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Caring for Single-Reed Mouthpieces

David Cook | November 2018

    The mouthpiece might be the most integral piece of clarinet or saxophone equipment. A carefully maintained mouthpiece can help a student develop at a faster rate, but a damaged mouthpiece can impede progress. In addition, do not underestimate the importance of playing on clean and sanitary equipment. Fortunately, keeping a mouthpiece in good working condition is simple for both teachers and students.

On the Instrument
    A mouthpiece patch protects the beak of the mouthpiece from teeth marks, in addition to dampening vibrations that students may experience while playing. For many, use of a patch, whether thick or thin, also makes playing the instrument more comfortable. Although avoiding scratches or tooth indentations may not be a concern for individual students’ mouthpieces, it is important for larger mouthpieces on instruments owned by the school. A pronounced indentation from a previous student’s embouchure can lead future students to contort their embouchure to fit into that indentation, causing them to play in an uncomfortable position.
    Students should also take great care when securing the ligature on the mouthpiece. Over time, an excessively tightened ligature can cause the mouthpiece facing to warp. This results in a stuffy feeling, and can hinder response, articulation, and reed friendliness. 
    As obvious as it may seem, a mouthpiece cap should be placed over the mouthpiece whenever an instrument is unused; this is especially important for students in marching band. A cap should be made from plastic or rubber, not metal, because on a metal cap, the ventilation holes punched into the top often have sharp bits on the inside. If the mouthpiece is stored loosely inside the cap while in the case, the jagged metal from these holes may scratch the delicate tip rail of the mouthpiece. Plastic or rubber caps have no such problem. In addition, a plastic or rubber cap is far less distracting if or when it falls out of someone’s pocket during a rehearsal  – or worse, a performance.

After Playing
    Once done playing, students should hold the window of the mouthpiece up to their lips, parallel to the floor, and blow through the mouthpiece to remove excess moisture from the chamber. In this position, the bore of the mouthpiece will point to their left or right. This prevents bacteria and mold from growing inside the mouthpiece.
    Performers and instrument technicians have long debated whether swabbing the inside of a mouthpiece can change the dimensions of the chamber and bore. After careful consideration and discussion with several mouthpiece experts, I have concluded that a mouthpiece should only be swabbed with a silk swab furnished with a rubber-coated weight. The weighted end should be pushed through the bore and out the window of the mouthpiece. Be careful that the weighted end does not contact the tip rail or side rails. I prefer to pull the weighted end through at an angle, so the swab does not contact the tip rail.

In the Case
    The mouthpiece should be stored so it does not move freely inside the case. Most cases have a dedicated slot or area for the mouthpiece to rest. The mouthpiece be stored with a cap, which should fit snugly over the mouthpiece. If the cap does not fit snugly by itself, then I recommend storing the ligature on the mouthpiece as well. Besides creating a secure fit for the cap that will protect the mouthpiece, this has the added benefit of ensuring the ligature maintains its shape. However, leaving a reed on the mouthpiece while not in use should be avoided; it is both unsanitary and can lead to a warped facing.

    When cleaning the mouthpiece, it is best to avoid warm or hot water, as the temperature can cause the rubber to oxidize, resulting in an unsightly green color and a somewhat unpleasant odor. For regular cleanings, running cool water through the chamber and across the exterior will suffice, followed by a gentle drying with a soft cloth that will not scratch the mouthpiece. A cotton swab can be used to clean out any corners inside the chamber.

    In addition, there are several commercial sterilizing sprays available with the intention of being used in a public school music classroom.
    After several weeks or months of playing, calcium deposits may begin to form on the sides and beak of the mouthpiece. The easiest and safest way to remove these is to fill a small container with lemon juice and let the mouthpiece soak for approximately 10 minutes. As the mouthpiece soaks, the acidity of the lemon juice will soften the calcium deposits to the point where they can be removed with a soft cloth or rinsed off in the sink.

    A damaged mouthpiece can be a hindrance to a musician of any level, while a well-kept mouthpiece can help students of all ages to grow and develop as artists. Although equipment is no substitute for diligent practicing, a pristine and sanitary mouthpiece can make practicing much more enjoyable.