Having your clarinet crack is a difficult, frustrating, and scary situation, but before you yell at your repair technician or demand your money back from the person who sold it to you, know that it’s not the end of the world. The good news is, once the crack is repaired, if repaired well, the tone of the clarinet may not be affected at all (in rare cases, it is improved!). The clarinet I had in my undergraduate degree cracked (before I used the process outlined above), and I was still able to play on it for several years, getting into several competitive summer festivals and grad schools.
Depending on where you are living, now is the season for cracking. Cracking happens most often when there is a rapid change in temperature or humidity. The rule of thumb is any time the outside of the clarinet is suddenly colder or drier than the inside. For example, going from a dry, heated environment like most houses during the winter, to being blown into by warm, moist air. Or, when your clarinet is cold and dry from air conditioning and you blow warm, moist air into it. A final example would be taking a warm instrument immediately out into winter weather in a poorly insulated case. In all three examples, the inside of the instrument is expanded, while the outside of the instrument is contracted, and the laws of physics dictate the rest. The most common place for clarinets to crack is where the wood is already weakened, like where holes are drilled through it. Check between throat G# and A, as well as between the top two side/trill keys. Look closely, a crack can be thin as a hair, or may resemble the wood grain. Anything that looks at all suspicious should be checked out by a qualified repair technician.
While I am not a certified repair technician, I have known enough master technicians who have lectured me enough times for me to be obsessive/paranoid about my clarinets cracking. The following are the steps I take to avoid cracking.
- If the instrument is cold, I warm it with my hands or my armpits for several minutes before I play, especially the upper joint and barrel. If it is very cold (like I just walked home from the subway), I will leave it with the case open for an hour to let it gradually warm up to room temperature before I even touch it with my hands. Like I said, cracking is caused by rapid changes. Even if you left you clarinet on the back porch in the dead of winter, there may be hope if you bring it inside and let it sit in the unopened case for a full day, then maybe another hour with the case open before trying to play it.
- Use Dampits and orange peels constantly during the winter months. If they look even slightly dry, re-wet/replace them. I saturate mine, then wrap them around my fingers to wring them out, then wipe off any excess. They can touch the outside of the instrument, but never put them inside the bore (again, this would cause the inside to expand while the outside stays dry, causing a crack). If you want to save some $$, look forward to a future post on how to make your own humidifiers. In the meantime, simply stuffing a clean piece of sponge into a pill bottle with holes drilled in it would suffice.
- I go as far as to put a hygrometer (dial humidity gauge) in the case and try to keep it above 60%. Something like this would at least keep things in the ballpark.
- If any of the rings are loose, this is a sign that the clarinet is not humid enough. It creates a risk of cracking in the socket when the tenon is pushed into the thin, un-reinforced socket wall (you thought those rings were just for decoration, didn’t you?). If more humidity doesn’t tighten the rings, they may need to be tightened. Most repair technicians have equipment to do this, or they may add a tiny piece of paper as a shim if the ring is loose enough to remove (you can do this as well, if you feel up to it).
- Swab religiously, like every 10 minutes. As I mentioned in my last post, when I pack up, I dry off the corked socket ends, and even use a q-tip to dry the ringed socket ends. I also plug the end of the top joint and blow out while opening all of the keys one at a time. This shows me which ones have collected water. I repeat using a piece of cloth or cigarette paper under the offending pads to absorb water from the tone holes.
- In the winter I use a room humidifier where I keep my instrument.
- In spring and summer, you can remove the dampits as long as the rings stay tight and the clarinet is not in excessively air conditioned buildings all of the time. This is why I use the hygrometer; even in the summer a clarinet can dry out indoors, and I want to know when it does.
- Even with an instrument that is broken in, if I haven’t played it for more than a week (often the case with my Eb clarinet), I avoid playing it for longer than 30 minutes at a time. Sort of like a mini-break in procedure.
IF YOUR INSTRUMENT CRACKS:
- You should avoid playing on it until you can get it fixed. If you don’t have access to a backup instrument, play on the cracked instrument as little as possible.
- You should still keep it as humidified as possible until then. You may notice the crack will shrink a bit as it gets more moisture. This is a good thing.
- Take the clarinet to a reputable repair technician as soon as possible.
Being a natural substance, if wood wants to crack, it eventually will, no matter how careful you are. You could be doing everything right, but something as simple as someone opening a door and a cool breeze coming through could cause a crack. It is an unfortunate hazard of our profession, but using the above strategies, I have survived two winters in Chicago, and two more in New York City, with zero cracks (*knock on African Blackwood*). Just be glad you don’t play oboe, apparently they crack even more often!