Let it Sound Bad
I’ve noticed something when I work with students: I often sound worse than they do when I play on their reeds. Is it because I’m not used to playing on them? To a certain extent, maybe, but I can usually adjust pretty well after playing a few notes. Is it because our instruments are that different? Not usually. No, the primary reason is that I’m willing to let the reed sound bad when I’m sitting at the reed desk.
To be clear, I never, under any circumstances, try to sound bad. But when I’m working on a reed, I want to find its limitations, and that requires the willingness to go beyond them. Very often, people place relatively few demands on their reeds when working on them: Does it have a palatable sound? Sure. Does it play basically in tune at a mezzo-something dynamic? More or less. (Is the tuner on? Not always…)*
I’m certainly not discounting the importance of those qualities, but the fact is, most reeds can be made to meet those criteria. Here’s what I want to know: Does a reed respond at the extreme soft end of the dynamic range? Does the tenor register tend to be flat? Does the sound spread at the loud end of the dynamic range? Can it taper a note in tune?
To be fair, we can usually force an OK reed to do these things to some degree. But that’s not good enough. The reed has to meet us halfway, to play well enough that we don’t have to sweat through every moderately-uncomfortable entrance. When we’re in the clutches of performance anxiety and we might crash and burn, we often don’t have the physical or mental capacity to coax a so-so reed into doing a better than so-so job.
So, if a reed wants to stop responding, I let it stop responding. If it wants to play sharp, I let it play sharp. (This, incidentally, is very difficult to do, since we’re so conditioned to make the needle on the tuner go dead center.) Then, having ascertained the reed’s shortcomings, I work on it until either it improves or I conclude that I want that reed out of my life.
In spite of all this, the perfect reed remains elusive (or, more likely, illusive). No reed will easily do everything we want it to do. Every reed has limitations. Therefore, on a day-to-day basis, we choose the reed that is best-suited to the specific demands of what we're playing. Having done that, it becomes our duty to play right up to its limits, but no further, when we’re playing with and for others. Put another way, when others are depending on us to play well, we have the help the reed sound good by hiding its limitations.
To do this, we must cultivate not just the ability to assess what a reed will do on a particular day, but the experience and presence of mind to adjust our playing accordingly. Ideally, in the sometimes-terrifying moments littered throughout the repertoire, there must be an overlap between what we can do to help the reed and what the reed can do to help us. We have to be able to trust in both our practice and in our unrelentingly honest work at the reed desk to help carry us through.
*I always turn my tuner on before I start working on a reed. Sometimes I’ll like the way a reed feels and would rather stay ignorant than find out that it plays out of tune. We have to know if a reed is objectively out of tune, and if it is, we have to address it. It’s a small mind game that I play with myself, but an important one.