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Top Three Inches of Reed Instruments

Top Three Inches of Reed Instruments

I have seen many students over the years purchase step-up or professional quality instruments while still in their school years. I can certainly understand the sentiment for doing this as the better instruments are just so much nicer to play. When you are spending many hours per week playing the instrument, it is a real treat to play a better quality horn.

I am always amazed though when I see students spending thousands of dollars on better horns, but still not considering the quality of the top three inches of the reed instrument. That would be the mouthpiece, the ligature, and the reeds.

I have often said that you can take a student model instrument and make it sound like it is worth thousands more by just getting a pro-quality mouthpiece, a decent ligature, and better reeds. The trouble is, the inverse is true as well. You can take a pro model clarinet and reduce its sound quality by playing on a student-quality mouthpiece, a crappy ligature, and entry-level reeds.

A pro instrument cannot turn a crappy sound from the mouthpiece into something that it is not. So, I always recommend starting with the top three inches and considering the horn later. That way, the student will always be pleased with the result despite the amount of money invested.

The first place to invest should be the best result for the money spent, and in my opinion, that is the ligature. The ligature is the metal clamp on the sax or clarinet that seals the reed against the mouthpiece and holds the reed in place. Manufacturers do not put decent ligatures into student model instruments as a way of keeping the price of the student model instruments affordable. Ligatures are also kind of a personal thing with many different styles that give people many options to select from.

The trouble with the student model ligatures is that when the screws are tightened, much of the force that is created squeezes the sides of the reed, instead of sealing the reed onto the mouthpiece. The result is that it can cause the reed to bow slightly from side to side, which allows leaks to form between the reed and the mouthpiece.

The solution is to change the ligature to one that defeats this effect. The Rovner ligature is one that I have long recommended, as it is very effective and still very affordable for students at the cost of only about one box of reeds. The Rovner ligature is made of vinyl and has one metal adjustment screw on the backside of the ligature. The screw should be placed opposite the reed on the back of the mouthpiece, and not next to the reed. Now when tightening up the Rovner ligature, the vinyl strap will convert the screw pressure into gentle even pressure on the mouthpiece without any side squeeze on the reed.

The best way to convince a student to step up their ligature is to have the students try it. Band teachers can keep a Rovner ligature on hand, and then just offer it to your students to try. Once they have played on something better, they will understand the benefits and work towards getting one.

Rovner ligatures have several variations as well, starting with dark, medium and light sounds. I have preferred the dark sound for school concert bands as many students already have a too-thin sound and this helps correct it. The Rovner also has the added benefit of gripping the mouthpiece better than the student model ligatures. I have seen many student metal ligatures slip off and no matter how they are adjusted little grip is provided. The Rovner fixes that problem because of the vinyl strap contacting the plastic mouthpiece which grips better.

Finally, there is an added benefit of the Rovner ligature that few people know about. Virtually all ligatures are made for right-handed people since about 80% of the population are right-handed. This means that the screws for all ligatures are made to be in the right hand when the ligature is positioned correctly and the player is facing the reed. Rotating a student model ligature around for a left- handed person may solve the handedness problem, but will create other problems of gaps in the ligature due to the way it is constructed.

The Rovner ligature, though, can be turned into a left-handed ligature by undoing the nut and screw and removing them completely. Then slide the two bars out from the ends of the vinyl strap and swap them the other way around. Reposition the screw and the nut, which should now be on the left-hand side of the ligature when the screw is placed on the backside of the mouthpiece and the student is facing the reed.

There are many other better ligatures of all sorts of types and styles. Professional musicians will spend substantial amounts of money on their ligatures when their livelihood depends on the sound that they create. But, for students, a Rovner ligature for about the cost of one box of reeds is a bargain that makes their instrument so much more enjoyable.

The next best investment students should make to improve their sound is that of a pro model mouthpiece. The only reason that I did not make this recommendation first is that a good mouthpiece will be 3-4 times the cost of a box of reeds or more. As such, students often do not do this change first, but it is certainly an important decision to achieve a better sound.

One of the biggest reasons to get away from the student model mouthpiece is that the face of the mouthpiece is often cut very flat on student mouthpieces. The face is the flat surface where the reed is held in place with the ligature. Manufacturers cut this face very flat for beginners because it allows students to achieve an almost immediate sound the first time they try the instrument. That is because the students do not need to bend the reed in very much with their embouchure, and so they get that early, easy sound.

