A Guide to Moving Beginning Students to Step Up Reeds and Mouthpieces

Students begin saxophone and clarinet with all the hopes and dreams of mastering an instrument and becoming an important part of your organization. Everyone starts out the same but soon enough you begin to see separation between the “good” players and the “rest." But have you thought that maybe your second and third stand players may be struggling more with equipment than you realize? And if that’s true, more than likely, their practicing has tailed off because the struggle is more than they can bear. Here are some tips that could help all your woodwind players improve.

There are tell-tale indicators when a student is over-matched on their equipment or when it's time to move to better equipment.

There's more air than sound.

 Provided that the reed is not broken and the instrument is not leaking, when you hear more air than sound, the reed is too hard. This can be a combination of two factors. The strength of the reed vs. the size of the mouthpiece. The tip opening of  the mouthpiece and length of the facing will determine how hard the reed must be to contribute effectively to sound production.

Tip Opening Image

The tip opening...

is the distance between the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece. The larger this opening is, the more air it takes to vibrate the reed. If you’re putting students on larger tip openings, they may not be able to push enough air to get the reed going. You’ll hear air more than sound. 

The facing

is the length measured from where the reed leaves the mouthpiece to the tip. The longer the facing the more vibration the reed will make. Longer facings provide many students more opportunity to succeed because, depending on the size of the students mouth, jaw, etc, your students can take more or less mouthpiece into their mouth and find the right place for them. Shorter facing mouthpieces make this more difficult. Not having enough length in the facing creates more air than sound.


When young clarinetists who are producing a good sound begin to show intonation problems above the break and weeks of long tones and working over the break, result in no improvement, it’s highly likely a little larger mouthpiece or stronger reeds are in order. The simplest way is to first move your student up one half strength in their reeds. If that doesn’t help, have your educational representative bring you some mouthpieces that are both larger in the tip opening and with longer facings. It pays to have your student try a number of mouthpieces to see which one truly works with the clarinet, barrel, etc. At this point, one size definitely does not fit all.

Articulation and that "thunking" sound

When articulation slows or you hear a slapping of the tongue against the reed, there are two things you must address. The first is technique. For clarinetists, it is important that they use the tip of their tongue to articulate. Using the fat part of the tongue leaves the tip of the tongue to slap the reed creating that thunking sound. On saxophone it is less of an issue.

For clarinetists, you may want to have them look at mouthpieces like Vandoren Profile 88 mouthpieces that have less material in the beak (where the teeth rest) meaning the student can bring the clarinet in closer to the body which improves positioning and makes it easier to articulate.

If articulation is simply slower and you’ve done all the articulation training you can think of, you may want to consider moving the reed strength on your problem students up one half strength. A little more resistance provides a better launching pad for tonguing.


7 General rules to live by and improve your clarinet and saxophone section:

  1. Not everyone can play the same mouthpiece. They need to try them and you need to listen to them play on them.
  2.  No one can effectively improve on a stock mouthpiece after the fourth month. The facing and tip of most factory mouthpieces are too small for growth.
  3. Better reeds make for better sound. Simple as that!
  4. Reed rotation (playing in a rotation of 4 reeds using a different of the four per each session) strengthens embouchures and makes reeds last longer.
  5. No reed should be left on any mouthpiece after any session. It ultimately hurts the reed and the table of the mouthpiece.
  6. A reed case to protect reeds is a good investment to protect reeds(and it promotes rotation!).
  7. Mouthpieces wear out over time. Even a good mouthpiece needs replacing every three to four years. (If you clean your mouthpiece all the time, eventually you’ll change the table dimension)

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