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Légère Redefines The Synthetic Reed

...the muggy Florida heat, the reeds are left to acclimate for weeks or months in the conditions they’ll be played in. It’s not an exact science, however—which might explain why it took a pair of scientists to find an alternative. Developed in 1998 by Dr. Guy Légère, who holds a Ph.D in chemistry, and Mark Kortschot, a materials engineer, synthetic Légère reeds attracted students and educators with the promise to play consistently in all conditions, while outlasting cane reeds by a matter of months. To win over professionals, however, Légère had to design a reed that was indistinguishable from the best cane reeds. That was the goal of the Signature Series, launched in 2009, which Légère developed based on feedback from pro artists and a molecular-level study of the highest quality cane reeds. The result—according to some of the best reed players in the business—is a reed that combines the structure and tone of a fine cane reed with the practical benefits of a synthetic.

Between its Signature Series and its original, or “Classic,” version, Légère reeds are now played by three of the top ten marching bands in the Bands of America, five bands in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and a long list of professional artists. “Once musicians try our reeds, they rarely go back to cane,” says Tim Elvy, vice president of sales for Légère. “I have testimonial after testimonial saying, ‘We’ll never go back—we’re tired of fighting.”

Based just north of Toronto, Ontario, Légère makes its reeds from a proprietary polymer that mimics moistened cane—which means that unlike traditional reeds, they’re ready to play right out of the box without being soaked or broken in. They’re also machine-honed to absolute consistency so there’s no guessing which are the good ones and which are the duds. As Elvy says, “Let’s face it: Out of a box of ten cane reeds, you might get five that work.” For Légère, however, cracking the scientific code to good reed tone was only one half of a success story; the other has been convincing the market to try a synthetic reed. With centuries of tradition behind them, cane reeds are still viewed by some as the only choice for serious musicians—which is why Légère has put in hundreds of hours at trade shows around North America to change their minds. “The hardest part,” says Elvy, “is getting musicians to try it. Once they’ve played a few notes and found that sweet spot, you’ve won them over.”

From the start, Légère suspected the education market would make a perfect match for its product—a reed that plays right out of the box and lasts for anywhere from two to six months. That turned out to be an understatement. Some schools tried it in the hope of spending less on replacement reeds; others got it for their marching bands because it would play in all weather—and most came away with benefits they never expected. Some teachers shared their impressions through Légère’s “Sound Results” program, where the reed maker provided stocks of reeds to two schools in return for feedback. When the surveys came back, teachers reported that they were spending more of their class time actually teaching because their students didn’t have to spend time soaking reeds or struggling with “duds.” A large majority also said they weren’t hearing the squeaks and squawks that are almost a given for beginning reed players. “You should see the speed with which students learn on our reeds,” said Elvy. “The key is to start them young because they’ll never want to play anything else. And once educators come online, they become fanatically loyal ambassadors.”

For beginning and intermediate groups, the Légère reed of choice is still the Classic version, designed to match or outplay popular student-level cane reeds. For higher-level players, however, Légère needed more—which is where the Signature Series came in. One of the artists behind the premium reed’s development was GRAMMY-winning clarinetist John Moses, a veteran of the New York Philharmonic, 26 Broadway productions, numerous movie soundtracks, and many other high-level performances. Over a period in 2008, Moses worked with Légère’s science-driven team to add what he felt was the missing ingredient: the artist’s sense for tone and feel. He sent several of his best cane reeds, refined through trimming and sanding, to Légère’s lab, where the reed-makers analyzed their structure and worked to re-create it. They would find that superior reeds share certain characteristics: near-perfect symmetry and a very thin tip to achieve delicate vibrations across the tip that Elvy compares to the fluttering of butterfly wings. Since helping Légère perfect the Signature Series, Moses himself has used the reeds everywhere from Broadway shows to outdoor concerts to a TV commercial for the sleep aid Lunesta—where directors told him the “take” recorded using his Légère reed sounded hands-down better than the one on cane. “I’ve played them in Carnegie Hall,” says Moses. “And I’ve played them in a rainstorm under a tent, where a cane reed would have failed.”

Among advanced musicians, especially those who’ve tried other synthetic reeds, a few of Légère’s attributes stand out. While synthetics have a reputation for playing “bright” or “shrill,” they say, Légères sound warm and mellow like a cane reed. Another common impression is that they play with the responsiveness of a cane reed rather than a lifeless piece of plastic, taking on different tonal colors as the player adjusts its positioning or pairs it with a different mouthpiece or ligature. Along with Moses, Légère reeds are now played by pros including Philadelphia Orchestra principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales, top-selling jazz saxophonist Gerald Albright, Beatbox sax player Derek Brown, Andreas Ottensamer of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and Barnaby Robson of the English National Opera Orchestra.

They’re also the reed of choice for some of the best respected band programs in the country. Travis Pardee, a saxophonist and director of the 350-member Foothill Marching Band in Henderson Nevada, started using Légère reeds with his bands last year. “We begin marching band rehearsals the first week of August, when temperatures can reach nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit with virtually zero humidity,” he said. “Cane reeds need moisture to work correctly—Légère reeds do not. They work immediately. Three months later we marched in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City—and they were unaffected by the near-freezing temperatures.” Jacob Campos, a clarinetist and assistant band director for Franklin High School in Franklin, Tennessee, started using Légère reeds three years ago with his bands—and before that for himself. “Many years ago I was quick to write off Légère because I couldn’t believe synthetic could be as good as the ‘real thing,’” he said. “Then I realized that every instrument has gone through changes and improved with the innovations of the time. I think Légère is just that: the next great and innovative step in reed making and tone production.”

For Légère, this year’s big introduction is its first-ever mouthpiece product, developed in partnership with the prominent Austrian mouthpiece maker Nick Kuckmeir. For Légère, Kuckmeir has designed the semi-professional “Inspiration” mouthpieces as an ideal pairing for Légère reeds, though they can be used with cane reeds as well. Available for clarinet and alto sax, hard rubber Inspiration mouthpieces are precision-machined to yield a design described as free-blowing and suited to quick articulation. Since launching at NAMM, “they’re going out the door,” says Elvy. “Almost everyone who tries it buys it.”

Like Légère’s reeds, the new mouthpiece line is being sold exclusively through the company’s network of authorized dealers, and through U.S. and Canadian Shopatron pages that channel online orders to dealers for fulfillment. Without exception, Légère products are never sold directly to consumers. Even for schools that order in bulk, Légère’s M.O. is to discount the order for its distributor—which can then pass on the savings to the dealer and the school. “It’s important to us to support our brick-and-mortar stores, especially those who cater to educators and schools,” says Elvy. “If I had one message to dealers, educators, and musicians, it would be to try our reeds—they are serious reeds delivering sound performance.”

www.legere.com

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