Care and Feeding of your Band Instrument: Clarinet

This post is the second installment of our “Care and Feeding of your Band Instrument” series from Willis Music.  This series is geared toward informing the young wind player of some basic cleaning, care, and maintenance techniques to keep your instrument in good working order. Today’s lesson: the clarinet.


Like all woodwinds, one of the most important things to remember is that woodwinds and water don’t mix! There is a small disk of a soft material covered by a film under each key (called a pad) that seals the key to the hole when it is closed. This mechanism is necessary for the instrument to work. When the pads get wet (water, rain, breath condensation), they disintegrate and fail to seal the keys. Pads will need to be replaced occasionally, but it is best to avoid needing to do it prematurely. Proper care of your instrument will ensure that it will last longer. The other big element to clarinet care is the reeds, which will have its own section below.

Necessary Care Supplies:
Cork Grease

Occasional/Optional Care Supplies:
Mouthpiece brush
Key brush
Polishing cloth
Reed Guard

After EVERY USE, you should swab (clean the inside of) your clarinet. The swab should consist of a piece of material attached to a long string with a weight on the other end. After removing your reed, make sure the swab is unfolded completely, turn your clarinet upside down, drop the weight through the bell until it drops out the other end, and pull the fabric through. (Depending on how long the string is, you may need to swab your clarinet in 2 sections)

Use your mouthpiece brush (cone-shaped) to gently clean your mouthpiece AS NEEDED. You can use a mouthpiece sanitizing/cleaning spray, or a small amount of dish soap and warm water (just be sure to dry the cork very carefully and allow it to dry completely before you put it back in the case). DO NOT put your mouthpiece in the dishwasher – it is not made to handle the heat and will warp and be ruined.

Use your key brush (small, cylindrical) AS NEEDED to gently clean any buildup that may occur in your finger holes.

OCCASIONALLY (once a week or so), you may want to use a dry (untreated) polishing cloth to wipe any dirt and residue from the outside of your clarinet. Pay special attention to the keys – the oils from your fingers can cause the finish to deteriorate if not occasionally wiped off.

The first several times you use your instrument, then EVERY FEW USES after that, you should grease your tenon corks. Tenon corks are the rings of cork that are found where each section joins together (including on the mouthpiece). They create a seal so that air cannot escape when the instrument is assembled. Apply a small amount of cork grease to the tenon corks to make the instrument easier to assemble, and to condition the cork so it will last longer.

Reeds are one of the most important (and can be one of the most frustrating!) elements of caring for your clarinet. They are both the most fragile part of the instrument, and the part essential for creating a good sound (or any sound at all!). Take extra care when handling reeds and assembling your instrument not to let the tip (thin end) touch anything. The tiniest chip or crack will cause problems with your reeds. Proper storage when not playing is also essential to keep the reed from breaking or warping. NEVER leave your reed on your mouthpiece when you put your instrument away, it should always be removed and stored in its own case. Most reeds are sold in individual plastic protector sleeves – these are effective in preventing breaks, but can still allow the reed to warp as it dries. I recommend a reed case (like those made by Rico, LaVoz, or Vandoren), as they will prolong the life of your reeds.

We hope that this has been informative for our young clarinet players. If you have any other questions, we would be happy to answer them at Willis Music. Next week’s care and feeding lesson: the Saxophone!