Of all the things that can go wrong with a clarinet, this tale is
about perhaps one of the most unusual I've ever seen.
My client, the very highly talented Dunstan
Coulber, called in just after the Christmas festivities with
an intermittent problem on his clarinet. It seems the instrument
was functioning perfectly up until New Year's Eve, when, in the
middle of a gig, it just stopped playing.
An impromptu and no doubt slightly desperate examination revealed
no cause - and even more frustratingly the clarinet was found to
be working again some moments later...only to fail again shortly
This is obviously a very worrying prospect for a professional player,
so at the earliest opportunity the instrument was whipped down to
the workshop for an examination.
In general terms, the more widespread the symptoms the higher up
the instrument the problem is likely to be found - so straightaway
I focussed my attention on the top joint. A quick blow test revealed
no leaks, so I suspected some kind of mechanical problem.
There are a number of problems that can result in intermittent
faults, the most common being a loose pad. If a pad comes adrift
it tends to make itself known by promptly falling off the instrument,
accompanied by a sigh or a ribald cheer, depending on which end
of the instrument you are - but on the top joint of a clarinet the
pads sometimes don't have enough clearance to fall completely out
when the keys are operated.
All that happens is that the pad rotates in the cup, sometimes coming
down to seal the hole, sometimes not.
I couldn't find any loose pads, so my next suspect was a sticking
Where the tip of the spring contacts the body there's usually small
metal plate, put there to prevent the spring tip from gouging a
hole in the body of the instrument. Sometimes burrs can form on
this plate, preventing the spring from fully travelling back when
the key is closed.
This has the effect of holding the key fractionally open sometimes.
I then found that the second trill key had a slight 'blip' in its
action. Just before the key closed there was a slight hesitation
- exactly the sort of symptom you'd expect with a burr on the spring
plate...though it could also indicate a slightly bent key, causing
it to rub up against adjacent keys.
I couldn't see any touching keywork, so I put my money on the spring
plate as being the culprit.
I duly removed the trill keys and refitted the second key to check
the action - but now it ran quite smoothly, and no amount of manipulating
the spring would duplicate the hesitation I'd found. I was about
admit that I was perplexed when I noticed something that ought not
to have been there. It was a small, cylindrical, shiny bead - of
the sort you find in those 'make your own necklace' kits.
Nothing special about that in itself - assorted debris often finds
its way into the action of an instrument, but usually drops off
as soon as the horn is moved or lifted up. But this little bead
had found the most perfect spot in which to lodge and wreak havoc.
Each trill key has a flat spring fitted to it, and this spring
is held in place by a small screw.
On some clarinets there's a corresponding hole in the body underneath
the screw head to prevent the head touching the body and thus preventing
the key from closing fully. Our little bead had found itself a cosy
home in one of these holes - and such was its size and shape that
once it had fallen into the hole it was unable to fall back out
unless the clarinet was inverted, the corresponding key opened fully
and the whole thing given a bit of a shake.
Not exactly the first course of action that springs to mind when
you're on a gig and the band's racing towards your next chorus.
So there the bead sat, and from time to time it worked its way
round to exactly the right position to butt up against the head
of the spring screw as the key closed, thus just preventing the
pad from fully closing and stopping the whole clarinet dead in its
Dunstan then informed me that his girlfriend makes jewellery -
so that was how the bead came to be there in the first place.
It comes to something when problem solving has to be extended to
asking the client what his or her partner gets up to on the sly.
I foresee much merrymaking amongst the clarinet sections of assorted
orchestras as various players try to sabotage each other's clarinets
with a proliferation of sneaky beading.