Unopened reeds hardly ever expire when in the box, but once they're unboxed and out in the open, we can expect their performance to worsen progressively until they're no longer able to serve their purpose.
How do we know when to stop using a reed? Reeds should be replaced every time you notice that they start losing their capacity to deliver a resonant sound or don't have much resistance to the air you blow (leading to a weak output). As a rule of thumb, a used reed should be replaced every two to four weeks, regardless of playing frequency.
In this article, we'll be delving into various aspects related to reed usage and their expiry process. We'll also investigate the telltale signs that a reed is past its prime.
What Are Reeds?
Reeds go through an entropic process in the same manner as other things in nature. However, in order to understand what makes a reed expire, we should know exactly what a reed is.
If you have ever played an oboe, saxophone, or clarinet, you may already know that they sport a piece (or two pieces) of cane-like material on the spot where the mouth is placed, and wherein air is blown. These pieces are called reeds.
Reeds are traditionally made out of a type of grass with a wood-like composition. They mostly come from canes or bamboos, though in recent times, you'll find some manufactured out of synthetic material that emulates the properties and consistency of cane.
These synthetic reeds tend to perform more uniformly due to the fact that they don't come from organic beings. On the other hand, natural reeds are more hit-and-miss since no two reeds are the same, so even reeds produced in the same manufacturing session could differ greatly in their internal structure.
Single Reeds Vs. Double Reeds
Single reeds are simple slabs that are attached to a mouthpiece with a ligature. The reed would vibrate against the mouthpiece's upper lip to propel the air we blow. Clarinets were the earliest examples of single-reed woodwinds and were the only instruments of this type until the saxophone was invented.
On the other hand, double reeds are composed of two reed slabs tied together with a short aperture between them. When the player blows, both reeds vibrate simultaneously to create the air column that travels across the bore. Double reeds can be found in more ancient instruments such as the oboe, the cor anglais (English horn), and the bassoon.
What Affects Reed Performance?
Reeds are sensitive to various external and internal factors.
External factors include relative humidity, the mouthpiece's dimensions, and the reed's positioning in relation to the mouthpiece.
But, more importantly, several internal factors come into play when benchmarking a reed's performance, such as its cellular structure, hardness, and shape.
The hardness and shape are aspects that could be modified to some degree. The cellular structure is basically the reed's constitution – the material it's made of – which cannot be altered.
Hardness could be modified in a myriad of ways. For example, we can loosen the tight bond between the fibres by soaking the reed. In contrast, shaving/sanding reduces the amount of mass that has to vibrate, effectively making the reed more flexible and malleable. This also alters the appearance of the reed, if only by negligible levels.
Depending on the type of tone desired, a woodwind player may opt for softer or harder reeds, though reeds should not be hard to the point in which they wouldn't be capable of vibrating but, rather, they should be softened to a degree. A reed that's too soft would also lose its capacity to vibrate since the fibres lose their bondage, and vibration motion is not correctly transmitted across the internal structure of the reed.
Do Reeds Have Expiry Dates?
Reed manufacturers often don't specify a “best by” date for the reeds they produce.
Many factors come into play when judging how a reed's entropic process is carried out. If a reed is stored outside the box in a place with high relative humidity, it will experience a much faster degradation. In contrast, a reed stored in its pack and situated in a storage space with optimal moisture levels will naturally have higher chances of preservation.
This also varies depending on the brand. A Vandoren reed that has not been retrieved from its humidity-controlled wrapping could probably last decades in good conditions. It's not exposed to the same factors that normally intervene in a reed's degradation process, such as bacterial or fungal activity, warping, or waterlogging.
A reed that's not used but is left at the mercy of the elements might not be as fortunate, peculiarly if under incorrect humidity levels, for they could be at risk of deforming (if too dry) or drawing destructive mould to their surface (if too humid).
If the reed was played, it was already contaminated with mucus and bacterial content from your saliva, which, in turn, contributes to its decay, but perhaps not in a noticeable way. If the reed were stored while still wet, it would ultimately attract mould, in which case its performance will take a sizable toll.
To learn more about reeds and mould, check out my article Why Is My Woodwind Reed Turning Black?
How Long Do Used Reeds Last?
With frequent use, reeds should last you from two to four weeks at most, though there are several variables to factor into this.
Frequently used reeds tend to be more exposed to moisture due to the fact that they're constantly in contact with water vapour from our breath and our saliva. As this happens, the reed progressively weakens and becomes non-responsive.
Also, reeds are porous, so the air we force on them will also get to the fibres and deform them, eventually making your reed lose consistency.
All of this is especially true if you haven't acquired the habit of cycling through your reeds. Cycling through reeds is extremely important if you wish to preserve them for longer periods. This is because you allow them some breathing room to be able to recover from use. By doing this, you could extend their lifespan considerably.
If you're one of those players who practice the instrument for many hours a day, you ought to swap your reeds frequently so that each reed is not used for two days in a row. That way, they should hold their own for more than a month. If you're short on time for practice and only rehearse for a few hours per week, your reeds would evidently last a lot longer (for three or four months on average).
Needless to say, the rate at which your reeds may expire depends on many other variables, such as the storage conditions and playing habits. To illustrate, if you're used to playing higher notes, you'll be forcing your reed considerably more than if you only played at the lower ranges.
Also, if you expose your reed to long soaking sessions, the reed gets waterlogged. A waterlogged reed can theoretically be salvaged, but you will undoubtedly reduce its lifespan significantly regardless.
Lastly, all of this is only in relation to natural reeds. Synthetic reeds, by contrast, last much longer, partly because of their artificial nature but also because they don't need to get wet before use, so frequent changes in humidity will not be a major source of concern. Légère reeds, for example, can last a good 12 months in optimal conditions.
For more info on synthetic reeds, check out my article How Long Do Synthetic Saxophone Reeds Last?
How To Tell A Reed Has Expired
As said earlier, frequently used reeds will last a maximum of four weeks if they're not allowed to rest at regular intervals or up to four months if consistently alternated with other reeds.
Despite the expiry times just mentioned, the reeds will not immediately turn unresponsive. At times, you will not notice much of a difference when playing on lower notes.
However, you could start detecting trouble when aiming for a higher range, which is probably the first worrying signal. This is because the reed will not oscillate with the same frequency as before, owing to lower energy transmission.
The tone of your woodwind will also turn dull, muted, or with an unpleasant buzz effect, in addition to the struggles you'll experience when attempting to use a wide dynamic range.
Furthermore, the notes will lean towards the flat side, which means that you will be out of tune with respect to the other instruments. This is particularly perceptible if you play with a band or with another instrumentalist.
The feel of the reed will likewise be noticeably too soft and soggy. This feel is sometimes difficult to describe, but with enough experience, you'll be able to detect whenever a reed has expired just by touching it with your tongue.
These are all telltale signs that your reed is beyond saving and must be disposed of.