Clarinet Basics - Maintenance Habits

Care and Maintenance Habits are an Important Part of Music Education

Most of us who teach have at some point opened our students’ clarinet cases to find broken or moldy reeds, missing screws, dirty, dusty tone holes or bent keys. Often, these problems are the very reasons that our students have trouble learning to perform well.

Clarinets that are not well treated and well maintained can cause numerous difficulties, including lack of response, squeaking, excessive resistance and poor key coordination. Therefore, learning to care for a clarinet properly is extremely important, and teaching students how to maintain their instruments can create lifelong good habits.

I still assemble and disassemble my clarinet just as my elementary-school band director taught me. The method can seem obvious, but in fact, if done incorrectly, it can be the source of many problems. Forcing tight tenons together or holding the clarinet incorrectly during assembly can cause bent keys and stuck joints. There are two important things young students must keep in mind while assembling the clarinet. The first is to place the upper and lower joints together without bending the bridge key, and the second is to put the barrel on in the right direction.

When placing the upper and lower joints together, allow the upper joint of the clarinet to rest in the palm of the left hand, with the lower tenon near the wrist. The front of the clarinet will be facing up, and the palm of the hand will be gently cradling the back of the joint just below the register key. Then curve the fingers around the front of the joint and press the keys so that the bridge mechanism opens or lifts. Doing this allows you to slip the lower-joint bridge key under the upper-joint bridge key.

Now hold the lower joint in the right hand, toward the lower end of the joint, without excessive force on the keys or rods. Make sure that all corks are sufficiently lubricated with cork grease. Twist the joints together in a back-andforth motion, rather than by turning the lower joint in a circular motion. The joints should slide smoothly together, and the rings in the front should be in line. After putting the upper and lower joints together, twist the bell into place and then the barrel. The barrel has a small and a large end, and although it is probably obvious to you, be sure that your youngest students place the barrel on in the correct direction, with the larger side of the barrel fitting onto the upper joint. Finally, place the mouthpiece on the barrel, and then the ligature and reed, in that order.

Remember to keep the tenons well greased with good, clean cork grease, but do not allow too much of it to build up on the cork. Instead, wipe excess grease off before applying more so that it does not get sticky. Use only the amount of cork grease you need in order to get a smooth, easy connection, and do this only when it becomes difficult to slide the tenons together.

Disassembly should follow the opposite order. Be sure that your student continues to hold the clarinet as during assembly, raising the bridge key before twisting the joints apart. Whether playing a wood clarinet or a plastic model, it is best to disassemble the clarinet as soon as possible so that the corks are not continually pressed, which can cause loose, wobbly tenons and eventual leaks and stuffiness. Clean each joint thoroughly with a cotton handkerchief or silk swab. The swab should be pulled through the clarinet from bottom to top — or from the bell to the barrel — but should not be pulled through the mouthpiece. Make sure that all water is thoroughly removed from the tenons by wiping these areas with the swab.

Remember to shake out the swab so that it is as long and flat as possible. Do not put it through the clarinet when it is in a knot. If the swab gets stuck in a joint, it is important to take it to a good repair shop to have it removed. Never poke sharp objects into the clarinet (screwdrivers, flute rods, pencils or pens, batons), as they can scar the tone holes and inner surface of the instrument.

Dry the mouthpiece by gently wiping the surface with the swab, but do not pull it through the mouthpiece frequently, as repeated swabbing can actually change the mouthpiece’s delicate inner dimensions. Run tepid water through the mouthpiece about once a week, protecting the cork as much as possible. To remove white deposits, soak the tip of the mouthpiece in lemon juice.

Remove all water from tone holes by using pad paper. (Long ago we used cigarette paper. The same paper is now available as pad-drying paper so that young students may get it easily from music stores.) Drying the clarinet effectively will keep it clean and also help prevent cracks from developing in a wood-bodied instrument. Teaching this to students who have plastic clarinets will help ensure that they continue to dry their instruments thoroughly when they eventually step up to wood.

