Dr. Brian Utley

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"Breaking In" New Reeds

by Dr. Brian R. Utley
Assistant Professor of Music
SFA School of Music
[email protected]


Brand new reeds should be treated carefully during their first few playings in order for them to perform well for a long period of time. While the temptation to simply “wet the reed and go” is there, a more deliberate breaking-in process will prove beneficial. This method is very simple yet somewhat time-consuming, but it has continued to be successful for me and my students for many years.

(Let me also preface this by saying that I am not a heavy “reed-worker;” I do very little sanding, scraping, etc. on the saxophone reed. I am not opposed to it and many of my colleagues in the saxophone world spend lots of time working on reeds; however, I personally do not do it. So, if you are looking for tips about reed alteration, this is not the place!)

Here is my step-by-step process for breaking in new reeds:

    1. Wet the reed well, either in your mouth or in a glass of water.

    2. Play the reed for no more than one minute. Play some long tones, scales, arpeggios, etc. at moderate dynamic levels. Do not do anything “out of the ordinary” such as altissimo, extended techniques, etc. Place a mark on the butt end of the reed so you will know you have played it once. Do not make a decision on whether you like the reed or not yet…it will change by the next time you play it!

    3. Allow the reed to dry completely in some sort of a reed storage container. This usually takes several hours. It is generally best to wait until the next day.

    4. Repeat step number 2, increasing the playing time to two minutes. Allow to dry again (repeat step 3). Be sure to mark the reed again to keep track of the number of times you have played it.

    5. Repeat steps 2 and 3 again, increasing the playing time on the reed each time by a minute or two. Do this until you have played on the reed a total of four times.

    6. Now, you can decide whether to keep it in your “rotation” or not.

Rationale behind this method: Reeds change a great deal within the first few playings, and it is important for them to get accustomed to the process of getting wet and drying out. By breaking the reed in gradually, the change the reed will undergo from one playing to the next will not be as drastic. For example, a brand new reed may feel golden, and thus you want to play on it for a while. You end up playing on the reed for an entire concert, practice session, etc., and you go back to the same reed the next day and it plays completely differently. It may have even begun changing while you were playing on it the first time! This is what I call “playing the reed out.” If you had played on it only briefly the first time, it is more likely that the reed will respond in a similar way the next time, and the next, etc. Plus, a slower break-in process will prolong the life of the reed since it is not “played out” so close to the beginning of its life.

Postscript: If I have played the reed four times and still decide I do not like it, I do NOT throw it away! I put it in its plastic case (the one in which it came), write the date and perhaps a brief comment or two about the reed on it, and put it in my reed drawer. I will periodically go back to those reeds and will find some gems! Lots of changes take place over time: the reed itself may change, your mouthpiece may slightly change, your embouchure may have undergone some alterations, and so on. Regardless, I have reeds over five years old in my drawer that I will save until I play on them! Why spend all that money to throw away the reeds that you do not like? I only throw the reed away once its life span has expired.



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