Have you ever seen a check engine light come on in a car? It kind of can raise your blood pressure slightly because the unknown can draw up some fear. The good thing is that usually the check engine light is a warning light that something is not right. It usually doesn’t mean your engine is about to explode, but I guess it could. Hey, I am just a clarinet repairman! The good news for clarinet players is that there are some “check engine lights” that you can look for. One of the first things you can do is to take a clean paper towel and wipe down your tenon corks. Is your white paper towel all of sudden full of dirt and grime? Did you know that the dirt buildup on your tenon corks act as an abrasive. Over time if they are not cleaned it can actually wear out your cork causing your tenon to feel loose. You can potentially lose air from the tenons as well when the cork is not sealed or the tenon cork becomes loose. It also just looks gross!
The “dirty cork” philosophy also holds true to the oil within the hinge tubes of your clarinet. The more you play the instrument the more that the oils will break down. Over time the oil can actually harden. When we remove the keys in the shop they actually look like they have sticky black goo all over them when the oil has broken down. Not only does this make the instrument feel sluggish, but it also has the same effect as the cork theory. Over time this hardened dirt/oil build up acts as an abrasive. It can actually enlarge your hinge tubes (or wear out the rods) in different spots causing the key to feel loose. This is why we would recommend overhauls to some clients. In the overhaul process we actually “swedge” the hinge tubes. Swedging is the procedure used to tighten the keys back. In some cases the rods actually have to be “oversized.” When they are really bad we drill out the hinge tube and make a brand new “oversized” rod that tightens the key. Probably even tighter than when it was new to be honest. Now, with regular maintenance (we recommend annual cleanings) the keys are cleaned and lubricated. Check with your repairman to make sure they are actually cleaning the hinge tubes on all the keys, not just adding oil and removing only a few keys. All the keys need to be removed, cleaned, and reoiled when assembling the instrument back together. I always recommend a full service/cleaning annually.
You may be wondering what you can do though? My first recommendation would be to schedule annual cleanings with your repairman. Specifically ask for them to remove all the keys and to clean the hinge tubes and reoil them. I would also be happy to service the horn for you.
If you feel comfortable, you can actually remove a couple keys. An easy one to get to is the register key and the LH E/B & F#/C# levers. Unscrew the rods and remove them (do not use pliers with jaws). If the rod feels stuck then you have your answer. If the rod comes out, and looks like it has oil then you should be fine. The oil is going to look dark but as long as it is still oily you will be fine until your next cleaning. If you remove the rod and find it is really dry, especially dirty and dry, then a full cleaning is recommended. To get by you can use a needle bottle to insert a drop of oil into the hole in the post, then push the rod back in to the key and the oil in the post will be pushed into the key as well. We do not recommend oiling from the outside of the clarinet without removing the keys. You would need a very fine oil for it to even work, and most of the time the oil just drips down and causes more problems. For example, sticky pads, loosening key corks, and just creating a mess.
Now you can look at the chimneys/main finger holes on your instrument. Do you see that sticky dirt buildup? This can be removed with a q-tip but this along with dry rods can be a sign that you need to have your instrument serviced. Q-tips are your friend when it comes to cleaning up your clarinet. The buildup you see is also in the tone holes that you can not see. Buildup in the tone hole actually decreases the size of the tone hole. This will cause the instrument to possibly have intonation issues. For example if your F# (1st finger) tone hole is clogging up then you can expect your open G to play flat. While I am talking about intonation it is important to remember that the instrument heavily relies on the pad sealing the tone holes. When pads leak it causes tuning issues because air is lost. This means if you find your instrument not only having response issues but it has some tuning issues as well then you can bet the cause is most likely from leaking pads, bent keys, dirty tone holes, etc. We always try to blame the reed! You might find if you follow a few of these suggestions that your reeds play better,….just saying! If you ever have any questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I will leave with you some pictures. This is a before and after of a rod on a clarinet that had not ever been serviced. The rod actually was completely rusted. Luckily, I was able to remove this one and clean it up. The one before I took the photo was not so lucky. I actually had to cut it off……yea, you read that correctly, I cut it off. Am I trying to scare you? Not really, but I would like to inspire you to have your instrument serviced regularly.