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Care & Feeding of the Clarinet

The clarinet has five basic pieces:

  • The mouthpiece, with reed, ligature and cap;
  • The barrel, (shaped like a . . . you guessed it . . . barrel);
  • The upper, or left-hand section;
  • The lower, or right-hand section;
  • The bell, shaped, yup, like a bell!


  • The first step is to moisten the reed. The reed is the part that looks like it's made from a piece of bamboo. When the reed is placed correctly against the mouthpiece and you place the mouthpiece in your mouth and blow on it, the reed vibrates back and forth to make the sound.
  • The reed is very fragile, so please be careful when you handle it. One end is trimmed and thinner at the tip and the other isn't. Pick up the reed holding it by the thick (or heel) end and place the thin end in your mouth on top of your tongue, then close your mouth. Be careful not to bite down on the reed, and keep it in your mouth while you assemble the instrument. By the time the clarinet is all together the reed will be moist enough to play when you put it on the mouthpiece.
  • You'll notice that one end of the mouthpiece has a band or strip of cork around it. The right-hand section has one on the bottom end as well, and the left-hand section has one at each end. These strips of cork are called joint corks. They help hold the instrument together when you've assembled it.
  • To make it easy to put the instrument together you have to lubricate the joint corks. The lubricant you'll use is called cork grease, and it usually comes in a tube that looks like ChapStick®. When a clarinet is new you should use cork grease every time you put the instrument together for the first week or two. After that, the corks will soak up some of the grease and you only need to use it once or twice a week.
  • The cork grease does two things: it helps the instrument go together easier, and over a long period of time it keeps the corks from shrinking. When they shrink, the instrument feels wobbly when it's assembled and it may not even stay together. Therefore, even if the instrument goes together easily, still use cork grease from time to time.
  • Back to the mouthpiece: put a light coat of grease on the cork; it doesn't take much at all but it should be put on all the way around the cork. While you're at it, put some on the two corks on the left-hand section and on the one cork on the right-hand- section.
  • Now hold the mouthpiece in one hand and the barrel in the other and twist the two pieces all the way together. The barrel is narrower at one end than the other and the mouthpiece fits in the narrow end.
  • The next step is to fit the wider end of the barrel onto the top of the left-hand section. Remember, this section is shorter then the right-hand section.
  • The top of the section is the end with fewer keys on it; the brand name of the instrument is also usually visible near the top. Near the bottom end you'll notice two round keys close to each other that can move up and down where there are open holes in the body. This is the front side of the left-hand section. Hold the left-hand section here with your left hand, encircling it with your hand with the top of the section pointing upward. It's similar to holding a banana as you get ready to peel it.
  • Never hold the left-hand section up at the top because it's too easy to bend the keys when you put the barrel on.
  • Now you can pick up the barrel with the mouthpiece in it and twist the barrel onto the top of the left-hand section.
  • The mouthpiece has an opening it; a tall rectangular opening that's called the window.
  • The back side of the left-hand section has a metal hole in the body with a round key that sits on top of it, and just above this is a long key that points up toward the mouthpiece.
  • If we draw an imaginary line through the middle of this long key (the register key) it should go through the middle of the opening in the mouthpiece. When these two things line up, the barrel and mouthpiece are placed correctly on the left-hand section.
  • Keep these parts in your left hand while you pick up the right-hand section.
  • On the right-hand section you'll notice a key with three open rings on it that each encircle a hole in the body of the instrument. This is the top and the front of the right-hand section. Near the other or bottom end you'll see a key that you can move up and down over a hole just by touching it, and a little further up you can see another one. There is a space in-between these two keys where you can place your right-hand and hold the section. Hold it in your right hand so that the top end is pointing up and you can see the key with the three rings.
  • When you place the bottom part of the left-hand section into the top half of the right-hand section, the front of the left-hand section (with the two round keys) wants to be in line with the front of the right-hand section with the three round keys. With a few back and forth twists of the left and right hands you should be able to bring the two sections together.
  • If you examine where the two sections come together you should see a key extending down from the left-hand section that looks like it should be directly on top of a key coming up from the right-hand section. These are called the bridge keys, the connecting keys, or the one and one keys. The upper one connects to one of the keys with a ring and the lower one connects to the key with three rings.
  • When you are grasping the left-hand section in preparation to join it with right-hand section, it is crucial that you hold it in such a manner that the upper bridge key is raised, which automatically happens when you press down the part of the key that has the ring. It needs to be raised so that when the two sections come together it will come to rest on top of the lower bridge key. If it isn't raised, then the two connecting or bridge keys will run into each other.
  • These two sections are together correctly when the upper bridge key is lined up exactly in top of the lower bridge key.
  • Now all you have left is the bell, which you twist on with the left hand since you are still holding the right-hand section in your right hand.

