Clarinet Service

Total cost of ownership; that small detail which one has to consider when buying a new asset. A vehicle is the classic example for TCO where licensing, gas, tires, oil & filters, break pads and all those other little bits that need replacing over time almost result in you paying for the vehicles list price all over again.

Musical instruments are a little like this. They’re mechanical and as with most things mechanical, they wear out over time. Leave it long enough and parts may become irreparable. If my Le Blanc cost NZ $2300 back in 1999 and I had it (thoroughly) serviced every 3 years for about $300 each time, there’s the cost of a Buffet Ell right there.

Since leaving university I’ve been really slack getting my instrument serviced. I had a misaligned pad on the throat A key due to it losing its adhesive but other than that, it hasn’t had much attention in the last 6-7 years. It takes an emergency to spur me into action, which kind of what happened. The very next rehearsal after a concert band gig, the high notes from about E all the way to C started to get a tzzzzz sound, as if a tiny bit of spit was vibrating profusely on a pad. No amount of pull-through use or pad drying would help. It was probably a leak.

I took it to my not-so-local but preferred woodwind technician and here’s the breakdown of work done.

  • Remove heaving lint build-up in small tone holes
  • Re ‘cork’ 4 side keys, alt/Eb/Bb, bridge key F#
  • Repad 4 side keys, alt Eb/Bb, C#/G# (pads: 24.00)
  • Fit replacement for weak, rusted side Eb spring
  • Clean gummy cork grease deposit from centre tenon
  • Recork mouthpiece
  • Remove surface rust from other flat springs and treat against rust. Also treat needle springs
  • Remove rust from flat spring guides & likewise treat
  • Fill split between and across top 2 side keys’ tone holes. Re-dress tone holes
  • Oil bore
  • Fill tiny gram hole in edit of side F# key’s tone hole
  • Prepare & re-silver solder “dry joint” key in cup arm of low ring key. Re-fit key.
  • Record mouthpiece ($4)
  • Instal silencer skins in lever-key links; E/B & F#/C#
  • Extensive adjustment, especially venting
  • Lubricate & test.

Swab for $39
Cork $4
Pads $24
Service $360
Total: $427

I wish the motorcycle service guys would be this thorough.

Of note were two things:
1. Fill split between and across top 2 side keys’ tone holes. Re-dress tone holes.
In about 1999-2000, that same technician fixed that same crack. Great to see that the fill managed to last 15 years and funny that after all this time, the same guy was there to fix it again. It’s not a super nasty crack but the split creates just enough of a gap to upset the pad-to-wood seal.
2. Fit replacement for weak, rusted side Eb spring.
This may have been the culprit of the buzz. If the spring tension had decreased over time, I could imagine why this issue when from intermittent to often. You’d think playing the instrument while holding that pad down tightly would have confirmed that hypothesis but trying to play and have either yourself or someone else hold that pad down is not a guaranteed way of confirming the cause of the leak.

Great, so the instrument was serviced and it was sounding great when I left the workshop…

…but ah, crap! It’s still there, the sound, that irritable tzzz. Not as loud or pronounced as before and certainly intermittent but there none the less. I’d hope it would settle over time but my acute clarinet hearing picks that sound up and I cringe; it stifles the enjoyment.

It’s difficult to go back to the technician and just say, hey, it’s still broken, fix it. Luckily one of the guys in the band is also a technician so with any luck, we can perhaps narrow down the cause so at least I can be a bit more specific with the desired fix. I don’t want to add too much more to that already impressive service bill.


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