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How to Fix Warped ReedsPrinter Friendly Format
This Online Lesson is (c) 2001 , Ryan Fraser. All right reserved. NO COMMERCIAL DISTRIBUTION.
Its the nightmare of every saxophone player - one day you have the most wonderful sounding reed in the world, and the next day - poof! You're stuck with this piece of wood that's become massively warped or winkled. Now it just sounds like you are playing on tissue paper. What are you going to do?
What causes warping?
In order to understand what has happened to your reed, we need to talk a little bit about plant biology. Your reed, after all, was once part of a living plant. The latin name for this plant is Arundo Donax. In english, we often call this "Reed Cane". Much like Bamboo or Sugar Cane, Reed cane is a tall, slim cane, which is generally evenly round. The cane is native to the Mediterranean region, although it has been spread as a decorative garden plant to the southern United States. Unfortunately, it spreads quite prolifically, and has become a major environmental pest in many areas, particularly in California. But enough about that - lets talk warping!
You've probably had celery at some point in your life. Remember those stringy bits that get caught in your teeth? Almost every plant has the same little strings - they're actually little tubes called Xylem and Phloem. These tubes carry water and other nutrients to locations throughout the plant. If you look at your reeds, you should be able to see these tubules quite clearly on the flat (bottom) of the reed. You can also see them along the top, and the butt.
Here's a neat-o (and somewhat disgusting!) trick you can try: Take out a brand-new read, and lick on a generous portion of saliva onto the top of the reed. (Don't put it on the bark, only on the cut area.) Now, blow through the butt of the reed, as if it were a straw. You should find that the saliva will start to bubble up. Guess what? You just used the Xylem and the Phloem tubes to push air through the reed.
By now you are probably wondering what this has to do with warped reeds, right? Well, before you wet your reeds, the Xylem and Phloem are filled with air. Furthermore, the walls of these tubules are much denser than the surrounding material, otherwise the plant would loose all of its nutrients into the surrounding tissue. This means that your reed has a variety of unequal densities. It is these areas of uneven density that cause your reed to warp.
Here is what happens: after you wet your reed to play it, the water in your saliva spreads evenly throughout the reed, filling up the driest and least dense areas first. (Such as the inside of the Xylem and Phloem - they are hollow, and have only the density of air.) As you continue to wet the reed (or play on it, and have your saliva absorbed), the water begins to spread evenly throughout the reed. As this happens, the various parts of the reed begin to expand in order to accommodate the extra mass of the water. After you stop playing, the opposite happens - the reed shrinks as the moisture evaporates. However, the first areas to dry out are the areas with the lowest density - so they shrink faster than other areas with a higher density. This happens throughout the reed, but is most noticeable around the tip of the reed, where the cane is so thin, that the uneven shrinkage actually causes the reed to warp. You can get a similar effect by taking a partially blow-up balloon, and pinching (shrinking) the skin. As you pinch the skin, the surface will create warp or wrinkle to counteract the force you apply by pinching.
So how do I Get Rid of It??!!
In my opinion, 95% of all warping problems can be solved by letting your reed soak fully immersed in water for several minutes. I always play with my reeds 100% saturated with water. This usually forces out any wrinkles. This tends to even out any inconsistencies in the reed. Furthermore, this way I always play my reeds with the same level of moisture, regardless of the humidity of the air. (Admittedly, a dry room will dry out my reed faster than a humid room, but at least I'm always starting with it the same way every time.)
If saturating the reed doesn't work, a second solution would involve carefully sanding the reeds AFTER saturation. Get 800 grit or higher wet/dry sandpaper, and carefully sand away any remaining warpage.
A note of CAUTION
Many players suggest wetting the reed (not soaking), and then pressing down with your thumb on the tip of the reed with the reed pressed against the flat part of your mouthpiece. This helps in the short term, by forcing the water to even out the reed, but in the longer term, it still won't solve the problem, as the water will return after a few minutes to the less dense parts of the tip. This will let you have a good sound for only a few minutes until the problem returns. I still prefer saturating the reed completely - you will probably find that you have a much longer time period before problems return.