I am a fairly obsessive person when it comes to caring for my clarinet. This will be particularly evident in a future post on preventing cracking in wooden clarinets, but for now, I just want to talk about keeping things clean and dry. The reason? Moisture can carry with it some nasty stuff like particles from your mouth (though you should be brushing your teeth beforehand, right?), cause the instrument to mold if left there too long, and on wood clarinets can increase the likelihood of cracking or warping. I take a little extra time when I pack up to make sure all of the moisture is gone. Some may think it’s overkill, but my clarinets look and play great, and my pads last for a very long time.
Always swab. Swab often (every 10-15 minutes of playing) to prevent water from getting in your tone holes. If you don’t swab frequently, the water can form tracks directly into your tone holes, and then every time you play the water follows this track and causes water bubbles that seem to never go away. Don’t let this happen to you!
Do you have a Pad Saver by any chance? Please remove it now and use it for something like dusting your ceiling fan, propping open a window, maybe a chew toy for your dog? They do not save pads. They capture moisture and hold it against the pads, causing them to stick, deteriorate faster, and possibly mold. A swab does the job much better. I prefer a silk swab, while they don’t seem like they would be very absorbent, they are. They also don’t get stuck as frequently (but make sure its fully unraveled and not wadded or folded in any way before you pull it through!). I personally drop the weight down the barrel first, pull through, then repeat dropping it down the other way through the bell (make sure the weight doesn’t have sharp edges that might scratch your clarinet).
Note: Some people think that the swab does damage to the interior (bore) of the clarinet, and on wooden clarinets, causes them to “blow out” or get deformed enough that the bore changes. I highly doubt that such a soft material could cause a problem like this. I think it’s more likely that the constant expanding and contracting of the wood from moisture and heat from your breath is the more likely culprit. Have you ever had loose tenon rings that tighten up after an hour of playing? Multiply this kind of expansion (followed by contraction in a heated or air conditioned house or school) over a few thousand hours of playing, and you are bound to get some distortion of the bore. All the more reason to swab often to keep the moisture out of there!
Cleaning the swab: You should clean your swab by hand at least once a month. I fill a sink or bowl with warm water and maybe a teaspoon of laundry detergent, then wash the swab just swirling it and bunching it in my hands. Rinse it with cool water and let it hang to dry. The drips may carry some dye with them so make sure you don’t hang it over something that could stain. If you did feel the need to machine wash it, use cold water and a gentle cycle with no fabric softener. Let it air dry. Fabric softener and dryer sheets may leave residue inside your clarinet and may impede the swab’s ability to absorb moisture.
I take moisture removal a step further and I wipe the ends of the tenons off when I take my instrument apart. Then I use a Q-tip to absorb water from the socket ends of the barrel and lower joint. Your clarinet was a tree for most of its life, and was specifically designed by mother nature to soak up water at these endpoints. I do agree with others who say you shouldn’t use your swab for this, because it will collect cork grease which you then run through the bore the next time you swab. Using a Q-tip gets only the water out, and leaves the cork grease where it belongs (also saving you from having to reapply it so often!). As an added benefit, it cleans out any cork grease and dirt that accumulate in the corners of the socket. I use actual Q-Tip brand cotton swabs, because they seem to have more cotton and hold together a little longer than cheaper brands.
Down to the Last Drop
Finally, I cover all of the holes on the top joint, plug the bottom with my right end, and blow from the top, opening each key quickly. This will force out any water that is stubbornly hiding inside the tone holes. I then place cigarette paper in the tone holes and repeat the process. I use BG Pad Dryers, but honestly I think they are way too expensive for what they are. Ricardo Morales, principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, uses strips of Shop (paper) Towels (see proof here), available almost everywhere. These have the added benefit of people under the age of 18 being able to buy them. If you cut them into 1″x3″ strips, one roll should be able to last you about 2,347 years.
Watch this video for a quick demonstration of my swabbing/moisture removal routine.