Make sure that your youngest students know how to place the parts of the instrument back into its case correctly. The upper and lower joints must fit into the case in the correct direction in order for it to close properly, and the case should never be forced shut like an overstuffed suitcase. If the pieces are in their proper positions, the case should close securely but easily.

The mouthpiece should be placed in the case with the ligature on it, and then the mouthpiece cap should be placed over both, with care being taken not to nick or crack the facing of the mouthpiece by hitting it with the cap. (I prefer plastic caps for this reason.)


Clarinet Basics - Maintenance Habits


It is best to take the reed off the mouthpiece before storing it. Reeds left to dry on the mouthpiece can warp, which will make them play badly in very little time. However, reeds left floating in the case will most certainly be damaged as well. To protect reeds, store them in a reed guard of some kind that will keep them flat. Wet reeds kept in the paper cases or boxes in which they were sold will not stay in good playing shape, as they will not be able to dry in a flat position. A good reed case will be made of a hard material (plastic or with a glass plate), will protect the tip of the reed and will keep the reed held securely on a dry, flat surface.

The clarinet should be kept free of dirt and grime by dusting under the keys with a soft brush on a regular basis. To keep keys moving efficiently and noiselessly, apply a small drop of specially formulated key oil where the key rods meet the posts. Do this on a monthly basis, and be sure all dirt is removed before applying the oil. Use a needle oiler, and take care that no oil comes into contact with the plastic body of a student instrument.

Check to see that the screws are in place and have not twisted themselves out of the post. Lost screws will mean lost keys. If the screw is too far out, tighten it with a small screwdriver until it is level with the post, but do not overwind the screw, as the key may bind. If in doubt, seek out a qualified repair person to fix, maintain and adjust screw tensions.

Wooden clarinets are sometimes subject to cracking, a situation we all hope to avoid. Cracking can occur if part of the wood absorbs moisture and expands while other sections are too dry; the difference in pressure may cause a crack. The same can be said of temperature. If you blow hot air through a cold instrument, the temperature difference can cause the bore to expand while the outside remains cold and contracted. Either way, the pressure on the wood is inconsistent, and cracking is possible. (For this reason, never use a wooden instrument on the marching field.)

However, don’t panic, as cracks can be repaired. Wood is a material that changes over time and with fluctuations of humidity and weather. Therefore, the best way to avoid cracking is to try to maintain consistency in the wood’s temperature and moisture level.

Do that by keeping the instrument as dry as possible, especially when placing it into the case after playing. Warm it up slowly, and store it away from heat or cold sources. If the tenon rings are loose, the wood has become too dry and has shrunk. If the joints are stuck, the wood has expanded. Make sure you take your instrument to a qualified repairperson right away to solve these problems before cracking occurs.

One of the most frequent questions I receive concerning maintenance is whether or not the bores of wood-bodied instruments should be oiled. There is no simple answer. I have never oiled my clarinet bores, and I have never had a crack. However, some people have a body chemistry that causes the clarinet bore to dry out considerably.

If your instrument has a very dry bore, it is a good idea to oil it. Do this only during cold months (when your heating system dries the air) or if you live in a very dry climate. To oil the bore, place a few drops of bore oil on an old swab and pull the swab through the instrument. The important thing is that if you do it once, you must then do it regularly — once every two weeks or so during the winter months in cold climates, or more often in very dry climates.

Do not use anything other than the bore oil you find in music stores, which is formulated from light mineral oils that will not turn rancid. Oiling the bore will not affect your clarinet’s tone or response.

Finally, make sure that your students never do any of the following to abuse their clarinets: stand it on the floor by the bell (unless, of course, they have a clarinet peg); lay it on a music stand; leave it on an unstable chair or lay it on the floor; carry it through the halls without regard to protecting the mouthpiece from hitting the walls or their friends; leave the mouthpiece cap off while waiting in line to take an all-state audition; leave it unattended — in or out of the case.

Teach every student to care for and protect his or her clarinet. It is an instrument, not a toy, and deserves good treatment and respect. If students believe they are in possession of a precious object, they will learn to value it, and they will value the work they do with it all the more.

Clarinets Basics