Stranger things than lint in the bore of the clarinet

Ordinarily, lint is

1. Clinging bits of fiber and fluff; fuzz.
2. Downy material obtained by scraping linen cloth and used for dressing wounds.
3. The mass of soft fibers surrounding the seeds of unginned cotton.

In youth I was a very ambitious student, who seemed to be studying and practicing quite well, and progressing through the repertoire and the various steps in learnng to play However,I came quite close to giving up the instrument. Had I given it up, I most probably, would have become a successful dentist as my parents seemed to wish, and I wouldn’t be writing this. I would be driving a Lamborghini, worrying about nothing and thinking about retirement, which as a dentist, I could have , after a very few brief years.(This is all dreams of my parents) But, I didn’t quit the clarinet and all in all, I am very pleased. I love music, and of the clarinet, all of its repertoire; and they told me I was talented. Could have been true, maybe not. Music has been kind to me.

I was into writing down difficulties, and solutions to these difficulties. High register stacatto, th natural uneven quality of the clarinet and getting everything to sound smooth, developing the best legato I could make and doing not too badly. But then, I encountered a problem, which never before had crossed my way, The sound I was making started becoming somewhat diffuse and fuzzy in quality, mostly in the clarion register of the clarinet and it literally drove me first crazy to the point of considering giving up the horn. Who needed this aggravation? I tried writing down the problem and many possible solutions: Reeds, mouthpieces, ligatures, Reeds, sensitifty or lack of it, and there was simply no solution.Maybe ,I should have changed teachers. But, I did that as a matter of course.

So, here is the advice I give any of you who may be experiencing the same problem, and I read about you almost every day.Before you give up, or change teachers, or even clarinets, mouthpieces or other equipment. check your horn very carefully. Do you swab your instrument after each playing? What kind of swab do you use? Does it have a weight on the end ? Is it a heavy weight? If you reverse swab as most are taught, you drop the weight down the clarinet from the bell. There is less resistance that way, and therefore, much less to worry about. Let me tell you a true story which happened when I was a Fromm Fellow at Tanglewood in 1965 . I was to play the Easley Blackwood Clarinet Concerto, with Gunther Schuller conducting. I think the concert and the concerto went well, but prior to playing the piece, I put the swab down the clarinet from the barrel down, pulled it hard and it just stuck right there , caught by the register key and my stupidity. I went ballistic of course, but there was a solution. At the time, I was playing Centered Tone Clarinets. These had a hexagonal screw surrounding the register key. Someone had a wrench which fit around that hex screw, loosened it, the register key vent was withdrawn and the swab moved easily. What a relief and an incredible lesson. Never use a heavy weight at the end of your swab and never use anything but the lightest swab. The fashion these days is to use a silk swab which has a slender weight on the end, just enough to carry the swab down the horn.
Don’t make your own swab. Don’t use one of those brushes, which some leave in the clarinet, which of course, soaks up all the moisture and can wreck the closure of the pads.

Always drop the swab down the clarinet after you have turned it over, and by the way, make sure that the swab passes through pointing away from the register key vent because it can get stuck that way as well.

But the above was not the answer to my problem. I finally took the register key off and looked at it through a light . There was only darkness, Carefully, I pushed a toothpick through the vent and it came out of other side full of….. wait for it, lint. The lint caught in the vent was the cause of the problem. When cleaned , it played like new. Of course, I have checked thousands of times since, but never found anything like that thick lint in the vent.

One more true story. For several years I went Le Conservatoire Americain in Fontainebleau France. Though I seldom played my A clarinet, I had to have a set, with double case. How else can a kid look professional? Of course, I was wrong, but that is a whole other article. When back home in Boston, I had a concert to play using my A clarinet. I got ready to play and again, nothing came out , absolutely not one sound. I looked up at the clarinet through a light and again, saw nothing but darkness. Of course, I put the swab through the clarinet, and out came a big spider, dead, but with all the legs and good stuff. I stomped the poor dead thing over and over again, and have always been suspicious of what might be lurking in a nice warm A clarinet. Those are some long stories that perhaps may benefit some, or even amuse. In retrospect, it all seems quite hilarious. Then again, I could have been a dentist.
Stay well, and practice, on both clarinets. It is always a good idea to practice on the A, which is a bit more resistant than the Bb. When you then play the Bb it always seems to be more fluent.

Sherman

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