"Winter is coming." This well-known phrase will strike fear in the hearts of every Game of Thrones fan anxiously awaiting to learn the fate of Westeros. But the knowledge that winter is around the corner also sends every woodwind instrumentalist into a panic. We've all been there, clinging to our clarinets inside our coats, desperate to keep them warm. I played an opera where the English Horn exploded during a solo (sadly, "exploded" is not as hyperbolic as you may think). Winter is incredibly hard on wooden instruments. While a new school of thought is that cracking isn't the worst thing to happen, it is not super fun to be without your instrument for a week or two, and it's definitely a bummer to pay for crack repairs.
Winter doesn't have to be the stuff of nightmares. Here are a few things that you can do to try to survive the invasion of white walk... cold weather without stressing the cracks.
One of the absolute most important things that should be in every clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and stringed instrument case is a humidifier. There are many different types of humidifiers out there, as well as some DIY versions. I've tried them all and the only one I trust to protect my beautiful Tosca is the Humistat Humidifier. Frankly, as long as you are using a humidifier, I'm happy. If you are not using a humidifier, please call or email me ASAP and I'll give you the hook up. I cannot stress how important this is. For $15 or less you can prevent a lot of headaches. I leave my humidifier in my case year round since I can control the humidity level with the Humistat, but the basic rule of thumb is: if the heater is on, your humidifier is in your case. Also, for bonus points, try to only use distilled water to avoid mold. Humidity, great. Mold, not so much.
I cannot begin to tell you how many instruments I've seen that have sadly gone unswabbed. Swab, swab, and swab some more. You should at least swab after every half hour of playing, more if it's extra cold in the room (hot air + cold instrument = more condensation than you thought possible). And, clarinetists, I've got bad news for you: we've all been doing it wrong. I know, I know- we hate change. But working in a repair shop and getting to consult with some of the best clarinet techs in the country, I've had to break two habits that were causing more issues than helping:
1. Silk is bad. I, too, had spent hours tracking down that perfect, beautiful square of silk that fit my personality and complimented my clarinet as I pulled it through, but silk is actually abrasive. Like, really, really abrasive. It could be leading to premature blowout from corroding the bore. Ugh. I know it isn't as pretty or as fancy sounding, but microfiber is the way to go. It's also a million times more absorbent than silk and is getting more of the water and gunk out than your gorgeous wine-colored silk ever was.
2. Swab from the barrel, not the bell. *commence horrified gasps* This has been the hardest habit to break for me. I was taught, as I am sure many of you were, that you have to swab from the bell. We've all been given different reasons, like that it would go through easier without getting caught or that it would pull condensation from the cleverest of hiding spots. Whatever the reason, it's a big fat myth. We should be swabbing starting from the barrel, pulling down through the clarinet, and out the bell. The reason is that, by pulling this direction, you are training the wood to carry the condensation out of the clarinet instead of trapping it in the dang Eb trill key for the 80th time this rehearsal. It sounds pretty crazy, but I can't remember the last time I had a spit bubble since switching to this method. Also, if your swab is bunched up and going to get caught, it is a lot easier to get it back out because it’s traveled a shorter distance.
Another note on stuck swabs: bring it in right away. Don’t keep pulling. You can crack your horn by pulling on the register tube too much, which is what the swab is caught on. A competent repair tech can easily take the key off and register tube out and remove the swab without any damage. Don’t try this on your own because the register tube has to be sealed back in properly and the pad re-seated. Even the way the register tube is turned is going to affect your playing. Which brings me to my next point...
I have attended several studio classes and master classes where I've been taught how to do minor repairs to my clarinet, like clean out the tone holes and oil the bore. Guys, please don't. Trust me. You probably feel confident and I get that, I was you. But I've seen things, man, terrible things. One little slip and you've gouged a good chunk out of your clarinet with a screw driver. Or forgotten the exact order of how the keys go on and have the worst jigsaw puzzle ever. Or messed up the spring tension and now it feels like you're playing on a rental. Or stabbed yourself through with a spring. There are even some well-known bore oils out there that will cause the wood to swell and soften, leading to even more cracking and bad juju.
The intent is fundamentally good. You know your instrument needs upkeep and the kind professor knows you're on a tight budget. But no one is qualified to work on your instrument except the technician who has been properly trained. And most techs will work with your budget to help you. What does this have to do with winter? We've seen a lot of people try to oil their own bores. And it's usually okay. Not great, but okay. It might even get you through the winter. Who knows? But personally, I don't like to gamble with my multi-thousand dollar investment. And, without fail, the clarinet will still end up with us because it doesn't feel right, it isn't playing well, or worse, it cracked. Take your clarinet in and get it professionally oiled and tweaked. Yeah, you may have to play on your old marching clarinet or do the old "my pencil is a clarinet so I can still practice along" trick while it's at the shop, but getting your clarinet (or oboe) oiled is a great way to fight against seasonal drying and cracking.
These are my helpful tips to survive the dreadful cold with the best odds of not cracking possible. Sadly, this isn't foolproof. Your instrument may still crack. But we can help with that, too! Plus, the new thought is that it could actually allow the wood to resonate more (as long as it's repaired properly). So that's good news, right?
Do you have any helpful tips that I've missed? I love to learn! A gorgeous silk swab you want to mourn because you just learned that you have to part with it? I'll mourn with you! Theories about the final season? I have SO MANY. Let me know down in the comments!