Hand Model Credit: Kacey Howard
My nails don't look anywhere near this good
Légère European Signature Reeds
My Experiences, Product Review, and Playing Test
by: Chris Howard
Lately, I've been hearing more and more about the newest version of synthetic reed released by Légère Reeds LTD: the European Cut Signature Series. On more than one occasion, I have tried to make synthetic reeds work for me. I have had some luck with them, but not enough to justify putting away cane reeds completely. To be clear, the experiences discussed here are just that, my own. I am aware that many players have had spectacular luck with synthetic reeds; however, I am willing to bet that there are a few instrumentalists out there who have had shared some of my experiences. All that said....these new European Cut Légères: Wow. I'm not going to say that this is finally the perfect synthetic reed (yet), but I am IMPRESSED.
On a summer night several years ago, at the Hot Springs Music Festival, I sat in the orchestra and watched Richard Hawkins absolutely slay the Corigliano Clarinet Concerto. The following evening, he gave a spectacular performance of the Bartok Contrasts. This continued throughout the festival, it was one great performance after another. He played everything on a Légère reed, and I became a believer. That was more than ten years ago.
Since then, I have tried to make the switch to synthetic reeds multiple times, but always find myself moving back to cane and sighing a ambivalent sigh of both relief and disappointment. I've always kept a few in my case for emergencies and used them for teaching from time to time. The upside has always been great: no break in time, no soaking, impervious to fluctuating weather, and great longevity. From the very first time I tried a Légère reed, I've been amazed by what the company has been able to create; but, for me, they've never worked quite the same as cane.
With the original, Signature, and Quebec cuts, there were always subtle embouchure and voicing adjustments needed to yield optimal results. Once when I was trying to switch, I remember sitting next to a colleague and warming up before a rehearsal (noodling on the instrument, playing all of the things that I knew would make the Légère sound great). My colleague's reaction was enthusiastic. "Wow, that's incredible! I can't believe that's a plastic reed!" Then, rehearsal began. Once I began playing music that wasn't tailor-made for synthetic sweetness, the reactions became noticeably more tepid. So went all three of my attempts to switch to full-time synthetic reed playing. I can assure you, these weren't half hearted attempts to switch, either. They were cold turkey, throw away all the cane, three-month-long commitments to change.
Again, I should reiterate, this was ONLY MY EXPERIENCE. There are several players out there who have had spectacular results with these earlier iterations of Légères, but for my money, I was done with my synthetic reed adventures....
So I thought.
Légère European Signature Bb Clarinet Reeds: My Review
So....here I am, Légère has a new cut and I have a few colleagues who have been so blown away by them, I decided to give them a try. I ordered three: two 3.75s and a 4. Right now, I play on Vandoren V21 3.5s, and was advised to go 1/4-1/2 strength higher on the Légères. This turned out to be good advice. The price per reed is similar to the cost of a box of high quality cane reeds: I paid $29.95 each. I did see vendors charging as much as $40, so shop around! I used Muncy Winds, as I do for many of my purchases. I absolutely love their customer service and dependability. I ordered the reeds on Tuesday, and they were in my mailbox at home by Thursday. I am reviewing my initial impressions of the reeds over the first few days. I'll update this post over time.
The Euro-cut comes elegantly and securely packaged in a black cardboard box with a viewing window that exposes the bottom two thirds of the reed. The lettering is raised script in silver foil. It is obvious that much thought and care went into the design of the packaging, and while that really doesn't matter at all in the end, I appreciated it.
The first thing I noticed about this reed was its unusual proportions. It almost looks like a small soprano saxophone reed, both shorter and wider than expected. The reed has a raised spine starting at the base of the vamp that is visible almost all the way to the tip. It is 'clear' that Légère has not shied away from making some pretty drastic changes to their design. The Légère logo and name of the cut are printed onto the reed, while the strength number is a sticker. The color is a translucent grey, as opposed to the bluish hue of some of the earlier Légère reeds. There are zig-zag shaped ridges from the cutting machines on the vamps of each reed that I purchased. (I remember from my earlier experiences that some reeds were smooth, while some had the ridges. It didn't seem to be a determining factor with regard to playing quality)
Okay, that's enough about all of that....Time to get out the clarinet.
My wife, Kacey, is one of the most spectacular music educators I know, and she was there when I opened the package with the reeds. I'm pretty sure she was almost as curious as I was about what results these new reeds would yield. I put a 3.75 on my Bb clarinet and started to play....as I was playing my eyes opened wider and wider. It felt fantastic. "It sounds like a good reed" Kacey said. She is never afraid to offer an honest opinion, and if I had just spent $90 on what amounted to a small stock of buzzy or thuddy sounding plastic reeds, she would have let me know as much. I moved on to the other 3.75. It was slightly more resistant at least as good, maybe better. I started trying to do the things that never felt good on the older Légères: fast soft articulations, wide intervals without re-voicing, altissimo articulation, extreme altissimo response (Bb-Db)--everything worked. I tried the 4, and again, it was slightly harder, but only very slightly. It seemed in alignment with the playing qualities of the other two.
My instant, Gladwellian, thin-sliced impression: this version of Légère reed is something completely different from what I have experienced in the past. With the previous versions, I knew immediately what problems I was going to have to solve or adjust for in order to successfully move over to a synthetic reed. I would then dive into modifying my playing to compensate for these issues. There were NO immediate problems presented in the initial playing of these reeds. I went downstairs and practiced on them for a few hours and noticed that, as with cane reeds, they do soften up after about 30 minutes or so of heavy playing. I would move to one of the other reeds and, again, 30+ minutes of clean consistent response. At that point, I moved back to the previous reed and it felt great again. If you are someone who plays a substantial amount, I would recommend rotating three or four.
I wanted to know if what I was feeling was in line with what others would hear. I, like most wind players, have been seduced many times by that great new mouthpiece, barrel, clarinet, ligature, reed, synthetic reed etc.--new equipment that all felt amazing and life-changing at first, only to say to myself a few days later: "never mind, what I had before worked better after all." So, I turned on the mic and made a few A-B recordings, one with a cane reed, then with the Légère. Same mouthpiece, ligature, clarinet. The results, I thought, were very similar; but I was finding it difficult to stay objective....you know, seduction.
Because I find it difficult to remain objective, I have decided to post these short, unedited, very rough, untouched (pleasedontjudgepleasedontjudgepl) recordings up for an aural Pepsi-Challenge. If you have a minute, I'd very much appreciate you giving a listen and responding back to me with your thoughts (email, Facebook, or Twitter is great). To hear the difference between my cane reed and the Légère, click this link:
Thanks for reading! Please contact me with any thoughts on this or any other clarinet related subject!