who typically practice less.
Rico offers Plasticover reeds which are coated with plastic, creating a hybrid between cane and synthetic. The reeds have increased longevity which can be attributed to the plastic coats resistance to humidity and other factors that cause cane reeds to warp and split.
Legere synthetic reeds are another alternative to cane reeds. These reeds are not impacted by elements such as saliva and humidity.
Legere reeds come in several cuts and are designed to cater to a desired tone. These reeds last longer than cane reeds because they are not subject to chips, cracks and warps.
A single Legere reed can last three to four months. The biggest concern for some players is the quality of sound compared to cane reeds.
Vandoren reeds are the reed of choice for intermediate and professional players. The reeds are durable and last to meet the demands of practice and performance for professionals.
Vandoren manufactures several reed cuts for clarinetists. With proper rotation of several reeds at a time, these reeds last between four weeks to a few months.
How many times can you use a reed?
The amount of times a reed can be used is only limited to the reeds health. The reed can be played as long as it is not molded, chipped, or warped.
Each cane reed varies in durability because of the nature of the plant they are made from.
Some reeds do not survive the breaking in phase because the reed may be too hard or too soft to mold. In this case the reed will either have to be altered using a reed shaper or discarded.
How can you tell if a reed is bad?
If a reed is discolored and the wood is drastically two-toned, chances are high the reed is not well manufactured and will not be good.
If the structure of a reed is uneven, the reed is not a good reed.
Build up of black or green mold on a reed is a clear indicator that the reed is bad and must be discarded.
A reed that sounds harsh, loud, and bridle is not a good reed. This kind of reed is too thick to be broken in without physical shaping and altering of the reed.
How do I make my clarinet reed last longer?
The life of a clarinet reed can be extended with proper storage and maintenance.
A clarinet reed should be stowed in a case that allows breathability. A reed guard instead of the plastic reed case will allow reeds to dry quickly.
Never stow the mouthpiece with a reed attached.
Maintenance of a clarinet reed begins with the method used to moisten the reed. Consider using water as opposed to saliva to moisten the reed.
Saliva can vary in acidity which has the potential to break down a reed more rapidly. Dipping reeds in water to prepare them for playing can help prevent mold and breakdown from saliva.
After playing, be sure to dry reeds of any excess moisture to prevent mold.
Breaking in reeds
Taking the time to break in reeds can help increase longevity. A reed is broken in by gradually increasing the time spent playing on it.
It is best to break in several reeds in rotation. To break in a reed during a practice session, play on the read only for the warm-up portion of your practice.
Play on the reed for five minutes the first day. Enhance the amount of playing time on the reed by increments of five minutes for about four days.
Aim to break in four or five reeds simultaneously. Keeping five to seven reeds in rotation at a time helps to increase the lifespan of each reed.
Breaking in a reed prevents the reed from getting waterlogged.
Clarinet reeds made of cane vary in longevity based on the quality of the wood, style of the cut, as well as care and maintenance.
Synthetic reeds are a viable option for many and can provide several months of playing on a single reed.
Never play on a molded reed.
Rotating five to seven reeds at a time can increase the amount of time each reed last.
Consider using water to moisten reeds instead of saliva and always be sure to allow reeds to dry properly.
Taking the time to properly break in a reed can increase the amount of time the reed is playable.