Clarinets and cracking go together like... well... pineapple on pizza. It's unfortunate, but it happens with alarming frequency. Here's what you can do to help minimize your risk. CW: bodily fluids, armpits, globalization, personal responsibility
You've seen them, you've heard of them, you live in fear of them: CRACKS! They're expensive to fix, and once an instrument cracks, it's never really the same. How do you go about preventing them from happening? Well, before we talk about prevention, let's talk a little bit about what causes cracks in the first place. (Please note that the following evidence is based on observations over a twenty-plus year period. Your experiences may vary.)
They just don't make 'em like they used to.
Time for some clarinet history! Wayyyyyyyyy back in the day (like, pre 2000), clarinet manufacturers used to age the grenadilla wood used in instrument making for ten to fifteen YEARS. This means that they would buy the harvested wood, cut it into billets (an obscure measurement of wood denoting an amount of fuel for a fire in the pre-fossil fuel era: about 3'4" long and about 10 inches in circumference), and drill a hole through the middle so air could circulate. They would leave this wood in their lumber yard and check on it and rotate it every once in a while until it had sufficiently dried out and aged. This means that if a person wanted to start making musical instruments, they had to plan ten to fifteen years in advance, or purchase wood from someone who already had a stockpile.
Enter the twenty-first century and globalization. As China and India and other nations got roped into manufacturing, it also opened up those countries as a market for purchasing Western musical instruments ("Western" meaning those in the European orchestral tradition like clarinets, oboes, flutes, violins, and so forth). Since the combined populations of these countries number in the billions, you can imagine what this has done for demand of useable grenadilla wood for clarinets. Nobody has the time or the storage space to store wood for fifteen years, so instrument manufacturers have started using kilns to speed up the process. Instead of sitting around in a lumber yard for a decade and a half, kilns are used to dry out the wood in six months to a year. Therein lies the problem.
Kiln dried wood is DRY, meaning the natural oils and resins in the grenadilla have basically evaporated. This makes the wood more susceptible to taking on excess moisture. If you look down the bore of a clarinet made later than 2009, you will most likely see weird little bumps inside. These weird little bumps are the pores of the wood still trying to act like they did when they were living and take on moisture from condensation left over from playing. This also means that the wood will want to shift a lot more than air dried wood when exposed to moisture and temperature changes. More wood movement means an increased likelihood of crack formation.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of visits to the repair technician.
There are ways to reduce your risk of cracks, but they involve taking personal responsibility for the care of your instrument and being honest with yourself.
1. Swab early and often! A good rule is, every time the conductor stops to yell at another section (not yours!), swab. During practice, swabbing every ten minutes would be ideal, but if every thirty is more manageable, then do that. The idea is to absorb as much excess moisture as possible.
2. Warm the outside before the inside! When preparing to play, place your upper joint assembled with your barrel under your arm to warm the outside of your instrument to body temperature. This will allow the inner temperature of the instrument to equalize with the outer temperature more evenly, which means the wood will expand and contract at a more even rate.
3. Use a humidification device in your case! There are many devices on the market, most of which can be found online or at a cigar specialty shop. My personal favorite is the Drymistat, but you can also use Boveda humidity packs, or even orange peels. A word of caution about orange peels: orange peels can mold, so need to be changed out every other day. The orange peels should not touch the wood, because, again, mold.
4. Bring your instrument indoors! Leaving your instrument in your car not only increases your risk of theft, it also increases the risk of cracking and warping. Even leaving your instrument in a so-called climate controlled garage poses a risk. It's better to bring it indoors. A good rule is, if you wouldn't leave a baby there, don't leave your instrument there.
There are no guarantees in life, other than death and taxes.
The purpose of these suggestions is to help minimize the risk of cracking. As an added bonus, they can help extend the life of your instrument. Please keep in mind that even if you do everything right, you could still get a crack. After all, some pieces of grenadilla would rather be furniture than be a clarinet!
Are there other things you can do to prevent cracks? Absolutely! They are a little more complicated, though, so I will dedicate a blog to each of them. Stay tuned for further shenanigans, and always, if you need any work done, give me a holler!