Cleaning Your Instrument

Recently there was a news article about a dixieland clarinet player getting severely ill from inhaling the fungi that was growing in his instrument. By being allergic to two of the three fungi present, he developed a form of pneumonia commonly called saxophone lung.

Cleaning Habits

This got me thinking about instrument cleaning and how some of my students go about it (or don’t). I can characterise the recurring themes:

The slow and meticulous student

This student takes their sweet time packing up. It usually involves a pull-through through the the instrument (and here’s hoping it’s long enough to do the whole instrument in one go) and cleaning cloth to wipe down the keys. Usually I’d applaud this student, but not when they take 5 minutes to do it, which eats away into the next student’s lesson time. I don’t really want to have to finish 5 mins earlier so they can sort themselves out and booting them into the next room seems a bit rude.

Those lacking in dexterity

Some of the younger students take some time to develop their fine motor skills for putting together and pulling apart their instrument. Whether it be the reed, or grasping the idea of twisting and pulling/pushing the joints of the clarinet, sometimes it takes a while for them to get the hang of it.

This predicament becomes slightly comical when students try and feed the pull-through through the clarinet by holding the string 30cm above the clarinet, resulting in the weighted end swaying about. They make it an even bigger challenge by feeding it through the barrel end, rather the bell end, which is a much bigger target.

The, I never take the reed out, student

I had an adult alto sax student who never took the reed off. Naturally it started to go a bit black so I took it off knowing that keeping a reed on is always a bad idea. I took a look at the underside where there was, I kid you not, a mountain of mould! It was amazing; this black hill of mould had grown on the underside of the reed. Not just a reed decolourisation, an actual lump of black.

Not taking off the reed is common. What better way to demonstrate how bad an idea this is than by pulling a white tissue through the mouthpiece. Brown slime on white tissue is quite the contrast. Just think about all those times you suck on the mouthpiece to clear the spit between the reed and mouthpiece rails. Mmmmm, tasty.

In regards to cleaning a grossed out mouthpiece, mild dishwashing detergent and lukewarm water is sufficient. You don’t want the water too hot because there is a risk the plastic/ebonite mouthpiece might warp.

The, I just leave the clarinet set up, student

Somewhat related to not taking the reed off the mouthpiece after playing, is not pulling the instrument apart at all. This actually sounds like a good idea, right? It sits their tempting you to play it and it’s already set up for you to do so.

The problem is the cork. The cork actually gets very compressed when the clarinet spends most of its life put together. It loses its grip and the joints get the wobbles.

The, I need to pull my clarinet in half because the pull-through isn’t long enough, student

Some pull-throughs are hopeless. They can be really coarse, non-absorbent or just not fit well through the instrument. Some are just too short meaning the student pulls their clarinet in half.

At this point I show them that it’s really not that short…

  • For starters, its best to take the mouthpiece off; it’s too tight a fit for the pull-through, can be damaged by an exposed metal pull-through weight and cloths can fit just fine.
  • Invert the clarinet (that’s math-speak for ‘hold the clarinet upside down’)
  • Now feed the pull-through through bell end of the clarinet. This end allows it to feed through more easily and straighter.

The, ummm, my pull-through got stuck, student

Some pull-throughs are quite short and thick. (Personally I use an old handkerchief tied to an old shoe lace with an old pull-through weight at the end). Pull those stubby pull-throughs through the wrong way and they gets stuck in the upper joint where the thumb hole metal extends into the clarinet. Yikes. Either I’m tasked with applying extra grunt (which usually works) or we just have to source something long to push it back out the way it came.

The, “hey, you missed the G#, oh, wait, that pad is stuck,” student

The G# key gets stuck on so many of my students’ saxophones. It’s one of the few notes where the pad isn’t attached to the rod that pivots when the key is pressed. The pad instead lifts via a spring when the mechanics move out the way upon the key being pressed.

The problem is, there is often blue-green gunk under the pad which sticks it to the brass saxophone. (Despite being lousy at chemistry, I’m pretty sure the brass or lacquer has oxidised). When that stickiness overcomes the spring force, the pad doesn’t lift and that G# becomes a G.

Usually rice papers (i.e. cigarette papers) are good for removing most of the gunk by slipping it between the brass and the pad, closing the pad, then pulling the paper out, hopefully along with the gunk. I’ve long since run out so I just use ordinary old paper.

Setting a bad example

I have to admit that I’m pretty slack looking after my Le Blanc clarinet. I use the pull-through and wipe out the mouthpiece but I oil the wood irregularly and the keys didn’t used to get a good wipe down. In fact, neglecting to wipe down the keys has resulted in not just the lacquer wearing away, but also the brass keys themselves! Especially corroded are the inside of the rings and the bottom keys.

Maybe I just have wickedly potent finger oils. When I bought my fantastic Martin Trombone, I swore not to let that happen again but despite religiously wiping down the trombone after each play using a proper instrument cleaning cloth, the lacquer came off pretty quick. Le Blanc (who make the Martin trombone) may as well not have even used lacquer for someone with my hands. Perhaps Le Blanc could have made the trombone like some of the saxophones that Temby used to make that had no lacquer in order to embrace that old school jazz look.


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