Saxophone reeds perform better when soft. Hard reeds won't vibrate properly, and vibration is integral to a saxophone's sound delivery. For this reason, saxophone players are encouraged to wet their reeds, though sometimes that isn't enough.
Below is a summary of how to soften a saxophone reed using different methods:
- The first technique consists of soaking the reed for 4 minutes at least.
- A second technique would have you use 400 grit sandpaper to remove a bit of cane above the bark, near the tip and the underside.
- For the third technique, you could shave the vamp using a razor blade or a precision knife.
In this article, we'll be taking a closer look at these reed softening techniques, but first, we'll go over a few preliminary thoughts.
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Why Is It Important To Soften A Saxophone's Reed?
Going back to the initial assessment, hardened reeds can't vibrate adequately. If you embed a hard reed on your horn, it becomes unresponsive, and you'll be compelled to force more air inside in order to produce notes.
Reeds, particularly those of natural origin, are pieces of organic material that derive from a type of grass with a wooden-like cellular structure. When these reeds are dried out, they become overly hard and stiff, which is why they ought to be soaked or wetted before use, especially when they're just being unboxed.
Related article: Are Harder Reeds Better Than Softer Reeds? (Woodwinds)
As the reeds soften, the fibres are capable of transferring vibrational energy within the entire inner structure of the cane, which would, in turn, elicit the necessary air movements so that the horn can produce its audible notes. Air would also be able to penetrate through those same fibres.
For this purpose, water and other similar fluids can soften the bonds between the fibres, allowing for more space so that air can get through. In addition, the water accumulated inside the Xylem or tubules may also aid in motion energy transfer throughout the rest of the reed's body.
How To Soften A Hardened Reed
To soften a hardened reed, you could take the following measures:
Soak The Reed
Normally, new reeds are at their hardest and should be allowed to soak in fresh water or mouthwash for around 5 to 20 minutes in order to break in. Notwithstanding, If a used reed gets too hard and unplayable, you wouldn't want to leave it immersed for such a long time out of fear of waterlogging.
Four minutes should be enough soaking time, but do not exceed the 15-minute mark. A waterlogged reed is tricky to fix, and, in some instances, the damages that ensue from waterlogging are irreversible as you could severely compromise the bonds between the fibres.
As far as using saliva, you would be reminded that saliva attracts bacteria and fungi to your reed much faster than water would. Mouthwash is probably the best type of fluid you could use, as it's effective at killing any lingering bacteria transferred from your mouth and granting a pleasant flavour and scent.
Shave/Sand The Reed
If soaking the reed is not enough, you would have to resort to “riskier” measures. They are riskier because they essentially involve removing volume from the cane, which is irreversible.
The logic behind this technique is that, as certain key parts of the reed are thinned out, the cane attains more flexibility. Often, the problem is that the bark (the fattest portion of the reed) is too thick and could need a little fine-tuning job so that there's less volume and mass to move.
The vamp can also be slightly reduced for this end, but, since it's the most delicate part of the reed, it should be the last one to address.
Finally, the underside may be sanded to remove rough spots and grooves. A grooved underside could prompt a reed to behave erratically and produce tonal inconsistencies.
Sanding The Bark
As mentioned in the answer above, the zone around the bark may be reduced using 400 grit sandpaper. The idea is to decrease its volume while maintaining its form factor.
You would be sanding above the stock and below the tip. Try removing just a tiny bit of cane at a time so that you may perform more controlled testing.
If you remove too much, you'll risk a weakened reed, and the effect would be similar to that of a hardened reed. The difference is that, under this circumstance, the vibration frequency will be high, albeit not powerful enough to push the air column forward and generate a strong rebound.
Shaving The Vamp
The vamp necessitates precision-laden care, for it's arguably the thinnest side of the reed, and you wouldn't want it to break or crack.
Also, you need to pay close attention to the heart's shape. The “heart” should be visible when placing the vamp against a light source. You'll identify it as a triangle shade that has its top vertex towards the centermost point of the tip's edge and corresponds to the thickest part of the vamp.
You should not touch the heart but, rather, work around the corners. This will allow the reed to vibrate with enough flexibility and freedom while retaining its potency.
Here's how to proceed:
- Place the reed on a flat surface.
- Grab a piece of sandpaper, razor blade, or precision knife and rub it against the corners of the vamp at a 45º angle.
- Fine-tune the sides with the sharpest edge of the tool you're utilizing.
Sanding The Underside
Sanding the underside is probably the easiest cane-removal operation on the list.
The procedure can be described as follows:
- Place a piece of sandpaper on a flat surface, with the grit facing up.
- Then, rub the underside of the reed on the grit in a direction parallel to the reed's length.
You could also do this with a razor blade, though sandpaper is usually safer.