Normal reed life can vary tremendously. A professional, handmade bassoon or oboe reed lasts anywhere from five seconds to a month, maybe longer.
Five seconds?! I’ve seen plenty of students carelessly remove reeds from containers or cases only to drop them, chip the corners on their teeth, leave the reed on the instrument at break, remove from the case by the tips, etc. Instant crack/chip/destroyed reed.
Aside from catastrophic damage, a well-adjusted reed will go through three distinct phases: break-in, playing life, and deterioration. Many reeds can be ‘rested’ for a time (days, weeks, months, etc.) and will return to playing life, but the cycle becomes shorter with each repetition.
For the best results, start out with an excellent handmade reed. Check out Tiger Reeds — they’re not ‘cheap’; they’re excellent value.
Avoid machine-made, mass produced 2×4, buzzy monstrosities — check out the reed options and try one! Visit the Reeds page to purchase.
Reed life cycle:
- During break-in, your reed will be stiff, the tip will be too open, and it will tend to play too loudly and slightly flat. For best results, soak (in water) and dry the reed many times, adjust the blades more shut (sometimes aggressively), and play the reed as in-tune as you can.
- During playing life, keep the reed dry when not being played. Grasp the reed by anything but the blades unless adjusting it. Enjoy it!
- As the reed deteriorates, it will become unstable and dull. Some reeds close up and go sharp, while others become flabby and won’t respond. The cane begins to break down, producing a duller, less resonant tone. Reeds made with softer cane suffer shorter playing life and deteriorate faster than hard cane. Blackish mold is a very bad sign; your reed is being devoured by mouth bacteria — store it drier (i.e. not in a tightly-sealed plastic container).
Extend your reed life:
- Soak your reed in water as often as possible.
- Store your reed in a hard-sided reed case with a secure latch and plenty of air holes.
- Grasp your reed by the non-playing surfaces — string, wires, cork — but never by the blades unless adjusting it — including inserting/removing the reed from the case!
- Brush/floss your teeth and drink water — dirty mouth = dirty reed.
- Be mindful of your reed’s location at all times — never leave your reed on your instrument during breaks or when resting. Your mouth and the reed case are safe places to hold your reed in the interim.
- Keep your reed adjusted. A happy player = less reed biting!
To adjust your reed’s opening, you’ll find excellent tips in “Reed Tip #7 — How do I break-in my reed?” and “Reed Tip #5 — How and why do I adjust bassoon reed wires?”
As a last resort, you can try reviving the reed’s fibers with a soak in hydrogen peroxide, but only one treatment is recommended, and the reed will deteriorate faster (H2O2 breaks down cane as well), but it can work magic in a pinch. Learn about the technique by reading Reed Tip #1 – H2O2.
Continue soaking the reed in water more frequently than saliva. Once the reed refuses to revitalize, discard it.
Do you have a puzzling bassoon or oboe reed question?
Ask the reedmaker and he’ll make a post about it!