Katie’s Reed System

As clarinet and saxophone players we have a love hate relationship with them (Reeds). Reeds are affected by EVERYTHING! Temperature, humidity, altitude ect… They also change as you play them, from use

and from the build up of particles in your mouth that transfer to your reed.

Here are six steps that I use to save money, time and frustration with reeds. You can scroll down and read them on order or click on the quick links to skip steps.


  • Goat
  • Sacrificial supplies
  • Small glass of water
  • Reeds
  • Clarinet/Saxophone
  • Pen or pencil
  • Reed Knife
  • Reed cutter
  • Glass plate
  • Five plastic zip locks

Quick Links


Step one – Goat Sacrifice.
Supplies – Goat and sacrificial supplies

In this step creativity and location are key. The goat must feel at ease and warm for it’s sprit to transport the correct energy to the reed god. It also must transport the sound you are looking for. If you are playing in a very live hall – a bathroom or other live location would be best – while a deadened hall is easy imitated by a bedroom or heavily carpeted and curtained area. Ideally your goat sacrifice would happen in the same hall as you would be performing but it is understandable that most halls have rules against animals in the building.

If you are struggling to find a goat you may omit this step.


Step two – sorting, please wait.
Supplies – one glass of water, four zip lock bags, reeds and instrument.

Put all your reeds in the glass of water, you don’t need to soak them just let them get wet while you set out bags.
Set out the four zip lock bags. You can name them whatever you want. This is what my four names mean to me:

  • “Good” – yay it played and I was happy with the sound.
  • “Not Bad” – it played and didn’t make me cry (often times too weak reeds go here).
  • “Hard” – It is hard to blow, stuffy or gritty.
  • “Bad” – It didn’t play or it felt/sounded bad enough to make me cry.

Play an open G (open C# on saxophone) on each reed and listen, feel and determine what pile it goes in. This part can go really fast but does not have to. Trust yourself, you can always change the piles again later.

I often times get asked, how high up should the reed be on the mouth piece? Below is a video that has a great demonstration of how to put the reed on the mouth piece and how high up it should be. Rule of thumb is a millimeter or so of black showing. The higher up your read is the stronger it will feel.


Step three – Balancing, hopefully just the reed and not your fingers.
Supplies – Pen or pencil, reed knife, reed cutter, glass plate.

Everything in the “Good” pile I don’t touch. You can put those in your reed case.

Everything in the “Bad” pile (unless this is the majority of the reeds) I don’t touch. I put bad reeds in the bag to mature over time; I will play on them again the next time I get new reeds.

Anything that is too weak gets chopped by the reed cutter, played on again and re-assess. The video to the right shows you how to use a reed cutter.

For me about half of the box is now gone – the remaining reeds are in the “Hard” or “Not Bad” pile. I go to the “Hard” pile first. 90% of the time reeds are not actually too hard but poorly balanced. It doesn’t mater what pile you go to first, they both will go through the same process.

I disagree with the tool (I suggest a reed knife) used in this video but it shows you pretty much use proper technique to balance a reed.

All of this can be done with sand paper that is 420 grade or less.

I also disagree with his statement “never touch the back of the reed”. The back in the most important part and if warps – this happens a lot – you should flatten it out.

Warp can happen in three directions:

1. Long ways, curling in (like a finger nail)

2. Long ways, curling out (like a smiley face)

3. At the tip, either direction

(but I see is curve toward the mouth piece more than away)

There are two ways to deal with long ways warp like this. Always try the first way before the second. Remember just like any project, you can always take off more wood from the reed but there is no way to put it back on.

Face the back of the reed away from you and place your three middle fingers of each hand around the outside of the reed. Than place your thumb in the middle of the bark and push with your thumbs and pull with your fingers.


With your reed knife, make sure the reed is flat and gently move the knife back and forth taking the warped wood off the reed. With your sand paper, lay it flat on top of the glass or some other flat surface. Lay the back or flat side of the reed against the sand paper. Evenly space your fingers across the surface and in short smooth motions sand off the back of the reed.


Warp at the tip well either fix itself or can be ironed out once wet by placing the reed on the table of the mouth piece and putting your thumb against it.


Step four – Identification, so you can be frustrated when they still don’t work.
Supplies – pencil, reed, instrument, zip lock bags.

Play the reed and see if it is better! If it is very close and you can feel/hear what else is needed keep working reed balancing magic. If not:

Re-assess and write on the reed. I put down the date and the pile it started in on the base of the reed. What you write should be meaningful to you, give you a way to identify the reed from the others and give you some history of what it has gone through. This will help you learn what things you did that worked and how to do them again. It will also help you know when to just give up because the reed has just been through too much to function.
Place the reed in its new pile and move onto another reed. There is no reason to beat your head against a wall. You will have lots of reeds in your life; try not to get too attached or spiteful.


Step five – Getting them ready to play, yes they need training too.
Supplies – glass of water, reeds and clarinet

This is a two-step multiple day process for me. I repeat each step twice each day for 3 or 4 days before I actually start practicing on a reed.

Why do I do this?

As you play little particles in your mouth build up in the reed. You WANT this to happen! This is going to help the reed stay strong, and last longer. If you play on it too much too soon than the fibers in it can collapse and the reed can die young. Sad panda, especially if it was a really good reed.

So here are the two parts:

A) Soaking reeds in water, 5 minutes in and 10 minutes out. Two cycles. I use an egg timer and write reed guides while I wait.

B) Play for a few minutes, low notes nothing high. Then rest it for about five minutes. This is easy to do if you are practicing long tones, mechanisms or particle exercises. Rotate around three different reeds and the timing will be about right.

Step six – Storage, how do you keep them working?
Supplies – more plastic bags and reed cases

I store my reeds in a reed case – there are lots of different good kinds – however I use a Selmer glass surface. I then put my case in zip lock bag to keep the moisture as stable as possible. I see a lot of clarinet players here in Colorado that double bag their reeds. During the dry winter season, I also throw in a Rico humidity pack. Infact I have not done it yet, and I just played a concert where half of my reeds didn’t work because of my laziness.

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