Santy Runyon Discusses Reeds
(The following article is a collection of four
letters from my good friend and mouthpiece manufacturer
Santy Runyon. These letters give insight
into reeds, their history and manufacture in the U. S., effects on the
embouchure, selection of reeds, and other tips.---Paul Coats)
Part 1 (From a two part letter from Santy
Just a few experiences with materials, design,
methods of manufacture, etc etc.
I played drums for silent pictures, before
“talkies” came out. I started at the age of eight. Bill
Ludwig, of the
Selmer Co., and I are the only "trap drummers" left. That's what
Bill told me the last time I saw him. When a bird appeared on the silent
screen, it was the job of the drummer to blow a little bird whistle. You
had to have a train whistle when an old coal operated train appeared. A cow
moo, you would blow when the farmer was milking the cow. A big sheet of tin
with a handle on it would sound like thunder---you would shake it when rain
appeared on the screen. Pull the trigger on a cap pistol when the cowboy
would shoot an Indian. Couldn't get fired cause my ol' man owned the show.
This was in Barnsdall, Oklahoma, a small town in Osage Indian Territory. I
did this until “talkies” came out.
When I was ten, my father bought me a
C Melody Sax. It was used and it came with
one reed. It played pretty good, and I learned to play two tunes on it in
two days. I had already played Vibes for a couple of years, so I did know a
little about music.
I was very enthused about Sax and played it a
lot, so you can imagine what happened to that one reed. This town was 45
miles from Tulsa--so I was out of luck for a reed. Radio was invented just
a couple of years before. The front panel was made of hard rubber, and my
dad had broken it and the hard rubber panel was in pieces. Our picture
machine operator saw my plight so he whittled out a hard rubber
reed--patterned it after the worn out cane reed. He and I fooled with it
until we got it to play pretty good. I played that reed for almost nine
months, until I got a chance to go to Jenkins Music Store in Tulsa. I
bought six # 2 1/2 reeds. Every one was different. One was so hard I
couldn't play it--one so soft it was almost useless. I had to rework every
one of those reeds. That is still going on today. You buy five reeds and
they are all different, no matter what brand you select.
I have said this many times--I played lead alto
and principle flute in the Chicago Theatre
Orchestra for eleven years (1931-1942). Playing 5 to 7 shows a day
plus three early morning rehearsals a week, you had better have some chops,
and you had better keep 'em up. Reed management was my means of keeping the
embouchure in shape.
Part 2 (The reed and embouchure)
The afore mentioned cane reed that came with
the C Melody sax is a good example of how too soft a reed can weaken your
embouchure. The homemade hard rubber reed, on the other hand, is a great
example of how you can maintain a consistent strength of the lips, since the
reed didn't weaken appreciably over a period of time. The only drawback,
however, was the tone quality, which left a lot to be desired. Gale Stout,
Vic Bowen (also of the Chicago Theatre Orchestra), and I devised a practical
way to sustain a good embouchure.
We each bought a bunch of reeds. I bought
about 50. Then, a clarinet reed cost 10 cents---alto, 15 cents---tenor, 20
cents. It would be prohibitive at today’s prices to do that. The object
was to find five reeds of a good enough strength and quality to play the job
in a satisfactory manner--strong enough to support the higher register, yet
flexible enough to permit satisfactory attack on the low notes. We played
those five reeds over and over until we were satisfied that any one of them
would do this most important job. We would play one on the job for a week
or ten days, depending on how the reed would hold up. Then start a reed
session, playing those 4 remaining reeds. If, at the start of the reed
session, that first reed seemed stiff--that was a dead giveaway. Sure
enough the embouchure had weakened. After playing all four of the reserve
reeds, the lips had gained their strength back. That really worked like a
charm for us. We felt it necessary to always have four of the proper reeds
in reserve. Most naturally, the discarded reed would always be replaced.
The process served me well for eleven years.
Part 3 (Reed manufacturing)
It might be good to understand a little about
how reeds are made. A gentleman by the name of Roy Maier and another named
Tony Ciccone, both from Chicago, started the reed company presently known as
the "Rico Company". Tony dropped out of
the picture, which left Roy as sole owner. Roy brought reeds to me at the
Chicago Theatre, for me to test. They were then called Symmetricut reeds.
Maybe I didn't spell it right. The reeds were very good. Jimmy Dorsey
heard me playing them and inquired about them. I gave him a couple and he
liked them also. Maurie Berlin owned the Chicago Musical Instrument Company
at that time, and to my knowledge he was the first distributor of Roy
Maier's Rico reeds. I arranged for Jimmy Dorsey
to give an endorsement on the reed for the Chicago Instrument Company.
Years later, because I knew Roy that well, I
was able to go through the Rico factory, and observed the process in making
the reeds. The vamp on the reed is extremely thin at the tip. First cut
(leaving the reed the longest and the thinnest) makes the 1-1/2 (the
softest). It is then cut a little shorter for a #2. Then it is cut shorter
again for a 2-1/2. As the reed is cut shorter and shorter, it becomes
thicker and thicker, and as it becomes thicker and thicker, it also becomes
harder and harder to attack the low notes.
Band directors all over the country tell the
students to use 3-1/2 reeds, many times not knowing whether the mouthpiece
that the student is using is close, medium, or open. If the mouthpiece is
close, the 3-1/2 reed will probably work O. K., but that still doesn’t
eliminate the fact that the reed is perhaps pretty thick at the tip. A
2-1/2 reed on a medium facing mouthpiece would produce better results for
the average student.
Here is a kid with an open mouthpiece--he
doesn’t know that it's too open for him, and it's possible that his band
director doesn't know it either. He is told to go and buy a 3-1/2 reed.
What is he going to do now? If the band director knows mouthpieces, and has
gauges (and a number of them are that well equipped) the kid is in good
shape. The problem can be taken care of.
Roy Maier died a few years ago. Rico is now
owned by Boosey & Hawkes, the same company
that owns Buffet and
Part 4 (From another letter, placing the reed
on the mouthpiece)
Getting back to putting the reed on the
mouthpiece in the right way--I had mentioned that the larger the facing the
farther over the tip of the mouthpiece the reed should be placed to
compensate for the shortening of the reed that occurs as the reed follows
the curve of the mouthpiece facing. If the reed (when you press it down)
covers the entire tip rail, you will observe that the tone becomes clearer
and more solid--even a little darker. In turning the mouthpiece around
(looking at the top of the mouthpiece), and pressing the reed down with the
finger, you should see a miniscule hairline of the reed sticking out. It
also tells you if the tip of the mouthpiece has been shaped to fit the
contour of the reed properly. However, the tips of the reeds are not all
the same, so it really doesn’t matter as long as the reed covers the entire
tip rail. If it only covers a tiny amount of the
tip rail--result--squeaks, no doubt.
Santy Runyon is now 94 years old. Most people
his age would have retired long ago, but Santy continues to head his
company, Runyon Products, and
develop new mouthpieces and accessories
for woodwind players. He stays active giving lessons and clinics, playing
gigs, and sometimes finds time for fishing.