Dec 26, 2012

A Method for Evaluating Reed Cane

The December 2012 issue of The Clarinet (my favorite quarterly) has an interesting article by Michael J. Montague and Tina Ward: "Reeds: Good or Bad? It's in the Cane - An Inside View of Arundo Donax L." The article describes a method of evaluating reed cane by magnifying a cut cross-section of a reed or a piece of cane, and examining its visual characteristics.

All reed players dream the impossible dream of always having wonderful reeds to play on, so this is potentially valuable information for us!

If you hold a reed up to the light, you will see "fibers" of darker material running lengthwise. These are "vascular bundles." Each one is a sheath ("fiber ring") containing tubes that carried water and nutrients when the cane was a living plant. The butt end of a reed is a cut cross-section of the cane. By sanding and polishing this surface, one can see (with a magnifier) a cross-section of every fiber ring. According to Montague, unbroken rings make for good cane, while a high proportion of broken rings would signify cane with poor potential. Anyone can perform this examination, using a glass surface, sandpaper, and a 40x magnifying lens.

See this article by Marilyn Veselak for a picture of a clarinet reed cross-section, showing the fiber rings.

Montague cites two previous scientific studies that found a correlation between intact fiber rings and cane quality ("good reeds"); one of this article's contributions is the "anyone-can-do-it" method of evaluating cane.

Montague notes that after examining three boxes of Vandoren V12 clarinet reeds (2.5, 3.5, and 5+), he discovered that "softer reeds have more discontinuous rings. The average was 17.4%, 10.9%, and 3.9%, respectively, for strengths 2.5, 3.5, and 5+." Thus, if one uses commercial reeds, it might be better to start with a stiffer strength - which would give better odds of quality cane - and then adjust the reed to one's preference.

Or by taking a few minutes to examine the reeds, one could eliminate those with poor potential (i.e., those with discontinuous, or broken rings).

I haven't worked with this method yet.

As the article notes, commercial reeds are apparently all cut with the same machines, to the same proportions, regardless of strength. They are then graded for flexibility ("hardness"), and boxed accordingly. Montague states that "hardness is a property of the cane itself." My own impression is that harder reeds tend to have thicker fiber rings; the fiber rings (and the bark) are the hardest components of the cane.

Over the last few years, I've been trying to develop my reed-adjusting skills, and it's going well. I've improved my percentage of playable reeds considerably. While I've been working on single reeds of all sizes, I've put the most time in on tenor sax reeds. The tenor mouthpiece I've been using is a Jody Jazz 8*. It blows much more easily than than the 8* designation would suggest, for whatever reason. To find reeds that work with this setup, I usually start with a batch of Vandoren Java 2.5 or 3 reeds, then put them through a 4- or 5- day adjustment procedure (see this article). Starting with harder reeds than that has not worked well - when I thin a hard reed as much as is necessary to make it playable on this setup, the tone suffers. I don't think that starting with #5 reeds would work for me. I'd say that more factors are at work than just thick, or continuous, fiber rings.

But I'll certainly buy myself a magnifier, get out the sandpaper, and check out this method. I'll report back.

This article is not accessible online. If you are interested in joining the ICA and receiving The Clarinet, here is the link. Members can access back issues.

And here is an absolutely terrific article on cane, by James Kopp. It's aimed at bassoonists, but has info relevant to all reed players; includes another fiber ring closeup.

Update: I got the magnifier and worked with it a bit; here's my report.

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