Moisture can condense inside a clarinet after just a few minutes of playing. The amount of moisture and the rate that it condenses depends partly on the individual player, but mostly on atmospheric conditions, especially temperature and humidity. Leaving moisture inside the instrument for long periods of time can lead to problems. Using a swab is the preferred method for removing this moisture.
Types of Swabs
Swabs can be made of various materials. Cotton is the most common, and silk has become popular in recent years. Swabs are also made from felt, however, these are typically less effective, and are mainly sold to beginning students.
Besides the actual cloth material, a swab normally has some type of cord or ribbon with a weight attached at the end. The weight helps get the cord all the way through the instrument. Cheaper swabs leave the metal weight exposed while higher quality swabs usually enclose the weight inside cloth to prevent it from scratching the bore of the clarinet.
Using a Swab
There is actually a technique for using a swab. With the clarinet put together, remove the mouthpiece. Turn the clarinet upside down so that the bell is up in the air. Completely unfold the swab and run it through your hand to straighten it. Also remove any tangles or knots in the cord. Then drop the weighted end into the bell. Feed the cord into the bell until the weight comes out of the barrel at the other end. Never push the cloth part of the swab into the bell because this causes it to bunch up. Once the weight has dropped through, turn the clarinet sideways (like handlebars on a bike). Then gently pull the end of the cord until you have drawn the entire swab through the clarinet.
It is best not to swab the mouthpiece because doing so tends to wear it down over time and change the way it plays. Instead, thoroughly clean the mouthpiece at least once per week by rinsing it in water and drying it with a soft cloth (never use hot water on a mouthpiece).
When a Swab Gets Stuck
It is important to make sure that the swab is completely unfolded and straightened out before pulling it through. If there are tangles in the cord or the cloth is bunched together you run the risk of getting it stuck inside the clarinet.
Why do swabs get suck inside a clarinet? Clarinets have a small metal tube called the vent tube that protrudes into the bore (you can see it by looking into the bore of the upper joint). If a swab is not entirely unfolded before pulling it through, it can easily catch and tangle on that vent tube. Stuck swabs can be slightly frightening, and are sometimes difficult to get unstuck. If your swab does get stuck, stop pulling immediately. The way to get it out is by taking apart the clarinet, and then very gently pulling the swab out backwards.
When to Use a Swab
It's best to get into the habit of always swabbing your clarinet at the end of each playing session. However, depending on the humidity, temperature, and individual player, you might need to swab the instrument occasionally during the playing session. When condensation is allowed to build up, it can result in tone holes getting clogged which causes certain notes to gurgle. Swabbing the clarinet regularly during the session helps prevent this.
A swab is one of the bare necessities that every clarinetist should keep in the clarinet case. It is vital for controlling condensation inside the instrument as well as simply keeping the clarinet clean. Too much condensation can lead to notes gurgling during a performance. While using a swab is fairly simple, remember the steps described here to prevent getting the swab caught on the clarinet's vent tube.