ARUNDO DONAX: THE SOURCE OF NATURAL WOODWIND REED


Marilyn S. Veselack


Editor's Note: This article summarizes the presentation the author gave at the reed seminar at the Los Angeles conference of IDRS. Ms Veselack is a candidate for the Doctor of Arts degree at Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana. The studies outlined in the article were done in the laboratory of Jerry J. Nisbet.

The Arundo plant (Arundo donax L. ) has been of significance to the various cultures of the Western world because of its role in the development of music. This plant is also known as Giant reed or Persian reed. It is indigenous to the areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Later it was cultivated and naturalized in the warmer climatic regions of every major continent.

Scientifically, Arundo donax L. belongs to a tribe of the extensive grass family Gramineae. It is sometimes confused with bamboo, which differs in many internal structural features. In its outward appearance Arundo resembles giant corn, having stems that grow from four to six meters in height. The stem is very hard and some of the epidermal cells contain silica, which is the same thing as glass. Jaffrey reports that one can understand the hardness of this plant from noting that a stem of a mature reed gives off sparks when it is hit with an axe. Although the stem is hard, the sparks originate when the metal of the axe strikes the silica. The Arundo stems are unique in their ability to recover quickly from flexing. No other plant material can match its natural spring and ability to recover from fatigue.

During World War II, the reed fields of France were cut so that large mats could be woven from the stems and leaves for use in aerial camouflage by the military. This process depleted the source of maturing reed stems. As a consequence, the reed supplies for musicians could not be replaced with mature reed material at the rate that was needed to fill the demand.

Jaffrey recommends that the stems can begin to be harvested after they have hardened sufficiently and turned a golden yellow. The correct hardness may be attained after five to eight years' growth, while strength and color may require from ten to twenty years. If the stems are cut at a very early age, they will shrink to a mere shell when dry. If cut at a later age, but prior to maturity, the stems have a tendency to warp.

In accordance with pre-World War II practices, mature stems were stored for a period of one to three years of natural curing, prior to being used for the manufacture of woodwind reeds. Prior to World War II, only three out of every forty harvested Arundo stems were acceptable for manufacturing reeds. After World War II reed companies were forced to practice little or no selectivity, and nearly all available stems were used for manufacturing woodwind reeds. Woodwind players found themselves faced with the problem of being able to use only two to five reeds from every twenty-five reeds manufactured after World War II.

Beginning in the early 1940's woodwind musicians became aware of the need to experiment with and to study the reed. Persons who have studied a particular aspect of the reed problem state that their efforts are stymied by a lack of willingness to communicate among musicians and scientists. The most serious deterrent to investigating the reed problem was and still remains the task of bridging the communication gap between music and science. The breakdown is brought about by misunderstandings and differences in meanings of terms used by each area of specialization.

I have been studying the cell structure and characteristics of the mature stem of Arundo donax with the view of identifying possible differences in stem anatomy, which may be related to the quality of woodwind reeds. To acquire material for the study, clarinet reeds were obtained that had been used in performance and judged playable by forty knowledgeable musicians. The same musicians were also asked to supply clarinet reeds which they judged to be non-playable. Twenty-one of the musicians were professional clarinetists from twenty-one major symphony orchestras in the United States. Eleven were musicians associated with colleges and universities in the United States.

In preparing the material for study, the heel end of the reed is sawed into small blocks. The central blocks of tissue from each reed are softened by chemical treatments and embedded in paraffin. The central blocks of tissue are used because they contain all the cell types and cell arrangements typical of that part of the stem used for clarinet and other woodwind reeds.

Squares of paraffin containing the suspended reed material are attached to specimen holders and sliced into 10 micron sections. A micron is 1 /25,000 of an inch. A sheet of typing paper is approximately 100 microns thick. The sections cut with the microtome form a ribbon, which is transferred to microscope slides. The paraffin is removed by a solvent and the sections are stained to increase the visibility or contrast in tissues when examined under the microscope.

In the cross section of reed, the epidermis shows a regular pattern of normal epidermal cells which are small and thick walled interspersed with clear oval-shaped silica cells. Several layers of parenchyma cells are found immediately under the epidermis. In this region the parenchyma cells are relatively small and thick walled in contrast to the large thin walled parenchyma cells found in the inner region of the stem.

A band of fiber cells is located inside the cylinder of small parenchyma cells. This band of fiber cells is continuous around the stem and separates the outer stem tissues from the inner tissues.

Vascular bundles are scattered throughout the stem in a pattern very similar to that found in corn and other members of the grass family. Very small vascular bundles are found close to the surface of the stem. The size of the bundles increases toward the center. Each vascular bundle consists of a ring of fiber cells surrounding the xylem and phloem. The vascular bundles are what the woodwind musician refers to as the "fiber" or "grain" of the reed.

Stems in a more mature state of development have more parenchyma cells with very thick walls. Fiber cells also develop extremely thick walls with age.

The heel of a reed contains all of the kinds of cells of the Arundo plant and woodwind reed. The blade of a woodwind reed contains only parenchyma cells and vascular bundles. The tapering cut made in the shaping of the reed removes all of the epidermal cells and the underlying band of fiber cells from the reed blade. However, all of the cells--both those in the heel as well as those in the blade-- contribute to the vibrational characteristics of the reed. When the clarinet is played, the reed blade vibrates against the mouthpiece at frequencies of 147 to 1,568 cycles per second. The quality of sound produced by a reed depends in large measure upon the stage of development of the Arundo stem at the time of harvesting.

As the Arundo stem grows older, the thickness of the cell walls increases. Following harvesting of the Arundo stems, a lengthy period of seasoning is required during which time fluids in the cells slowly dry up.

Apparently much Arundo is currently being harvested after only a few years of growth and the stems are artificially dried for a period of a few weeks or months prior to being used for the manufacture of woodwind reeds.

Aside from selecting reeds with uniform distribution of vascular bundles, the musician can enhance the playability of reeds by adjusting them to fit his or her specific mouthpiece/embouchure combination. However, even when such adjustments are made, the most obvious variable in performance with a good woodwind instrument is still the reed. The majority of woodwind teachers and performers agree that the quality of the reed material is a fundamental determining factor affecting the playability of woodwind reeds.

Related Literature

Bhosys, Waldemar. "The Reed Problem." Woodwind Magazine, 1948, 1(2), 4 and 8.

--------. "The Reed Problem." Woodwind Magazine, 1949, 7(3), 5 and 8.

Christlieb, Don. Notes On The Bassoon Reed. California: Don Christlieb, 1966.

Jaffrey, K. S. Reed Mastery. Australia: K. S. Jaffrey, 1956.

Kotzin, Ezra. "The Reed Problem". Woodwind Magazine, 1948, 1(1), 4.

Nederveen, C. J. "Influence of Reed Motion On The Resonance Frequency of Reed-Blown Woodwind Instruments". JASA, 1969, 45(2), 513-514.

Patterson, John. "An Experiment In Growing And Curing Reed Cane (ARUNDO DONAX) In Louisiana". 16th National Conference Yearbook Of College Band Directors National Association, 1971, 152-153.

Perdue, Robert E., Jr. "Arundo donax Source of Musical Reeds And Industrial Cellulose". Economic Botany, 1958, 12, 368-404.

Waln, George E. "How To 'Raise Cane' ". The Instrumentalist, 1961, XV(7), 56-60.

Williams, Alexander. "Reed Problem". Woodwind Magazine, 1949, 1(4), 5-6.



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