How to Care for Your New Saxophone or Clarinet

Learning to play a new instrument is an exciting and rewarding experience, and having an instrument that is in tip-top shape makes the process go even more smoothly. A well-maintained instrument can make learning much less frustrating for the new player, allowing them to focus exclusively on the nuances of playing the instrument, instead of hassling with sticky keys, damaged corks, or science experiments growing inside of the instrument.

This series will examine some basic tips on instrument care for the new player, focusing specifically on band and orchestra instruments, to help new band students get off to a good start.

Portions of this article were taken from a 2015 interview with Gene Adam, repair technician at Ernie Williamson Music in Joplin, Missouri. Adam was a band director for more than 25 years, in the business of instrument repair for 13 years, and is a player himself.

Find more maintenance guides for other band and orchestra instruments.

Care for Your Mouthpiece and Reeds

The mouthpiece is the epicenter of tone production on a saxophone and clarinet, and unlike brass mouthpieces, student woodwind mouthpieces are usually made of plastic, and therefore very fragile. These mouthpieces are subject to chipping and cracking if not properly cared for. First and foremost, be gentle with the mouthpiece, making sure that the cap has been applied, and that it has been properly stored in the instrument case. Most cases have a cutout inside so that the mouthpiece can be snugly and securely fastened within.

Cleaning Your Mouthpiece

Washing the mouthpiece out on a weekly basis can keep food particles and other debris from being trapped and further blown into the instrument, soiling the instrument's pads. And just like the mouthpiece is the epicenter of tone production, it can also become the epicenter of bacteria and other germs if not properly sanitized.

To wash the mouthpiece, first remove the reed and ligature (the piece that holds the reed in place). Rinse the mouthpiece with lukewarm water, applying a gentle soap, such as Dawn dishwashing liquid, as soaps containing bleach or sanitizers containing alcohol can damage the plastic. Using a mouthpiece brush designed for clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces can help clean the mouthpiece more thoroughly.

Saxophone Mouthpieces
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Clarinet Mouthpieces
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Clarinet and Sax Reeds
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How to Prevent Your Reeds from Breaking

Caring for your reeds is likewise important. A mouthpiece is virtually useless without a reed, and properly caring for your reeds can save a lot of money in the long run. As most veteran band parents can attest, reeds aren't cheap, but there are a few easy things that can be done to help lengthen their lifespan.

First and foremost, remove the reed from the mouthpiece when the instrument is not being played. This allows the reed to dry properly and prevents the growth of mold and bacteria, which can be harmful to the player. "Take your reed off every time you're done playing—don't leave the reed on," says Adam, "You'll end up with a pretty awesome science fair project if you leave the reed on there very long."

Lastly, protecting reeds from cracking, chipping, and being smashed in the case is as easy as storing them in a reed guard or reed case. These can be purchased for a few dollars—an investment well-worth the increased lifespan of the reeds. Keep in mind that the clear plastic packing spacers in reed boxes are not reed guards.

How to Maintain Your Tenons

Most woodwind instruments can be broken down into segments for increased portability. While saxophones typically only separate at the neck of the instrument, clarinets separate at the mouthpiece, barrel joint, upper joint, lower joint, and bell. The separation points on both instruments are called tenons. On a saxophone, the neck tenon is uncorked, while on a clarinet, there are four main corked tenons separating the individual components of the instrument.

Grease Clarinet Tenons

Ensuring that the tenons on a woodwind instrument—specifically a clarinet—are properly greased can prevent the segments from getting stuck together, encouraging damage to the keys and other components during attempted separation.

To grease the tenon corks on a clarinet: at each of the four main tenon corks, apply a small amount of cork grease to the index finger, and then rub the grease into the cork. Though most cork grease is packaged so that it looks like chapstick, it is important not to apply it in the same way. Applying the grease directly to the cork from the applicator can cause over-greasing.

Do Not Grease Saxophone Tenons

Maintaining the neck tenon on a saxophone requires little more than occasionally wiping it with a cloth. It is important to do this gently, because using too much pressure can bend the tenon out of round, preventing it from fitting properly to the body. Unlike the clarinet, it's important that you do not grease sax tenons.

According to Adam, "Grease should never be used on the sax tenon, as the grease can easily move into the body of the instrument, damaging the pads," he said. "You should grease the mouthpiece receiver cork occasionally, though." To do this, apply cork grease first to the index finger, and then rub it on the surface of the cork.

Cork Grease
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Polishing Cloth
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Never Oil Your Own Keys

When caring for a clarinet or saxophone, it's easy to get over-ambitious, especially when products like key oil are sold at many music stores. The implication, of course, is that this maintenance activity is something that can be handled easily, but in fact, most players should avoid oiling their own keys. According to Adam, "Under normal circumstances, you should never oil your keys, even though some stores sell key oil. All that does is attract dust and gum up the keys much faster than having a repair tech do it properly."

When is it time to have the keys oiled? The loud, metal clattering sound sometimes heard when a clarinet or saxophone is being played can be a good indicator that the instrument is in need of key oil. Simply bring the instrument into a qualified repair technician, and they can oil the keys properly.

Store Your Instrument Properly

Something that should always be done when the instrument is stored is swabbing. Using a good cotton or silk swab can keep the inside of the instrument dry for proper storage. To swab the instrument, simply drop the weight at the bottom of the swab down into the barrel or run the swab rod down into the body of the instrument (depending on which type of swab is being used). Be sure never to store the swab in the instrument, as this can effectively hold moisture in—the opposite of the desired effect. Remain cautious of swabs with loose fibers, because these can sluff off during cleaning and get stuck in the keys and pads, which will then need to be cleaned.

According to Adam, storing a clarinet or saxophone for long periods of time can lead to skin-crawling results. "Don't store a horn for many months at a time," says Adam, "You'll get cotton-weevil activity." The tiny insects love to feed and nest on and in the pads, not only leading to a disgusting surprise next time the case is opened, but requiring a re-padding, which can cost hundreds of dollars. Ultimately, if the pads are well taken care of, they will last a long time. "If you don't store the instrument for a long time and you don't let it get rained on, your pads will last for a long time. Sax pads are especially durable," said Adam.

Make Sure that the Only Thing in Your Case is Your Horn

This last tip is a simple one, but is frequently overlooked. Store only the instrument and its components in the case.

"Cases need to fit tightly over the body of the horn to protect it," said Adam. "When you store anything else in there like a book, cleaning cloths—anything you store in the case, on the keys can slowly but surely bend everything out of adjustment. I see that a lot."

Storing other objects in the case with the instrument can, in the very least, push the keys out of adjustment, if not bend the keys and other components to the point of their needing to be replaced.

How to Care for Your School Band & Orchestra Instruments
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