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The ligature is the device used to bind the reed onto the mouthpiece. On the original chalemeau, the reed was cut from the mouthpiece itself. Later, reeds were bound on with string. (still done in some parts of Europe) Here in the western hemisphere, strings were replaced by the metal clamps that we know today. While stock ligatures are pretty standard, there are many newer aftermarket models that enhance reed vibration by either minimizing the amount of ligature/reed contact, or by spreading contact to the point where it imitates the characteristics of a string ligature.
Minimizing reed contact. This is done by using rails or contact points that come between the ligature and the reed. This makes the reed vibrate more freely. Bonade is the original user of rails, and it is an extremely popular ligature with clarinetists today. The Gigliotti ligature is made of plastic and uses multiple rails to minimize contact area with both the reed and the mouthpiece. The Winslow saxophone ligature (very expensive) uses a series of small round pads that contact the reed and mouthpiece only at certain points. BG also makes a number of different ligatures that incorporate the principal.
Imitating string: The most common ligature using this principle is the Rovner. It is made of rubberized fabric, and is tightened like a belt around the mouthpiece and ligature. This evenly spreads contact area, and the flexibility of the material allows the reed to vibrate more naturally, as if it were bound by string. Some ligatures combine the rubberized fabric with rails or contact points to get the best of both worlds. This includes Rovner's Eddie Daniels model and serveral different BG models. Luyben clarinet ligatures keep contact area minimal, but are made of soft plastic and also fall into this category. A new and highly expensive ligature using this principle is made by Oleg. It covers evenly like a Rovner, but uses a steel mesh which is highly elastic and frees up the reed even more. Vandoren's 'Optimum' ligature uses detachable plates to spread out the pressure, and may actually outperform the Olegs.
Bottom Line: Ligatures do make a difference in performance, but there is a question of cost effectiveness--particularly when students are involved. Aftermarket ligatures do very little for a student who does not have a good quality mouthpiece. The student should get a good mouthpiece for the instrument, get used to using it, and then look at ligatures. I generally recommend Bonade or Luyben ligatures to student clarinetists . Rovner ligatures (except the more expensive Eddie Daniels model) are also a good buy and are especially popular with saxophonists. Winslows, Olegs and Optimums are, in my opinion, overkill for most students.
I personally use an Oleg ligature on clarinet and Rover ligatures on saxophones. (hopefully switching to Oleg one day)
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