Your clarinet gets all manner of things on itself: key oil, bore oil, oil from your fingers, felt or other lining materials from your case, and all of the dust and other tiny detritus that you find in homes, in rehearsal halls, or on concert stages.
In rare cases, you might even get food or drink dropped or spilled on your clarinet. In short clarinets get dirty.
Most of the stuff you can get on your clarinet is not inherently harmful. Food and drink, however, can be anything from merely annoying to devastating.
Cleaning Your Clarinet
At a basic level, clarinets do not like liquids. Condensed water vapor inside the bore is bad enough, but anything spilled can wreak havoc with the pads.
Worse, if there are cracks too small to see in the outside of a wooden instrument, then something spilled on it can seep its way into the body. If it gets cold, the wood can chip or split.
Therefore, it’s mandatory to clean your instrument immediately if you have spilled something on it. When it comes to liquids, the best way to do this is with canned air. Cloths of any kind will leave behind fibers that must also be cleaned off. If you use paper towel or similar items, you will never stop finding the bits.
Canned air, on the other hand, blows the liquid off quickly and easily. It can even blow small quantities out of miniature cracks and out of tone holes.
It’s equally easy to clean the pads. If you act quickly enough, then you might not have to replace any pads either. This will work with soup or other dense liquids too.
Fortunately, solid food just bounces off the instrument.
Needless to say, never immerse a clarinet in water to “wash it.” Other than those made of cork, the pads will be destroyed. This is true even of plastic clarinets.
After playing, it’s essential to clean the inside of your clarinet. The same moisture that can destroy the pads when the clarinet is immersed in water lingers in the form of condensed water vapor inside the instrument after playing. The best way to clean the inside of the clarinet is with a swab.
Swabs are fashioned from many different materials, but the two most common are woven cotton or silk. Both are absorbent and do the job well. Most professional clarinetists prefer the silk swab, however, because it folds easier inside the case. Swabs have metal weights at the end of a string that enable the player to pull the swab easily through the bore. Players should also swab the mouthpiece.
Never swab the clarinet through the mouthpiece first. Even something as soft as silk can damage the rails and facing of the mouthpiece. Instead, swab the clarinet from the direction of the bell.
Even if you remove the mouthpiece for separate cleaning, it’s a good habit always to swab from the bell end.
The mouthpiece must be cleaned every time you play. Ideally, this is daily. If you don’t clean the mouthpiece, after a while, it’ll seem almost as if something is living inside it. Some dirty mouthpieces must be seen to be believed. Keep away from that kind of filth by cleaning your mouthpiece daily.
If you haven’t swabbed daily and need stronger cleaning, then running the mouthpiece under a tap will do nicely. Be sure to run the water backwards through the mouthpiece. If you must use something inside the mouthpiece to dislodge “the galloping crud” that builds up inside it, use a soft-bristled toothbrush.
The glue that holds the tenon corks in place is a form of either rubber cement or epoxy, so it should be at least water resistant. Keep an eye on your mouthpiece tenon cork, however, to ensure that it doesn’t loosen or come off. Remember, too, that if you swab daily to keep the mouthpiece clean, then you won’t have to resort to scrubbing the ghastly stuff out of it under running water.
Here’s a video showing the maintenance of the Clarinet:
Your fingers are oily. The human body creates the oils to keep the skin moist so that it doesn’t crack and bleed easily. Unfortunately, that oil mixes with dust particles and collects inside the clarinet’s tone holes and the interior of the key rings. There are several methods of cleaning the gunk out of tone holes. Most of the holes are large enough that you can use a cotton swab with a tiny amount of alcohol on it. You’d be surprised what comes out those tone holes!
The gunk from your fingers that collects in those tone holes affects the pitch of your clarinet. In some cases, the clarinet may not even play correctly. This is especially true if the register key becomes clogged. The tone hole under the register key pad is too small for a cotton swab. In this case, a pipe cleaner would work as would the same canned air you used to get stuff off the outside of the clarinet. Once you remove the register key and clean the tone hole, there will be stuff inside the bore. Swab the bore to remove it.
Don’t neglect the interior surfaces of the key rings themselves. They get clogged with yucky stuff too. That stuff can fall into the tone hole and give you the same problems you had before cleaning the tone hole.
Screws and Posts
The same stuff that gets into the tone holes can seep into the interior of the key rods and the screw sockets. When this happens, the keys won’t work right. The action will be sluggish. In some advanced “cases of gunk,” the keys won’t even spring back when pressed. In this case, you must remove the keys, posts, and screws and clean them.
Before starting this, get a large, soft cloth and lay it out on a bare surface. Then, when you take the keys off of the clarinet, lay the pieces down in the exact order you removed them. That way, when you reassemble them, you just have to do it in reverse order.
Gently clean the items one by one, placing them back in the proper order on the cloth. Don’t use canned air on the screws and posts because they’ll blow away, and then you will be sunk. Use canned air on the interior of the keys with posts in them and in the empty screw sockets on the clarinet. Rub the posts with tissue to remove any gunk.
Before reassembling the clarinet, use a tiny amount of sewing machine oil on the inside of the keys where the posts go: emphasis on tiny. Do not oil screw sockets. While you have the keys off of the clarinet, use canned air, cotton swabs, and a soft cloth to get rid of anything on the outside of the clarinet.
You don’t need to remove keys and do this kind of intense cleaning very often. At most, you should do it once or twice a year. It’s painstaking, and a mistake in laying out the pieces on the soft cloth or in reassembling them can be the very dickens to correct. If you don’t feel comfortable with doing this kind of work yourself, seek out a professional repair person.
It’s not difficult to do basic cleaning of a clarinet. You just have to have the right items and do the basic cleaning regularly. That way, you can keep the intense, deep cleaning at bay. Happy clean playing!
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Charles Dalmas is a professional Clarinetist with over 20 years of experience and holds a Master's degree in Music Performance and Music Education from Crane School of Music. He also has a Bachelor's of Science in Music from SUNY New Paltz. He is the Music Director of Sarnia Sea Cadets and also the former Principal Clarinetist in the International Symphony Orchestra.