The trouble is that this early sound will not have a great tone, nor will the student be able to play with a good projection. With such a flat face, if students blow harder to get more sound, the reed will easily close off and the student will get no sound at all. The unintended outcome is that a student model mouthpiece encourages students to play with a small sound and weak embouchure, and this can be very destructive to future development. While it may work on day one, in year two or three it is already holding back the student!

A pro model mouthpiece will have the reed face cut more open allowing for more air to pass through. This will create a larger sound but requires more effort from the student to bend in the reed. This also will help students develop a stronger embouchure, whereas the student mouthpieces tend to encourage students to NOT develop their embouchure.

Pro model mouthpieces also have a more open shape inside the mouthpiece. I am not an expert on reed mouthpieces, so if you are interested in the specifics of these parameters, you should contact a specialist on your instrument. In the beginning, though, most secondary school students would find a good improvement in a “middle-of-the-road” pro-quality mouthpiece that is cut to create a full rich tone. Contact a Tapestry specialist about this if you are interested.

Finally, a pro-quality mouthpiece is made of better materials than that used in student model mouthpieces. Usually, the student mouthpieces are made of plastic, whereas the pro mouthpieces are often made from a hard rubber which plays with a darker, richer, and more pleasant sound. Once again, teachers are encouraged to keep one sample in stock for students to try. Once they have played on it for a class, students will surely understand the benefit of improving that mouthpiece.

Finally, students should consider improving the quality of their reeds before they consider stepping up the instrument. Juno and Rico Royal reeds are excellent for beginners, but students should move away from them shortly after beginning and aim for something better. Vandoren is a standard brand for high school students, but there are many great things available beyond even those such as Zonda reeds. I encourage you to look back at the blog article titled “What Reed Strength Should Beginners Start On?” to read about a plan for the care and development of reeds. I am always amazed when I see students playing on great instruments while still playing on student model reeds.

The top three inches of a clarinet or sax can truly make a great sound, even on a student model instrument. Just stepping up the reeds, mouthpiece and ligature make an astounding difference that most students are surprised to hear. Despite my being a trumpet player, I always kept a student model clarinet that I could use as a demo instrument for my students. Then, I would add a Vandoren B45 mouthpiece, a Rovner Dark ligature, and Vandoren Classic 2 1⁄2 reeds. When I played this right after playing the same instrument with a student model mouthpiece, ligature and Rico Royal 2 1⁄2 reeds, students were amazed at the sound difference. Many then would want to try the better equipment for themselves.

Now here is an added suggestion for your best clarinet players. Before I retired, the clarinet that I had for a demo instrument was a Backun Alpha, which I consider to be the best student model instrument available anywhere. It is not significantly more expensive than the other student model instruments, but some notable changes make it a worthwhile investment for secondary school players. These include Backun’s improved key quality and strength, high overall build quality, and a unique ring that is cut into the inside of the bell of the clarinet. Even a trumpet player like me noodling on a clarinet can tell the difference going over the break with this instrument! For the small amount more as compared to other student model instruments, students that play on the Backun Alpha will just be so much more pleased for all their years of school music.

The bonus from Backun though is the wooden barrel and bell options that can be added to any clarinet. Backun Clarinets has acquired a substantial supply of exotic woods that they are using to cut these ultra-high-end additions for clarinet. On the Backun Alpha that I used as a demo clarinet, I added a Backun barrel made from Cocobolo wood that created a breathtaking sound, even coming from a trumpet player like me!

The cost of an added wooden barrel or bell is a fair bit more than the ligature at about a couple hundred dollars or more. Yet, this is far less than upgrading an entire instrument to pro-quality. Students that are just looking to improve the quality of sound even further could consider one of these amazing additions.

All of these options are worth the small added costs to improve playability and sound quality. Most can be done one at a time, and these also happen to be items that make wonderful birthday or Christmas presents! They should certainly be considered before replacing the horn for pro-quality, and then when that pro horn comes along, the upgraded “Top Three Inches” can be used on the new horn as well!

Ed Dumas, B.Ed., M.A.Ed.

 


 

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