The foundation of any good overhaul is prep work. To overhaul student horns with modern tolerances, shiny plating etc., little is required other than cleaning, new pads, and fresh cork as needed. For a 40+ year old wooden clarinet, its a whole different story: many suffer from a myriad of afflictions, and one of the worst (and most noticeable) is loose keywork.
Loose keywork is a given on any older instrument that has been regularly played, (largely due to metal loss from wear) and the fix is a simple one: about half an hour of swedging and countersinking will bring the mechanism back to near factory snugness.
Ironically, although the procedure is straightforward and the tools inexpensive, I see a lot of rebuilt horns with loose keys. Even when the pad-work is well done, time and effort is largely thrown away due to noise, lost motion, and inconsistent pad seating. To simply clean and replace pads as though it were a modern student horn compromises the functionality of the instrument and wastes the time and money of its owner, as well as perpetuating the illusion that older horns simply can't compare to modern instruments in terms of playability. Here is the fix, in a nutshell:
Swedging - on any key that runs on a rod, the process of stretching the key's metal to bring it tight on the rod and snug against both posts. This is done by compressing the softer key material (brass or nickel alloy) between the steel rod and a steel swedging tool, giving the metal nowhere to go but out.
Often, gaps are small, but even a significant amount of end-wear can generally be remedied by this method. It also helps minimize the wear that takes place inside the tube, bringing it back snug around the rod and thus minimizing play in two dimensions.
Countersinking - for a key that is held between 2 posts by screws, the general option is countersinking the screw hole in the post, allowing the point of the screw to extend further out the other side and take up lost motion in the key between them.
As with swedging, this remedies both end- and side- play, stabilizing the key in two dimensions. Countersinks come in a variety of sizes and it is only necessary to measure the head of the screw to choose the correct one for the task. Then, a few twists in the hole, a test with the key, repeat on the other post, and you're done! Always do both posts, to avoid removing too much material from one and leaving the next tech nowhere to go...I try to think of the future when I work on a horn, having been the recipient of so much poor work in my time.
Most older instruments only need a combination of the 2 treatments on a few, heavily used keys. But some clarinets, either more worn or with more generous manufacturing tolerances, require that the work be executed on most keys. It sounds onerous, but half an hour to forty five minutes is the maximum that I generally have to invest, unless I'm dealing with a really old horn, or one with an unusually complex mechanism (such as a Full Boehm).
When both are done properly, the difference is like night and day: Tight, smooth, quiet keys, with pads that seat accurately every time! When next you consider an overhaul for your clarinet or sax, ask the tech if all needed swedging and countersinking is included in the estimate. If he says 'No', or looks confused, take your horn and get the heck out of there! You'll be glad you did...
For years, I used natural reeds on clarinet and saxophone. I tried different brands, different strengths, different cuts - all of which changed every time I changed mouthpieces, of course - and invested a lot of time and even more money in the pursuit of the 'perfect reed'.
The conclusion I've come to is twofold : 'there isn't one' and 'if there were, it would be called Fibracell'! After years of throwing out 1/4 of the reeds in a box, or sanding and trimming to save stuffy, poorly cut or worn out reeds, I gave up and tried Rico Plasticovers. They are definitely brighter, longer lasting and more free-blowing, but I found grading inconsistent and had trouble with 'chirping'. I tried Bari clear plastic reeds and found them durable, but tone was monochromatic and they were best outdoors or in a situation where tone wasn't as important, like marching band.
Finally, I found Fibracell. These are a resin/Mylar composite that look and feel very much like natural cane, but the resemblance ends there! They are durable, consistent, don't require soaking, don't get soggy, don't split, crack, warp or squeak and are more free-blowing (important for Jazz and Commercial players who want a brighter, more open sound) than cane. Each reed costs about $9, but will last for months. Many pros and teachers now use them, and I've had good feedback from students as well as improved tone and performance in my playing.
There are a couple of mitigating factors that need to be taken into consideration, however: 1) they run a little softer than cane reeds, anywhere from 1/2 to a full grade. So, your tenor sax 2.5 will become a 3, and your clarinet 3 may become a 4. And 2) I find the stiffness ratio of tip to heart is a little different than cane, so intonation and articulation will have to be adapted accordingly. Regular practicing over a period of a couple weeks should make for a good transition; I wouldn't take one out for the first time on a gig!
I know these are more popular with saxophonists than clarinetists, but I recommend them to anyone looking for a more consistent, free-blowing reed. Especially for doublers, they can't be beat! Buy a couple in different grades, try them for a couple weeks and see if you don't notice an improvement in your tone and intonation. Then, throw away all those half-full boxes of half playable reeds and don't look back.....
The Perfect Mouthpiece....
I get asked for advice on this one frequently, and have a hard time coming up with a good answer! The reply I want to give is often "the one that sounds best for you" or "Practice an hour a day and you won't need a new mouthpiece". However, no one really wants to hear either of those, they want the perfect mouthpiece; it will be powerful, yet capable of great dynamics; in tune, but flexible; will blend but also cut through when needed...do you see where I'm going with this? If we could get all this from a $75 piece of hard rubber, we wouldn't have to practice!
