ARUNDO DONAX: THE SOURCE OF NATURAL WOODWIND
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
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
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.
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Motion On The Resonance Frequency of Reed-Blown Woodwind Instruments".
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Patterson, John. "An Experiment In
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Association, 1971, 152-153.
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