To assemble or take apart a clarinet, you need to know what all its parts are and what kinds of accessories are needed to help keep it clean and in good working condition. The parts of the clarinet are, from top to bottom, the mouthpiece, the barrel, the upper joint (has keys and is shorter), the lower joint (has keys and is longer), and the bell. You also need a clarinet reed and a ligature, which are added to the mouthpiece to make sound on the instrument. For care and cleaning you need cork grease, a clarinet swab, a case for your reeds, a mouthpiece cap, and, of course, an instrument case.
The parts have descriptive names: the barrel of the clarinet looks like a barrel, the bell resembles a bell, and the upper and lower joints are described by their positions. The mouthpiece is the part you insert into your mouth. This webpage has some great photos of the parts of the clarinet, and the related materials you need.
Each joint has either a socket or a tenon on each end. A tenon is covered with cork and is slightly narrower in diameter than the rest of the clarinet. These get inserted into the sockets. Before putting any pieces of the instrument together, take the cork grease and apply a thin layer to each tenon cork—like putting on chapstick. It’s best to use your fingers to make sure the cork grease is spread evenly all the way around the tenon cork. Cork grease allows the cork to slide against the body of the clarinet, which keeps the cork intact and makes it much easier to assemble the clarinet without damaging any keywork.
To assemble the instrument, work from the bottom up. Take the bell in one hand, and the lower joint in the other. To hold the lower joint, wrap the fingers of one hand carefully around the keywork so that the keys are held securely and with even pressure. This minimizes the chance that anything will bend. With a gentle twisting motion, attach the bell to the tenon on the bottom of the bottom joint. You’ll know it’s on when the ring at the top of the bell is flush with the bottom of the lower joint, above the tenon cork.
Next, grasp the upper joint so that your fingers are wrapped securely around the keys, and find the key that extends beyond the end of the joint—that’s the bridge key. This must align with the corresponding bridge key on the bottom joint so that the two joints will work together properly. They usually have matching grooves or lines, so they’re fairly simple to match up. Insert the upper joint’s bottom tenon into the socket on the top of the lower joint, again with a gentle twisting motion. The upper joint is secure when the bridge keys are aligned, and the two joints are flush against each other.
The barrel attaches to the top of the upper joint with another gentle twist and is fully connected when the bottom of the barrel is flush with the top of the upper joint. Finally, the mouthpiece is inserted into the top of the barrel.
Once the clarinet is assembled, you can attach the reed and the ligature, and the clarinet will be ready to play. Reeds must be moistened, so most clarinet players simply put them in their mouths as they assemble the rest of their instruments. It’s best to have the ligature in place first—this minimizes the likelihood of bumping the tip of the reed with the ligature and damaging the reed.
Take the reed and line it up on the mouthpiece, under the loosened ligature, so that the curved tip of the reed is slightly below the curved tip of the mouthpiece and the reed lines up on the flat part of the mouthpiece below the window (opening). The bark (the hard, shiny part of the reed) should be facing outward. Once the reed is in place, simply tighten the screw(s) on the ligature until the reed no longer moves easily. There are some excellent photos here of the process of assembling a clarinet, and especially of putting the reed and ligature together. (There are many different types of ligatures, made of many different materials, available, and their screw placements differ. When purchasing a ligature, make sure you know how it goes on the mouthpiece properly.)
To disassemble the clarinet, work in reverse order. The reed comes off first; it should be wiped carefully with the clarinet swab and then returned to the reed case. Then the ligature and mouthpiece can be removed. Swab the mouthpiece separately, from the bottom of the mouthpiece to the top, and replace it in the case before cleaning out the rest of the instrument. Usually cases are small and space is at a premium, so it’s often best to store the mouthpiece with the ligature and the mouthpiece cap in place around the mouthpiece.
Next, turn the instrument upside down so that the end of the bell is sticking up, and run the swab through it several times bell-to-barrel. Remove the barrel, and check both sockets for moisture. If there is any wipe it out with the swab as well. Check the tenons and sockets on each joint as you remove it and place it in the case. This is especially important for wooden instruments, which should be stored in the case as dry as possible.
You now know how to assemble and disassemble your clarinet. Happy practicing and stay tuned for more clarinet posts!