In what is quickly becoming a series on moisture control and crack prevention, I thought I would add a post on how to handle a new clarinet. A brand-new clarinet and even used clarinets that haven’t been played for a long time need to be broken in before they are regularly played. The reasons are twofold: 1) Breaking in helps to prevent—you guessed it—cracking! At this “young” stage where it is apt to soak up a little more moisture and be a little less stable, the gradual introduction of heat and moisture to the clarinet will reduce the extreme changes a clarinet goes through when it is played. 2) Breaking in helps prevent the bore from changing shape. Think of it like this: if you spray a mist of water on a book, and you wipe it up quickly and let it sit to air-dry, only a few pages might get wavy on the outside. However, if you pour water in a stream on the book for several minutes, then just let it sit, until it dries, the pages will bend and wrinkle to the point where the book won’t even stay closed or fit on a bookshelf. The more gradually you introduce moisture into a new instrument, the more minimal the changes (if any) in the shape of the wood. As I mentioned in my post on moisture removal, it is these small changes that often cause a clarinet to “blow out.”
I will add a process sent to me by Mark Sloss with Professional Wind Instrument Consultants of New Jersey (pwicnj.com, amazing company where I have gotten my last three clarinets, all hand-selected by Mark Nuccio from the New York Philharmonic).
“Every time of year and part of the country is a little different and poses unique challenges. I would say the following as a general rule — the clarinet is primarily an organic object. Treat it as such. For the first couple months don’t play your clarinet more than about 20 minutes at a time, and swab regularly. I think you could comfortably do a morning and evening ritual to get twice a day in, but I believe it is important for them to “rest” and cool down and dry off before continuing to play them. After the first couple months, you can take that up to a half-hour to 40 minutes at a pop, again swabbing regularly. I would say after the first 100 days or so you can play them steady, just being mindful of moisture. Don’t leave them assembled either. Take them apart and let them breathe when you are done. (Also if you find a tenon has swelled, don’t force the joints together or apart. That’s a recipe for trouble.)
“Second general rule — It is particularly important to keep the ends of the tenons and the sockets clean and dry. If you remember your high school biology you probably recall how plants draw water through basically a wicking process. The end grain of the clarinet is the most vulnerable because it is the thinnest point on the clarinet, under the greatest stress from the joint connections, and where moisture gets wicked up. It is harder to do but I would also say similarly be mindful of water accumulation in tone holes [BG: Remember the video of me blowing water out of my tone holes when I pack up my clarinet?].”
Much of this may sound familiar to my previous two posts, but it bears repeating. Common points in all of these break-in procedures:
- Start slow, increase the time you play the instrument gradually over the course of several months.
- Have patience, and a backup instrument.
- Get that moisture out of there!
- Try to play the clarinet every day. I read one procedure that said if you skip a day, you have to add a week to your break-in period!
- Be observant! Observe the temperature of your environment, observe the temperature of your clarinet, observe the fit of the joints, observe the rings, check for cracks, check for moisture hiding from you.
One note about oiling: Some people swear by oiling their clarinets regularly, others think it deadens the sound. I never quite understood the argument, since most wood instruments come from the factory oiled. I typically don’t oil often, and if I do, it’s only a tiny layer. It’s best to oil your clarinet without any keys on, so it might be best to leave this to a professional. There are also a lot of bad bore oils out there, so again, ask a qualified technician. Oiling may prevent cracking to some degree by preventing moisture from absorbing into the wood. It can also help the condensation to stream down the bore and out the bell, instead of making unwanted paths into tone holes.