If you’re looking for the full guide to cleaning your mouthpiece, this is it! We’re going to talk about getting rid of all that gross stuff that builds up inside the chamber of the mouthpiece, and everything else with cleaning and maintaining your clarinet mouthpiece so it’s not a filthy breeding ground for germs. Let’s jump right in.
You should clean your clarinet mouthpiece weekly. First remove the ligature and reed. Place the mouthpiece in a small bowl of vinegar and water and allow to soak for 5-10 minutes. Use a mouthpiece brush to remove gunk and limescale. Rinse out with water and then saturate with mouthwash or Sterisol. Wipe dry with a paper towel or soft cloth.
Sounds easy enough right? That’s the basics but let’s go into more detail to cover everything you need to know, including how to clean the ligature, the reed, and how to avoid buildup in the first place. Also, let’s talk about how to clean safely, so you won’t damage your mouthpiece or your reed.
Step by step: how to clean your clarinet mouthpiece
What you’ll need for this cleaning. Note that this cleaning also works great for bass clarinet mouthpieces and saxophone mouthpieces.
- Small container
- Mouthpiece brush or soft toothbrush
- Soft cloth or paper towel
- Vinegar or lemon juice (or hydrogen peroxide)
- Mouthwash or Sterisol
Now the steps:
- Dissemble the mouthpiece: Remove the mouthpiece guard if you have one. Loosen the ligature screws and remove the ligature and reed. Separate the mouthpiece joint from the rest of the clarinet.
- Grease your cork: By using cork grease on the joint cork of the mouthpiece before soaking, you protect your cork from the water, making sure that it will last longer. This step is usually not mentioned when people talk about cleaning the mouthpiece but is a good maintenance step.
- Soak the mouthpiece: Find a small container that will just barely hold the mouthpiece underwater. You can use a small bowl or plastic container. Place your mouthpiece in the container and fill it halfway with water. Fill the other half with either vinegar or lemon juice (not lemonade!) – you’re looking for a slightly acidic solution to loosen the grime and limescale (that white chalky stuff that builds up over time). Allow to soak for 5-10 minutes.
Note: I’ve also heard that a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water also does the trick. This solution wouldn’t be acidic but it would bubble as it comes in contact with germs, so it may loosen things up too.
- Use brush to remove gunk: To avoid scratching the inside of your mouthpiece, use either a special mouthpiece brush (can be found at an instrument store or online). A soft bristle toothbrush will work too (or a baby toothbrush). Lightly scrub inside the mouthpiece until all the gross stuff is gone.
- Rinse and final check: Rinse in cold water and do a final inspection. You want to make sure that you get everything out so there’s no place for bacteria to live. If you see any spots that you missed, use your mouthpiece brush or a cotton swab (yes, those Q-tips you use on your ears) to get the tricky spots.
- Sanitize your mouthpiece: Over the sink (or your container), slowly pour either mouthwash or Sterisol over your mouthpiece, saturating everything. Mouthwash is easier to find, will kill bacteria and leaves your mouthpiece minty fresh. Sterisol is a specialized germicide that you can find at a musical instrument store or online. Either one will work.
- Wipe and dry: Using a paper towel or soft cloth, wipe and dry your mouthpiece. Set aside to dry fully before putting back in the case.
While your clean mouthpiece is drying, let’s turn our focus to your ligature and reed now.
Cleaning your clarinet ligature
You’ll want to keep your ligature clean to keep the corrosion from building up, so it works right, and to look good. Proper maintenance will keep the screws easy to move and allow the reed to vibrate as it should, for proper resonance.
Using warm water and soap, use a soft cloth to wipe off any dirt or limescale buildup. Dry with a paper towel or soft cloth. You can polish with your polishing cloth for a shiny ligature, ready to go. You’ll want to clean your ligature every month or so.
Cleaning and sanitizing your clarinet reed
If not cleaned on a regular basis, say every week, your reed can grow mold or get an unhealthy buildup of germs. Luckily, cleaning your reed is simple and quick.
- Soak your reed: For this step, you can use mouthwash, hydrogen peroxide, or Sterisol with water in a small container, equal parts water, half and half. You can use the same container as what you cleaned your mouthpiece in (after you rinse it out of course). You don’t have to put much in since reeds are not that big. You should also put your reed holder in the solution as well since it would also have the same germs. Allow to soak for 10-15 minutes. Also, you can clean several reeds at once.
Which liquid to use: Mouthwash is an antiseptic but will leave your reed minty fresh. Hydrogen peroxide is used for killing germs. Sterisol is a sanitizer and germicide that many musicians prefer and can be found at your local instrument store or online. Note: if you leave your reed in Sterisol for too long, it’ll turn red. It’ll still play the same but will just be discolored.
- Wipe and dry your reed: After soaking, gently dry your reed by wiping off with a paper towel or soft cloth. Make sure to always start from the back of the reed and come forward so the front edge doesn’t get damaged in any way. Dry off the reed case as well with a paper towel or soft cloth. Allow to air dry for a little while longer before putting the reed back into its holder, and then back into your instrument case.
Tips and taking care of your clarinet mouthpiece
While we covered how to clean your mouthpiece, step by step, I’d like to share a few additional tips here:
- Do not use your cleaning swab! The cleaning swab is perfect for cleaning out the inside of your clarinet (the bore), you shouldn’t use it on your mouthpiece for 2 reasons. First, since the mouthpiece hole is smaller, you could get the swab stuck in the hole. Trying to force it through or to get it unstuck could cause damage. Secondly, since the mouthpiece material is different from the clarinet body, and isn’t a straight shot, you could scratch the inside of your mouthpiece. Scratches within the mouthpiece could harm the integrity of the mouthpiece over time, could give germs more places to live, and even affect the sound of the instrument.
- Wipe out your mouthpiece after every use. You should clean and sanitize your mouthpiece every week but after each and every time you play your instrument, use a dry cloth to wipe out the moisture. It’s also good practice to remove your reed and put it in its holder. By doing this, you minimize the buildup and germs. Make sure to wash your cleaning cloth from time to time too!
Keep it clean folks!
After playing our clarinets, it’s tempting to simply put everything in the case and worry about it later. Make sure to do a quick wipe down though to remove moisture (yes, your spit) from the instrument, especially the mouthpiece. You should still clean your mouthpiece every week though. If you soak your mouthpiece and reed at the same time, the whole process will take about 20 minutes, with most of the time simply waiting for it to soak. By regularly cleaning your clarinet, your mouthpiece will last longer and won’t be a breeding ground for bacteria.