There are some basic (and obvious) guidelines I can offer: if you want a dark, 'Classical' sound, use a more closed tip with a heavy reed, like a Vandoren M13 with a #4. If you want a brighter, more flexible sound, suitable for jazz or Klezmer, try a Bernard Portnoy 03 with a 2.5 Alexander, etc. The only problem with this is that there are a zillion mouthpieces out there and way too many brands of reeds!
Not only will you have to crack open that piggy bank til it hurts but, as many folks don't seem to realize, your embouchure changes with every mouthpiece change you make. For the first couple days, all you notice is the difference: "Wow, what tone/high range/flexibility", you think. Then, a strange thing happens - you start to sound less like the mouthpiece and more like yourself! Your embouchure is adapting to the change and you are starting to slide back into the problems/habits that made you look for a new mouthpiece in the first place.
So, if you possess a good instrument in good repair and you already practice regularly but are dissatisfied with your sound and want to make a change, try this: buy a bunch of the Rico Royal Graftonite mouthpieces and be scientific about it - they only cost about $16 each on Amazon, so you won't go broke. The 'A' has a large chamber for a darker tone, the 'B' a medium chamber for a more middle of the road tone, and the 'C' has a smaller chamber for a brighter sound. They also have 3 tips: the 3 (more closed facing with a shorter lay), the 5 (medium facing and medium lay) and the 7 (open facing with a longer lay).
I'd stick with the A and B, unless you really covet a bright sound. Try the different facings with a good, middle of the road reed, like a #3 VanDoren bluebox, and see what you like, playing each for at least a few days so you can distinguish between the sound of the mouthpiece and your sound WITH the mouthpiece. You might be pretty well satisfied with a Rico, as they are well designed and material doesn't matter much as people would like you to believe.
On the other hand, you could take note of the measurements and look for a 'better' hard rubber mouthpiece of similar playing characteristics. Selmer, Vandoren, Portnoy, Hawkins, and many more are excellent pieces. Myself, I use a Rico B7 with a Fibracell reed (I know, I can hear the classical players out there shuddering). I get a sound that I like and the reeds require no soaking, scraping or other maintenance.
So, next time I'll talk about reeds....
I buy most of my horns on eBay and have learned, through long and expensive experience, to examine every instrument with a fine toothed comb before purchasing! I've received cracked clarinets, plastic instead of wood clarinets, broken clarinets, clarinets with damaged or missing keys or rings, and even a clarinet that was made of pieces of 3 different clarinets! So, based on my experience and some of the customer horns I've been seeing lately (also purchased on eBay) I'd say its time for an eBay buying tutorial!
First, I'd restrict my buying to the US and Canada unless you are fluent in another language and can afford to risk the high shipping. Mistakes can happen with overseas communication, and it can be much harder and more expensive to force a return if things aren't as represented!
Second, look at feedback: while feedback can't tell you everything (with one negative, ebay's current policy of basing it on only the last year's transactions can make a small seller look worse than he/she is) it is a good place to start. Numerous negatives/ neutrals and unflattering comments about misrepresented condition, poor communication, and high shipping can be a tip off that you aren't dealing with someone who is professional or honest - best to move on; lots of fish in the sea...
Third, what does the ad show and tell you? Is it full of sharp pictures and copious details or a few badly taken pictures and a very skimpy description posted from a mobile phone? Is the person obviously knowledgeable and informative about the instrument, or just a garage sale picker looking for a quick sale at the highest price?
Fourth, is there a return policy? Honest, knowledgeable sellers know that mistakes can happen, especially if they are selling something that they are not familiar with - I had to return a clarinet just a few weeks ago, as the ad failed to show or mention that the upper half of the bridge key was broken off and missing! Luckily, she was honest and pleasant about it, but I haven't always been so lucky. Ebay will sometimes assist you in forcing a return if an item has been misrepresented, but it is a troublesome process and they keep track of how often you use it: too many returns, and you risk losing access to the service, whether you are in the wrong or not!
So, fifth and last - ask questions! Here are some of my favorites:
'Is the instrument in playable condition?'
'Are all pieces wood?'
'Do all pieces have logos that match?'
'Are there any cracks, chips, repairs, or any missing, damaged or frozen keys?'
'What is your return policy?'
If you get what seem like thoughtful, honest answers, their feedback is in an acceptable range, and the photos look good, you are most likely safe to go ahead. If you receive no answer or something like "I know nothing about clarinets but it looks good to me" (one of my favorites) then be prepared to pass, or set a bid at a low price, or ask more questions.
Also, avoid tunnel vision or 'gotta have it' syndrome: there are lots of clarinets for sale this week and there will be next week, too. If you're not a 100% percent satisfied with what you are looking at, look some more. Remember, its just a clarinet....
The Licorice Shtick Blog is the creation of the Vintage Clarinet Doctor, a Winston Salem, NC based woodwind instrument repair shop specializing in vintage and antique clarinets, saxophones, and the occasional flute.