What is a reed? What is a double reed?

What is a reed? What is a double reed?

If you’re not a musician, when you hear the word ‘reed,’ you probably think of the tall, slender green leaf that grows and sways on the outskirts of ponds and lakes. But did you know that the mouthpieces of woodwind instruments, like the clarinet, oboe, and saxophone, are all made from the hollow stems of these plants?

Giant Reed (Arundo donax)
from Wikipedia.org

The cane of the Arundo donax, which is also known as the giant reed plant, is stripped of its leaves, and left outside to soak in the sun, resulting in a nice golden-brown color.  The canes are then dried by the wind, and aged for a few years, until they are placed inside a humidity-controlled factory where they are cut into smaller tubes and split into four thin pieces. Next, the cane is cleaned, cut, and sanded into a shape that is flat on one side and conical on the other. Finally, it’s time for the most important step—the reed-cutting process. With a blade, the red is shaved, gently and carefully, from the back toward the tip and then lastly, the very top is cut ever so precisely. 

Sounds like a lot of work for such a tiny, fragile, thin reed? Well, you’re right—it sure is a lot of work, but for good reason. The reed is what vibrates and creates sound. Without a reed, the instrument simply cannot be played. That is why many professional oboists and bassoonists will purchase cane—already sanded into a flat-conical shape—and cut their reeds themselves.

As a former oboe player, myself, I know, firsthand, how crucial, complex and finnicky a double reed can be. If you do not have a quality reed, your instrument will be out of tune, or it may even squawk like a dying flamingo! I can’t tell you how many times I showed up to band practice with a reed that had accidentally cracked in the case, and my oboe wouldn’t make a single sound at all! That is why you always pack a back-up, or two, or three. 

Anyway, you may still be wondering, what is the difference between a reed and a double reed? Well, it’s actually quite obvious when you think about it—a single reed only consists of one piece of finely manipulated cane and thus, must be attached to a mouthpiece, while a double reed has two reeds that vibrate against one another to create a sound. A double reed twists into the top of the instrument, standing alone, while the single reed is fastened directly onto the mouthpiece. 

Now, check out the song below, which features the wonderful Wayne Escoffery on saxaphone, to hear a single reed in action! 

John DiMartino, Joe Magnarelli & Wayne Escoffery – Tell Me Why

Despite the fact that a saxophone is made of metal, it uses a single reed, which classifies it as a woodwind, not a brass instrument. As you listen to the sax solo in this tune, you can think about and appreciate all the hard work that went into make the reed! 

And if you’re looking for more jazz music that merges the musical artistry of new songs with the jazz classics, check out our recent release, Old New Borrowed & Blue, which is available on all major music platforms and in our store today! 

What is embouchure? Why is embouchure so important?

Just like its spelling, the concept, and acquisition of embouchure is a bit tricky. Simply put, embouchure refers to the way in which a musician uses his or her mouth to play a brass or wind instrument. Sounds easy enough—you just blow air into the instrument, right? Nope. Think again. In practice, embouchure is much more difficult.

Beginner musicians can spend months, developing an embouchure. That’s because it involves not only precise calculation and manipulation of one’s facial muscles, lips, tongues, teeth and breathing, but also habitual strengthening, training, and setting of all those muscles. To merely produce a steady sound on the oboe—which is the instrument with the most difficult embouchure—can take three months or longer. 

Even when a musician isn’t actively playing, it’s recommended that he or she flex the key muscles in short bursts to build up that habitual muscle memory. Some oboists practice with exercises, and even by holding a pencil in their mouth. Talk about dedication to your art! 

Why, though, is embouchure so gosh darn important? Well, embouchure determines whether an instrument plays in tune, at its full range, and with a clear tone. It’s a very exact process that can result in your instrument making either a beautiful crooning, like a warbler’s song, or a horrid honking, like a dying goose. 

With woodwinds, if you put the mouthpiece too far into your mouth, there will be too much vibration and not enough control. On the flip side, if the mouthpiece is not far enough into the mouth, no sound will be generated at all because the reed will not vibrate. With a brass instrument, the sound is produced when a player buzzes their lips into the mouthpiece. Muscular contraction and lip formation also play a role in changing the pitch of a brass instrument.

Now that you’re more familiar with embouchure, you might be more in awe of jazz musicians, and more appreciative of the countless songs that include woodwinds and brass. As you listen to the following tunes, think about all the diligence, time, and patience that these musicians put into developing their excellent embouchures! 

Gerry and The Pacemakers – Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying

Since the oboe has the most difficult embouchure, we wanted to find a popular song that includes the underrated, double reed instrument. Listen carefully to this 1964 tune to see if you can spot the clear, bright, and robust sound of the oboe (I’ll give you a hint—it shows up early on)!

Lorca Hart Trio – Discoveries

This 2020 tune opens with the talented Ralph Moore on the tenor saxophone. As you listen, think about his embouchure. A good saxophone embouchure requires the lower lip to rest against, but not over, the teeth—like when pronouncing the letter “V’—and the corners of the lips must be drawn in. 

If you’re looking for more jazz songs that include woodwinds and brass, check out the albums in our store, and on all major music platforms!