I use legérès and I am not ashamed. Yes, I admit it. Instead of fighting those pesky bits of cane like clarinetists did in the olden days, I’ve sold out. I’ve compromised.
Wait a second. What exactly have I compromised?
What exactly am I loosing by using synthetic reeds? Certainly not quality of timbre or pitch. And there isn’t the same obsession with historically authentic clarinets as with other instruments because frankly the clarinet hasn’t been around that long. Using legérès doesn’t limit my capacity for musical expression. Point of fact, they don’t detract in any way from my playing. But I thought they would. And I know many clarinetists that still view legérès as second rate, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
So where does the bias come from? I can only speak to my own experience, though I wouldn’t be surprised if others’ have had similarly formative experiences. It’s important to understand where this bigotry stems from in order to overcome it.
My first experience with legérès took place in the summer of 2010 on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. If this seems like a random place to come into contact with plastic reeds, take a closer look at a map — it’s the home of the Brevard Summer Music Festival. As a rising junior in high-school I was delighted with the opportunity to attend the festival. It was a chance to travel a bit and spend the summer doing the things I truly loved with similarly minded students: playing in orchestra and chamber groups and taking lessons from a different teacher with new ideas.
Walking into my placement audition at the beginning of the program, I remember being utterly nonplussed. Where I thought I’d be playing solely for the professor of clarinet from Northwestern University, Steve Cohen, I was thrown off of my groove by the presence of another gentleman in the room.
Now, I should mention that I had caught a summer cold earlier in the week and had taken about four times the recommended dose of cough syrup in a vain attempt to numb the pain in my throat. (Throat pain and clarinet playing don’t go well together for obvious reasons). So when I walked out of the humid summer heat into the air-conditioned goodness of the Brevard clarinet studio, my first thought was something akin to “why did Steve Cohen bring his butler with him?”
I soon found out that the second man was Eric Ginsberg (not a butler), another clarinetist and teacher at the festival. I had never heard of him before. I remember being slightly put out that three out of my six weeks at the program would be spent learning from some no-name instead of professor Cohen. I remember that indignation evaporating almost immediately after my first lesson with Ginsberg.
To briefly compare the two, where Cohen was biting or sarcastic to make a point, Ginsberg was gentle. Where the former was overbearing or settled for mediocre improvement, the latter was patient and worked with me till we’d solved an issue and I could replicate the solution on my own. In short, Cohen was a good teacher, but Ginsberg became a mentor.
And certainly my impression of the two performers’ character informed my opinion of their abilities. When I heard professor Cohen perform the Copeland Concerto for clarinet and orchestra with the faculty orchestra about halfway through the festival, I found myself looking for ways that I could justify disliking the performance. And I found one.
Steve Cohen uses legérès!
I couldn’t believe it. At the time I thought that only students used plastic reeds to avoid paying for “real” reeds or out of laziness. This was my first encounter with a professional clarinetist using a synthetic reed. I hated it. In retrospect it was probably quite a good performance, but at the time I was quite certain that I’d never heard anything less musical in all five of my years playing the clarinet. And all because I disliked his teaching style!
Having Eric Ginsberg there, the “good” cop that used traditional reeds acted as a foil and catalyst for my distrust of Steve Cohen and his plastic abominations. I wouldn’t go near the things for years after that, simply because I heard one performance by one player that I didn’t care for. My mistake.
Legérès have been around for a while — twenty-seven years in fact. Guy Legérè and Mark Kortschot, originally chemists by trade, settled upon a blended polymer with a “very fine microtexture” (http://www.legérèe.com/aboutus/faqs) to simulate the low density properties of a cane reed. Effectively, they are precisely the same shape, texture and density of their natural counterparts without any of the drawbacks. Legérès do not warp or crack or require constant adjustment. They do not change shape or resistance from day to day and hour to hour based on the slightest difference in temperature, humidity or altitude. Plenty of professional clarinetists aside from professor Cohen have noticed the benefits to using synthetic reeds, my current teacher at the Oberlin Conservatory, Richard Hawkins, included.
The amazing thing is that I was so convinced that legérès sounded bad that I didn’t even notice for my first semester that my professor used them. I remember one of my fellow clarinetists turning to me at one point during the spring while Hawkins was demonstrating a beautifully lyrical passages and whispering “I can’t believe he uses plastic reeds!” I couldn’t either. Hawkins has a particularly beautiful sound, filled with color and nuance, nothing like Steve Cohen’s.
I was intrigued, but still skeptical. I started talking with him about why he had made the change. He told me that it all boiled down to one thing: consistency. To be able to pick up the clarinet on any given day and have it feel exactly like it did the day before was nothing short of a miracle. “But don’t you loose flexibility of timbre or tone?” I pressed, convinced that there had to be a catch.
Nope. No catch.
So why doesn’t everybody play on legérès? All I can figure is that its for the same reason that I was so hesitant to trust them. Too good to be true, inauthentic, etc. etc. I finally asked to try a couple after I had four reeds warp on me in the space of an hour during one particularly horrible day of practicing. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting: would I sound like Richard Hawkins? Or perhaps (shudder) Steve Cohen?
Of course not. I sounded like me. Admittedly, they took a little bit of getting used to — for the same reason they are consistent and don’t soften so quickly legérès feel a bit more resistant than your average cane reed. But I quickly discovered something that should have been obvious from the beginning: the reed does not make the clarinetist. A good musician will make beautiful melodies no matter what his equipment, just as a less inspired performer will not miraculously transform into Paganini if he suddenly acquires a Stradivarius.
I have never looked back from my foray into the uncharted territory of synthetic reeds. The benefits far outstrip any negative side effects to using them. True, I get the occasional sidelong glance from my studio-mates in rehearsal, that faint but oh-so-familiar curl of the lip that so snidely indicates the superiority of the cane reed. But I can handle that. I can even handle the not-so-passive aggressive questions by the instrument lockers about why I switched to synthetics: “Do you just not like working on cane?” “Was cane too difficult to use?”
I think there’s an element of masochism to using traditional reeds, a sense of bonding over the unimaginable pain and suffering that those inch and a half pieces of wood cause. Besides, if clarinetists didn’t have cane reeds, what would we have to complain about? How would we compete with the constant wood-measuring that takes place among all wind player of who has the biggest instrumental handicap? If this sounds ridiculous, it is.
This is where the bigotry I mentioned towards the top of the page comes in. If there is any way we can bypass physical shortcomings on our instruments to enhance our musicianship, then surely we should take them, and authenticity be damned! Perhaps Mozart would prefer a clarinetist to squeak their way through the final movement of his clarinet concerto due to a suddenly warped or chipped reed, but it seems just as likely that he wouldn’t have a problem with a stable polymer that sounded almost identical. In short, if we have the means to become better then why not take them?
I said that I have never looked back. I don’t think I ever will. Sure, using a synthetic reed isn’t as life changing as, say, air conditioning in North Carolina, but convenience without cost is not inherently evil. There is a pronounced stigma against using legérès that I hope will diminish with time. Whether it stemmed from the wrong performers using them or simple bias against unnatural reeds it is unquestionably outdated. For any who disagree, look up any of the recordings on Hawkins’s website, and argue that that isn’t one of the smoothest legatos that you’ve ever heard. I’ll be here to argue back. Here with my legérès. Unashamed.