Reed all about it!

PUBLISHED: 20:18 23 March 2014 | UPDATED: 20:18 23 March 2014




For a quarter of a century, Colchester has been home to the annual East Anglian Single Reed Festival which celebrates the best of clarinet and saxophone music. David Chivers explains more

Essex is a varied county in so many ways and there are many hidden gems to discover, both in terms of its landscape and some of the events hosted within the county. One which will be unknown to many people is the East Anglian Single Reed Festival, which in fact will be celebrating its 25th anniversary on Sunday, March 2.

The event was started by Charles Hine and the late Angela Fussell, and hosted at the Colchester Institute, where it continues to be held to this day. As well-known and respected performers and teachers on clarinet and saxophone, Angela and Charles were able to attract top professional players to visit and host a masterclass as the basis for the event, and word soon spread of the excellent day to be had. In 2010, Charles handed the organisation of the event over to The East Anglian Single Reed Choir with whom he had been working as musical director.

But what is a single reed choir or festival? The term ‘single reed’ covers all the instruments that use a single reed for sound production and is the clarinet and saxophone family. A single reed choir is an ensemble that combines clarinets and saxophones as opposed to a clarinet choir or saxophone choir, which is only of those instruments. There does not seem to be a definitive answer as to why the term ‘choir’ was used rather than ‘ensemble’ or similar, but it would seem the first clarinet choir was credited to Gustave Poncelet at the Brussels Conservatory in the late 19th century. The saxophone choir would appear to date from later in the mid-20th century.

The sound of reed choirs is a beautifully rich and varied timbre, capable of performing classical and modern music. The reason for this is the large range of instruments used. Most people know what a clarinet looks like and, of course, a saxophone. However, the range used starts with the eb clarinet, smaller than the normal bb instrument that all people learn on, and progresses through to the alto clarinet, the bass clarinet and finally to the contra bass clarinet which, at some 9 feet in length, plays very low notes. The saxophones start with the tiny sopranino, then soprano. The alto and tenor follow with the baritone sax next. The bass sax at the bottom of the family is a very large and impressive instrument.

The Single Reed Festival has varied in format over the years but still retains the important elements of lots of opportunities to play and the chance to hear a masterclass by one of the country’s top professional clarinet and/or saxophone players. The 2014 festival will start with the opportunity to play in a massed single reed choir. After a coffee break, there will be workshops for novice players, jazz and clarinet and saxophone choirs. After lunch, which will probably include a short talk from a local musician, there will be the opportunity to either play in or to watch the masterclass given by Andy Scott, one of the UK’s top saxophone players and composers. The afternoon continues with more playing and a final rehearsal of the single reed choir before an informal concert for friends and family, but which is also open to the public and is free of charge.

There is little restriction on who may attend the festival, but there is a minimum playing standard of grade 2 needed to fully appreciate the day. It is always a special day, with more experienced players helping those still learning, and age is no barrier.

The organisers are fortunate to be supported by the trade stands, including the principal supplier Wood, Wind & Reed from Cambridge. The firm provide the opportunity for players to browse and purchase everything from reeds and accessories through to new instruments. There is also the chance to talk to representatives from Vandoren and Rico (two of the world’s leading reed and mouthpiece makers), to see music from different publishers and the chance to take home some CDs of clarinet and saxophone performances specially selected by Liz Leatherdale of Colchester Classics.

To make the 25th anniversary extra special there will be a Gala Concert at the Swinburne Hall on Saturday, March 1, featuring the British Clarinet Ensemble, The East Anglian Single Reed Choir, The Italian South Tirol Clarinet Choir and the Colchester Institute Clarinet Choir. There will also be British premiers of two new works and details and ticket information can be found at

Find out more

The festival is a successful event, but more players are always welcome. If you are a clarinet or saxophone player reading this (or you know one), please come and join the event for a fabulous day of music making. You can also find out more about the The East Anglian Single Reed Choir at

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