It’s the start of the new school year and a lot of new students are joining band for the first time. Some students choose to rent their instruments and some choose to purchase, but every parent of a woodwind player faces the question: What reeds do I have to buy?
Whether your student plays saxophone or clarinet, they are usually required to have reeds on the first day of band, and most parents do not know what they need to buy in terms of brand or strength. This is completely normal for beginning band parents. Usually, your local music store will have an idea of what the teachers in the area are expecting their students to walk in with on the first day of band (or lessons) and will be able to help you—but what do the teachers’ preferences mean?
There are different schools of thought on what reeds to start a beginning single woodwind player. Usually, the brand of choice is the Rico by D’Addario Orange Box, but another great choice is the Juno by Vandoren, even the Vandoren Blue Box Traditional are great for beginner students. Each reed is manufactured to help students perform at their best from the moment they start playing, giving them confidence in their sound and a good tone.
In terms of what strength they should start on, this is where the different schools of thought are applied. Some teachers believe that starting a student out on a softer reed, meaning a lower number of reed (2.0 or 2.5 strength) is better to give them an easier response when they first start playing; other teachers believe starting on a harder read, meaning a higher number reed (2.5 or 3.0 strength) will help to build students’ air support early on, although may take them some time to get a good sound out of the instrument. This decision is based solely on the teacher’s philosophy.
A lot of teachers prefer to start their students on softer reeds because they are easier to play. It gives students some confidence because they can get sound out of their instrument right away rather than having to work at it a little bit with a harder reed. This can sometimes lead to them having some air support issues later in their playing career, but is not statistically significant as they will move through reed strengths faster as they progress. The key is to make sure the students move up in reed strength as their embouchure and air support get stronger over time. Students are unable to continue their development if they stay on softer reeds because the reed cannot support their sound, leading to a thinner sound and occasional squeaks.
Teachers that prefer to start their students on harder reeds do this to help the student build their air support and strengthen their embouchure, which is a key strength needed to continue in their musical endeavors. The harder reed may be more difficult for them to start out on, but it will push students to build up their air support through a stronger diaphragm, that will help them later on if they decide to continue with their instrument. Rather than having a student move up through reed strengths more quickly, they would have to work on focusing their air support longer before they can moving up. The downside to starting students out on harder reeds is that they may get frustrated because it’s more difficult for them to get a sound out of their instrument. They may also need to take more breaths trying to push the right amount of air to get the reed to vibrate.
Air support is important for reed players because it can help them focus their intonation, voicing, and other factors in their playing. Even with the students who start on softer reeds, they learn how to build up their air support as they move up through reed strengths. Every time a student moves up in a reed strength they have to relearn how to support their sound as they play.
As a reed player myself, I started on softer reeds and moved up through reed strengths without knowing how to control my air support, or really how to provide support to my sound. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college that I realized I had been playing on reeds that were too soft for what I needed, because I did not have that early development for my air support. This doesn’t mean that starting students out on softer reeds is negative; it really depends on the individual student and how they are able to learn how to use their air to support their sound. Personally, I would have benefited from starting on harder reeds to help develop my air support for later in my playing career, but this is not the case for every reed player.
From my experiences in retail, working closely with teachers from many school districts, it is interesting to see the different reeds and reed strengths that each teacher requires for their beginning students. I’ve worked with beginning band parents for a number of years and have had many parents ask questions as to why their student’s teachers require certain products. Some parents ask questions because they aren’t sure if they need it to start out, and others simply want to make sure they understand what goes into playing a musical instrument. This goes back to the different teaching philosophies regarding the strengths for beginners.
There is no right or wrong answer as to what reed strength a student starts on, just as there is no right or wrong answer as to what instrument a student starts to learn on. It all depends on the teacher they have when they start, and they develop in their own ways after that.
The other thing to consider is how reeds can differ between brands. Some teachers may require a strength from one brand but it may be listed as a harder or softer strength from another brand. This is just because reed brands are not made equal, which can have a lot to do with the different strands of cane species that each individual brand uses. I’ve found in my line of work that some teachers require specific brands that may be a harder reed than a different brand. That also comes down to preference from the teacher, especially if the teacher knows the difference between reed brands. This should be noted only because not all brands are equal in how they choose to differentiate reed strengths.
Bottom line, your beginning single reed player’s teacher has chosen what reed to start your student on because they have experience with what they believe works best. If you are unsure of what reed strength to use, ask your local music store as they will often have requests from schools in the surrounding area. Or, even better, touch base directly with your child’s teacher and see what they recommend.