I’ve been cleaning houses since I was a mere child of ten years, starting in my mom’s kitchen doing the dishes after supper. Not an enviable task. But I grew up with a profound sense of order and cleanliness that I still adhere to today. In my own kitchen, I am constantly cleaning up as I make my cakes, often interrupting what I’m doing just to rinse out the sink or wipe up crumbs from my work space (confectionary sugar is particularly annoying).
In that same vein, I teach my students how important it is that they clean out their instruments and keep the extra junk out of their cases. With all wind instruments, condensation builds up inside the instrument (called the bore), starting from the mouthpiece and out the bell from all the warm air rushing through. Unless a swab is run through after every time the instrument is played for any length of time, germs and dirt will start to accumulate, and soon the instrument will begin to smell bad and look nasty. Brass players have it easy-they have built-in spit valves that the player can open and blow through to get rid of the water and spit as they play, which they do to the disgust of us woodwind players who have to watch them and look at all that water and spit on the floor. Trust me, I’ve seen this. The most us woodwind musicians have to contend with is a couple drops of water on our chairs or maybe in our laps.
But students tell me they don’t have time to clean out their horns. I say, make the time. It takes all of thirty seconds to run a swab through, and they still won’t be late for their next class if they don’t dawdle. If my clarinet or saxophone students opens up their cases and the reed is still on the mouthpiece, I know they didn’t bother cleaning the mouthpiece, and they risk chipping and breaking that very expensive reed because they didn’t put it away properly in the reed guard that was provided for him/her in the starter kit. (Actually, I tell them to store the reed in the white plastic thing that the reed came in.) I give them an scenario: they eat their breakfast cereal with the same spoon every morning. But instead of washing the spoon when they’re done, they just throw it in the silverware drawer and eat with it the next day. After several days, do they really want to put that spoon in their mouths? No. Well, that’s exactly what they’re doing when they don’t clean their mouthpieces after they play.
If I start a new student, and he/she tells me they never clean the mouthpiece or run a swab through the horn, I take the mouthpiece and the student to a sink. I pry off that reed because it’s stuck on the mouthpiece and run a paper towel or a tissue through it just so he/she can see all the brown and green junk that was inside. Then I show him/her how to use soap and water to thoroughly clean the mouthpiece, and I sterilize it with a special solution. Nuff said? Huh?
A word about mouths and hands. No student should be handling their instruments with fingers that are orange from the hot spicy Cheetos they just ate at lunch and are still munching on the way to the band room. They should not be eating or drinking anything other than water before they play. Food particles and dyes and sugars eat away at the reed and damages it. If the students are coming from lunch, a quick stop at the water fountain to rinse their mouths is in order. And nothing needs to even be mentioned about gum in the mouth . . .
Cases need to be clean, and nothing other than instrument supplies should be in them. No candy wrappers, reed wrappers, ink pens, broken reeds, or last week’s math quiz. All this extra stuff can roll around inside the case and do damage to delicate keys and get caught inside the bore. I tell my oboe students to use the nozzle end of their mom’s sweeper and sweep out the inside of the case to get rid of dust and debris. If this is not done on a regular basis, all that dust and dirt will get in and under the keys and make the oboe go out of adjustment. The other woodwind instruments need this “house cleaning” as well. It’s all about taking care the fragile, expensive instrument.
Students often don’t realize that neglect of their instrument is going to cause problems. Taking care of it is all part of learning how to play the instrument, and is an opportunity to learn some discipline. Doing so helps them on the path of maturity and becoming a responsible young adult. What parent would argue with that?