Putting On a Clarinet Reed (with 30 Beginners)

If you want to hear a full 15 minute discussion on this topic, listen to this podcast that talks through this in even more detail. (All podcasts can be found in iTunes under Crossing the Break beginning in Saturday, July 16.)

Putting on a clarinet reed may seem very basic on the surface, but when you’re trying to teach 30 eleven-year-olds to do it, problems often arise. You’ll want to know exactly how you plan to teach it and what to say before you walk in the band hall. 

And if you’re teaching in a class with all the instruments together, it is even more important you know how to precisely and efficiently teach this concept.

Otherwise, chaos can quickly ensue…

I remember my first year to teach. I was in Plano, TX and had about 30 wonderful, smart, eager 6th graders in my beginning clarinet class. It took me an entire 45 minute class period to teach them to put on the reed. 45 minutes! I remember my frustration with that because I didn’t expect it to be anything I had to think about teaching. I figured it would be intuitive to the kids and would take 5-10 minutes max.

Apparently not. 

Now, it didn’t help that after they had it on, I made them take it back off and do it again to be sure they were really getting it.  But, I digress.

Put cases on the floor. Be sure latches open up.
Have them put a reed in their mouth while they assemble the mp/bar.
Be sure they don’t just put the very tip in – it should look like this…
Putting on a clarinet reed

Remind them how expensive a mouthpiece is and not to drop it.
They will need to locate cork grease and put it on the mouthpiece cork.
Tell them that cork grease  is NOT chapstick. (yes, really – you have to tell them)
New mouthpieces often have a really tight fit – be ready to help them.

Putting the ligature on the mouthpiece.
Be sure the bigger opening on the ligature goes on the bottom.
Be sure the screws are on the right.  (repeat, repeat, repeat)
Have them raise their right hand – that’s the side the screws should be on.

Putting on the reed:
Have them slide the reed DOWN from the top. I have them all do it with the same hand for uniformity. The left hand hand is holding the ligature up slightly so the reed can be adjusted and the right hand is holding the reed.  I have them raise their right hand and lower the reed down between the facing of the mouthpiece and the ligature. Right before they slip it in tell them to be sure that the flat side of the reed (the part with the writing on it) is against the mouthpiece. Tell them that when it’s on they should not see writing on the reed they should see the shiny side under the ligature.

Putting on a clarinet reed

Lining it up:
Tell them to line up the Tip of the reed, tip of the mouthpiece. They should do this by wiggling the base of the reed, or maybe the sides by the heart, but NEVER the tip. Tell them they should never touch the tip of the reed. They should check alignment with their eyes, not their finger.
Putting on a clarinet reed

Once it’s in place they pull the ligature down to where it is between the guidelines – then they may need to readjust the reed. Then they lightly tighten the ligature.  (Don’t let them crank it too hard – the reed needs to vibrate) 


How to put on a clarinet reed
It’s hard to tell in the picture, but in real life when you put your hand behind it, it is easier to see the thin line of black/think line of reed.

Putting a reed on a mouthpiece
Thin line of black
Putting a reed on a mouthpiece
Thin line of reed

Ignore the weird lines on the mouthpiece patch – lights are refelcting off it. It’s hard to tell in this picture, but the think line of reed is about the same as the thin line of black in the picture above. I couldn’t seem to make it look that way in the picture.

4 things to check for reed placement:

  1. Line of Black/line of Reed – Have them hold their hand behind the mouthpiece like it’s a candle they are shielding and hold it up to eye level. When they look at the reed, they should see a very thin line of black mouthpiece tip. When they turn it around and look at the mouthpiece side, they should see a thin line of reed. I tell them it’s an optical illusion and that’s how they know it’s in the right spot.
  2. Look at the tip and base of the reed.  Be sure it’s perfectly centered.  Sometimes it looks fairly straight at the top (especially to a kid) but when you look at the bottom you see it’s not.
  3. Be sure ligature screws are on the right.  Kids want to make theirs look like their neighbors and sometimes that makes them switch it.
  4. Be sure the ligature is between the guide lines and not too tight.

An aside:
I recently heard someone I respect very much recommend having the reed slightly higher where you don’t see sliver of black, but I always say both because it seems to work for me. He also recommended lining up the reed first and sliding the ligature over, but I’ve seen too many reeds get chipped with a ligature to recommend that for young players. He had very valid reasons for both of his preferences. I mention this to say that even with putting on a reed, there’s more than one way to do it. My way is not the only way, but it has been successful for me.

It won’t be perfect the first day! Don’t have them take if off and do it again (like I did). They will put on a reed every day for the rest of their clarinet playing life. For the first couple weeks I still have them put it on as a group, going over the steps and the 4 points to check.

  1. Line of black/line of silver
  2. Center the tip and base of the reed. 
  3. Ligature screws are on the right. 
  4. Ligature is within the guidelines on the mouthpiece.

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Teaching Clarinet