Putting On the Reed

  • All this time you've had the reed in your mouth. Your next step is to take the ligature, the metal clamp that holds the reed in place on the mouthpiece, and place it carefully over the mouthpiece so that when the window of the mouthpiece is facing you, the screws of the ligature are pointing to the right.
  • Then you take the reed out of your mouth an slip it heel or thick end first into the space between the ligature and the mouthpiece. The thin tip of the reed wants to be even with the tip of the mouthpiece; no higher, no lower. The ligature wants to be low enough on the mouthpiece that it doesn't cover up any portion of the reed that has been shaved or cut to make it thinner. When you have the reed in this position you can then tighten the ligature screws just enough to keep the reed in place. Now you're ready to play the clarinet!

After You Play

  • When you're through playing, the first thing you do is remove the reed. It's very delicate and easy to break, so it's the last thing you put on the instrument when you're assembling it and the first thing you take off when you're taking the instrument apart to put away when you're through playing.
  • Carefully wipe the moisture off the reed and place it in a protective container, preferably a reed guard. DO NOT leave it on the mouthpiece, because it can't dry out well, it can warp, and it could mold.
  • Next, remove the ligature and then the mouthpiece, setting them to the side for the time being. The inside of the instrument will be wet from playing, and now you need to pull a swab through the clarinet to remove the moisture.
  • The swab we like the most is called a handkerchief swab, obviously because it looks like one. You'll notice that one corner of the swab has a pull string or cord attached to it that is perhaps a foot long, with a small weight sewn into the fabric at the other end of it.
  • IMPORTANT: The first step when you use the handkerchief swab is to unfurl it, which means to open it up completely. If the swab has been folded or wadded up in the case it can be all bunched up, and won't fit when you try to pull it through the inside of the instrument. Grab one corner in one hand and the opposite corner in the other hand and pull the swab open before you use it to make sure it's not folded over on itself anywhere.
  • If you don't do this first, the swab could get stuck inside the clarinet, especially in the left-hand section. If the swab ever does get stuck, don't try to get it out your self, and don't let your parents try either. You should take it to a music store that offers repair and have the repair tech remove it because if you or your parents try to remove it, the inside of the clarinet could be damaged.
  • Now it's time for you to swab! Hold the clarinet in one hand and with the other hand drop the weighted end of the pull cord into the top of the barrel and feed the string in behind it so the weighted end drops down toward the bell.
  • When you can see the weighted end of the swab start to protrude out of the bell at the other end of the clarinet then you can grab it and pull the entire swab all the way through. Then take the swab and do the same thing, except this time drop the weighted end down the bell and pull it through and out from the barrel end.
  • Wipe the outside off occasionally with a soft, clean cotton cloth. Never use a silver polish cloth, rubbing alcohol or any other liquid on the outside of the instrument.
  • Now that the instrument is clean and dry, you can reverse the order in which you assembled the clarinet and take it apart, placing each part in its appropriate place in the case.
  • NEVER leave the instrument together outside the case. The joint corks stay compressed when the instrument is together and they need a chance to expand back out so the fit will be snug the next time you assemble your clarinet. Your instrument is also safer when it's in the case.
  • Hold the mouthpiece upside down and carefully drop the weighted end of the handkerchief swab pull cord into the mouthpiece and then pull it through the top end. NEVER drop the weight through the window, the opening where the reed goes, only from the bottom.

Helpful Hints and Reminders

  • Loosely wad your handkerchief swab up when you're through swabbing out your clarinet and store it in the bell.
  • Always have at least two reeds with you, preferably three or four.
  • Once a week wipe off the excess cork grease that may have built up around the joint corks.
  • Keep your clarinet safe. It should only be "on your face or in the case!" Do not leave it on your chair, your music stand, the sofa, the table, the floor, or the piano. If a clarinet is dropped or sat on it can easily break in half, an expensive repair.
  • Always carry your case with the lid or top side of the case toward your body. This way, if the case were to unexpectedly open for any reason, you would have the chance to pull the case against your body to prevent the instrument from falling out. If the lid is facing away from you and the case opens there is no way for you to keep the instrument from falling out.
  • Whether the information is on a card inside the case, a label or an ID tag, make sure your instrument has identification on it showing that it belongs to you. Almost all band instruments have their own unique serial number on the body of the instrument so you shouldn't mark the instrument itself, but do have proof of ownership somewhere inside or on the case.