Guest Article: Cane or Synthetic Reeds? Why Not Both?

This RMS guest article is written by Jordyn Krause, a clarinetist in her sophomore year at Northwestern University.


There are a number of synthetic clarinet reeds on the market today, with the forerunner of the industry being the Légère reed.  These are made from polypropylene, a material that simulates the response and behavior of cane without variation due to weather, moisture, and other environmental factors.  Synthetic reeds are cut from Légère’s own polypropylene mixture using computer-controlled machines to ensure accuracy.

A colleague once told me that the moment he made the switch to Légère reeds was the moment he began to improve more rapidly.  Since he wasn’t spending so much time working on reeds, he was able to focus that time on technique and saw rapid improvement because of it.  This testament was at the forefront of my mind when choosing to try synthetic reeds. If these reeds could remove a barrier that would otherwise slow my improvement, why shouldn’t I switch?

Because Légère reeds are convenient to use, it is easy to overlook their inconsistencies.  Although each reed remains relatively consistent throughout its lifespan, each reed of the same strength can vary immensely.  They tend to be properly balanced, but I and my colleagues who have Légère experience have found that a reed that is the appropriate strength for the player is often unbalanced vertically, meaning that the tip is too hard or too soft compared to the heart of the reed.  To fix this, I have seen players place a small rectangle of tape upright in the center of the vamp.  This creates enough extra support and stiffness for a reed that was previously a bit too light.

In terms of a Légère synthetic reed’s advantages over cane, there are quite a few: Légère’s never need to be moistened, the reeds will last a player much longer, especially if in a rotation, they are unaffected by changes in humidity, and are much more reliable overall from day to day.

 Cane, however, holds advantages as well. It is extremely customizable, meaning reeds can be personally tailored to all sorts of performance situations. Because of this and because a player will purchase many more reeds at a time than if they purchased synthetics, it can be argued that the performer who uses cane reeds has a wider palette of colors, response, strength, and projection to choose from.

I concede that almost all of the advantages of cane reeds mentioned can be achieved with synthetics, perhaps with more effort.  However, many players have a difficult time adjusting Légère reeds, and thus are frustrated that they cannot customize their reeds as precisely as with cane.

Today, we are offered a wide array of equipment to “facilitate” our playing. Some of this, although shiny and pretty, may just make the wallet lighter.  However, some of these items, technologies, or simplifications may really make a noticeable difference in a person’s playing, whether just to their ears or the ears of the audience.  Few things in the instrumental music world causes as much controversy as equipment, but the amount of choice we have today in our own unique sounds is unparalleled and should be appreciated.


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