Setting Up a Woodwind Mouthpiece

Friday, 09 March 2018

Let me tell you a quick story. I was working in a music store and a customer came in with her son’s clarinet saying that it wasn’t working properly. Now, this usually could be a number of issues (improper handling, accidental damage, minor adjustments through use, etc.) but this concerned mother assured me her boy could not be at fault (which is also, usually the case). As I opened the case to this clarinet which had only been purchased a few months earlier, I was met with a distinct odour. Mould.

“Does your son use his swab after he practices?” I asked.

“I make sure he swabs it EVERY time,” she replied as I looked up the bore of the instrument. It looked clean; I almost didn’t believe it. I open the storage pocket see the swab was there, where it should be. Check. The keys were shiny. Everything seemed fine except the smell of mould.

What I saw next haunts me to this day. I took out the mouthpiece, and undid the ligature. As I took off the ligature, the reed remained, adhered to the mouthpiece like someone had glued it there. I chisel the reed off with my thumbs to reveal the other side caked in greenish-greyish matter.

“Ohhhh…” says Mum, with an ‘of-course-it-is’ look on her face.

“This may be the problem.”

Saxophone and clarinet mouthpieces are often forgotten about when addressing correct handling and maintenance. However, woodwind mouthpieces collect the majority of moisture and bacteria (you are blowing straight into it, after all). If a mouthpiece goes uncleaned after playing or practicing, essentially that bacteria is being transferred into the instrument during the next session and also hanging around inside the case damaging the organic materials (leather pads, cane reeds, corks, etc.) on your instrument.

After you play, it is important to:

• Remove your reed and place it in its sleeve or in a reed case

• Swab the mouthpiece to remove as much moisture as possible

• Place the mouthpiece cap on the mouthpiece to prevent damage to the tip

I also supplement this with cleaning the mouthpiece once a fortnight with dishwashing detergent in lukewarm water, using a mouthpiece brush to remove any stubborn calcium build up (N.B: do NOT place the mouthpiece in a dishwasher).

In the following video, I go over the assembly process for any single-reed woodwind mouthpiece. Correct assembly is very important not only for your playing, but for the longevity of your reeds. Mouthpieces are generally made of plastic (like on our student mouthpieces), hard rubber/ebonite (like on our Custom range of mouthpieces), or brass; these materials are not drop-proof, so be careful when handling the mouthpiece on its own.