Some of us are now deep in the cracking season. Let me start with the comforting words that there is no such thing as a crack-proof clarinet. But did you know Benjamin Franklin once wisely said- “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
What causes cracks on wooden clarinet and prevention methods:
Material vs Humidity/ Temperature
First, it is important to know that wood is by nature unstable. Wood constantly expands and shrinks according to humidity and temperature. This is mostly okay if the change is gradual and occurs evenly throughout the material. But if the change in temperature/ humidity is rapid and uneven, it can start causing some stress on some parts of the wood.
The modern clarinet is also covered with metal (among other materials), which also fluctuates in shape and size. So given the two variables in the equation, you have to wonder how the clarinet actually doesn’t crack more often.
Before you start playing the clarinet, make sure that the instrument is not cold. Put it under your armpit, rotate it while you’re doing that so the heat is distributed more evenly. Do this for at least about 2 minutes. It’s good to do the whole instrument but it is crucial you definitely do this on the top joint, because that is the closest place after the mouthpiece and the barrel to get the most moisture/ condensation/ heat immediately as you start blowing air through the instrument. And as you may have already experienced or guessed, the top joint of the clarinet is also where most cracks occur.
Some repair technicians also recommend swabbing a LOT, some have even suggested to me that I do it whenever I stop playing. Especially if you have a long tacet, grab your swab and make sure the bore is try.
If I may suggest- getting to rehearsals/ performances early is very important for us clarinet players for this reason as well as others. Of course the colder the instrument is the flatter you are and vice versa, however you don’t want to rush the warm up process. So get to your appointment about half an hour early to get situated, assemble your instruments, warm them up, swab often, and wait for the tuning note.
Physical Shock/ Stress
As things get more dense, they tend to also get more brittle. I have heard from multiple technicians and clarinetists who have experienced first hand their clients’ or their own Buffet’s Greenline clarinets, while known for being crack-proof due to its composition (wood+resin), simply break off in the joints under shock. That’s right, the tenon can break and will stay in the joint. This can be fixed relatively easily, but I can’t imagine feeling the same after such a trauma.
Even on the wooden clarinets, if you waddle the joints too much when you take the clarinet apart, the places near tenon rings can crack (usually just the surface, but still…). I’m talking mostly about in the middle of the clarinet, and also sometimes just above the bell. Also it is not terribly uncommon that the barrel/ bell cracks. If you are a bass clarinet player, always be careful when you put the neck on the upper joint, as you can impose some uneven stress (given the shape of the bass clarinet neck) if you waddle too much and cause crack on the upper joint. This is all much more likely to happen, especially if it’s cold and the wood is generally more shrunk and the tenon rings are loose. Technicians advise to NEVER put your clarinet together when the rings are loose. Unless you know how to put ring on the joint expertly and correctly, wait until you can see your trust-worthy repair person to repair the rings before assembling your instrument.
Blacklist for Cracks
The inside of an airplane is very, very dry. And often it goes through drastic temperature changes. Make sure the inside of your case is well-humidified and the case itself is not located right next to air conditioning.
If you have ever played in the pit for an opera or a musical, you probably have experienced the inconsistencies in the temperature in the space. Also what doesn’t help in this situation is that if you are playing an opera or a musical (especially if you are doubling), every time you play your instrument it may be frozen cold because you were busy playing other instruments, etc.
Super old instruments
Before I got my Buffet Prestige low c bass clarinet, I was playing on a different bass clarinet. It was a very old Noblet low e-flat bass clarinet. It had a very big and nice sound, tuned well, and I loved playing it. However, when I had purchased it, it had literally not been played at ALL for a few decades sitting in a quirky collector’s Chelsea apartment closet, probably drying its way to become ideal firewood. I was dumb enough to start practicing hours and hours on the instrument right away without properly breaking it in. Few weeks in, it started cracking in couple of places (probably didn’t help that it was suddenly winter time). Luckily I caught them early enough. I got scared and sold it before it got worse after having a very good technician repair the cracks. I still miss the instrument. I could still be playing that instrument if I had taken a better care of it!
I already talked about swabbing, but there is also that moisture in the tone holes or in the space between the tone whole and the bore (often idling invisible). To make sure you get these out, pretend you are doing the suction test for leaks but reverse the air flow (blow out instead of in), releasing key-by-key. This should pressurize and direct air from inside the joints to the outside, and if there is water under the key you press, it will shoot out. Clean it with cloth or your swab. Make sure you get the moisture on the keys because this can lead to ugly discolouring oxidation/ (green) rusting. After you do this, it might be a good idea to put in a piece of cigarette paper or something that is absorbent of water but not sticky to wood or pad between the pad and the tone hole. I actually use pieces of a swab I cut into strips. This will help the pads stay alive longer and avoid sticky contact between the pad and the tone whole while the clarinet is sitting in the case.
Three things make this case stand out. It’s compact, it’s got a lot of adjustable storage space, and it’s been discussed to offer more even ventilation compared to other solid cases (the joints are suspended in this case).
While I haven’t really seen success with their Reed Vitalizers (they made my reeds super moldy one time), their Two-Way Humification System packs are fantastic for clarinets. I use them for all of my clarinets. These feature a “two-way” system, meaning if the instrument is dry, it will enforce more humidity, and if the instrument is too humid, it will absorb humidity. When an instrument is super dry or way too humid, you can often tell by just looking. I have to say my instruments visibly look healthier after I started using these. I am a pretty skeptical person so I wasn’t sure about this at first especially after my stint with the Reed Vitalizer packs, but it has been working very well for almost a year now. You can also replace the packs.
Here is a video of me putting a brand new pack in my Marcus Bonna double case.
I have also heard Lomax makes some fantastic cases that are not only durable and reasonably priced, but also specifically made to enhance good humidification and even heating of the instruments. Let me know if you have, I would love to hear about them.
All this care might seem excessive especially if you are not used to it, but I find it kind of fun. I’m not interested in fancy cars at all, but maybe it’s kind of like taking care of your beautiful vintage Mustang… or whatever. All I can say is, good care can’t hurt!