All instruments deteriorate over time, and gradual changes in feel, tuning, spring tension, etc. can easily go unnoticed to the player. This guide is meant to help recognize the most frequent aspects of the clarinet to come out of adjustment, which are usually overlooked. Although the problems listed below may seem minor, each can significantly affect a clarinet’s sound, feel, and stability. Keep in mind that a clarinet in top shape will allow a player to focus on the music instead of the instrument.
Dust and sludge can build up in every nook and cranny on your instrument, greatly affecting its playability. Buildup in the tone holes can alter the pitch dramatically, and dirty mechanisms can slow key response. If you are comfortable taking your instrument apart, this repair can easily be done at home with cotton swabs and water. However, for those who are not at ease with taking the keys off the clarinet I offer a $50 cleaning, oiling, and polishing service.
Clicking keys can be a product of three things: First, a cork bumper has fallen off, allowing metal on metal or metal on wood contact. Obviously this should be immediately corrected. Second, bent keys can contact other keys and produce noise. Again, your instrument should be serviced immediately. The third cause of excess noise is by far the most common and frequently overlooked problem. The left hand levers for low E and low F# have a layer of skin on the pins which connect them to the right hand keys. When this barrier wears out or falls out (usually once per year) excess noise will occur when playing the aforementioned notes, as well as their upper register counterparts. This is an easy $2 repair, and can be performed in about five minutes. Not only will the clarinet be free of most excess noise, but it will feel much tighter.
The first way to recognize if a pad needs to be replaced is through visual inspection. If a pad looks old, tattered, bloated, or discolored it should be replaced because it is probably leaking. I recommend replacing the trill-key pads which collect the most water with cork pads because cork is less affected by water. Ideally all of the pads on the top joint (except middle ring pad) should be cork for a number of reasons. They project the sound better than skin pads by creating a tighter seal, and the harder material of the cork pads is better than skin pads at reflecting sound rather than absorbing it. Also, a cork pad will last much longer than a skin pad.
The second way to test your clarinet pads is through a suction test. Joints need to be tested separately while the clarinet is disassembled. To test the top joint finger a C below the staff while covering the bottom with the palm of your hand. Suck like a straw at least three times to create a vacuum. If the joint is pulled away the lips should be pulled with it, and should make a popping sound. If the joint remains in contact with the lips, the vacuum should last a minimum of five seconds. If it does not, there is a leak, and the clarinet should be brought in for replacement of any leaky pads. The test is the same for the bottom joint, except a low E should be fingered while using the opposite hand to seal the bottom. The seal of this joint is less important than the top, but it should still seal for at least three seconds.
It is obvious when some keys are bent because of clicking noises when contacting other keys. However, some keys can become bent by resting in a case or being handled too roughly. The right hand low E lever is usually the first to bend. Although a low E or a long B will usually play if the key is bent, the result is that the player has to press the key harder to make the note speak. This can spread tension to other fingers, and greatly affect playing.
Looking at the picture, this is how the keys should line up. Both the F# and the E keys are resting on the foot that is connected to the F/C key. If your keys look like this, the next step is to see if they play correctly. A good test is to softly slur fourth line D to third line B. The B can be played on either side, but should require very little pressure with either finger to make the note speak.
The left hand F key also frequently comes out of adjustment. If it has any travel before moving the key on the opposite side, cork or a nylon insert should be added.
Spring tension will greatly affect the way an instrument plays and feels. Springs are often too heavy, making the player press the keys harder. This can spread tension to the rest of the body and affect playing. The key to proper spring tension is to be soft enough that the player barely has to push, but stiff enough to return the pad to its seat quickly and maintain adequate pressure on the pad. Basically the action should be light, but positive.
The spring on the right hand E key is usually the first to wear because it has the heaviest key to move. It should have the same tension as the F#/C# key. If not, it may be worn out. However, the F#/C# key frequently has too much tension from the factory, which needs to be relieved. The G#/D# is also usually set too hard. Ideally all of the right-hand pinky keys should have roughly the same tension.
Tenon rings are the circular pieces of metal that surround the wood at the barrel, lower joint, and bell sections of the clarinet. Their function is to prevent cracks in the wood. If any of the rings are loose enough that they can be removed, the clarinet is in danger of cracking. The solution is to place a paper shim between the ring and the wood to keep the rings tight. This is easy enough for anyone to do.
Tenons or joints of the clarinet are cut to certain dimensions at the factory, but over time the wood can absorb moisture and expand. This expansion will cause the tenons to bind, making them excessively difficult to assemble or disassemble. The excess pressure places undue stress at the joints which can lead to cracking, especially if the tenon rings are loose. Barrels with no tenon rings are more susceptible to cracking because there is nothing besides the wood to absorb the pressure. Also, a tenon that is binding will require the player to place more pressure on the keys upon assembly or disassembly. Needless to say, it is very easy to bend the keys this way. Finally, binding tenons can affect the resonance and therefore the tone of the instrument by limiting vibration.
If there is a snapping sound when the joint in question is twisted the wood is probably binding. If not, a cork that is too thick may be the culprit. Another indicator of binding will be a shiny spot on the tenon. This will mark the location that the wood has expanded and is rubbing on the wood of the socket.
To fix the problem the clarinet must be put onto a lathe and the high spots (shiny spots) taken off. The wood at these locations has expanded at a different rate than the surrounding wood, meaning the perfect circle which was cut at the factory is not perfect anymore. Turning the clarinet on a lathe will relieve the pressure by putting the tenon back into round.
Clarinet Thumb Rest
Many players believe the placement of the thumb rest on most clarinets is too low. A low thumb rest can place the hand in an unnatural position, resulting in hand movement that is not only less free, but more apt to cause the player harm. The goal of playing any instrument is to be as natural as possible.
A good test to determine the natural position of your hand, and consequently reveal where the thumb rest should be, is to hang your right arm by your side. Both the arm and hand should be completely relaxed. Being careful not to move the thumb, bring your hand up to playing position. Notice how the thumb rest is much lower than the relaxed position of the thumb? Try to move the fingers in a rapid motion with the thumb in the relaxed position. Now bring the thumb down to the position of the thumb rest and move the fingers rapidly as before. Most players feel that the fingers are more awkward and less free. This can be especially true for players with large hands.
If the natural position of your thumb does not match the placement of the thumb rest on your instrument, consider having the thumb rest moved. Relocating the thumb rest can make a huge difference in relaxation of the hand, and relaxed hands will greatly improve aspects of your playing.
When to Overhaul
Ideally the best time to have an instrument overhauled is when it is brand new. Most, if not all, professional players will have the pads replaced with cork as soon as they buy it for the reasons stated above. Simply put, the instrument will be at its best from the very start. For some this may not be an option because of the cost.
The next best time to have your instrument overhauled is when it is in need of repair. If there are more than a few pads which need to be replaced, several more will probably need to be replaced in the near future anyway. If keys are bent or if spring tensions are off, it is more cost effective in the long run to have everything fixed at once. Normal repairs are done by the hour, and if much work needs to be done the cost can quickly surpass the flat rate of an overhaul. Additionally, cork pads fitted during an overhaul will last almost indefinitely. This means that the feel and playing condition of the instrument will endure much longer, costing the player less in repairs in the long run.