Help! My Recorder is Clogging!

You are in the middle of playing with friends when suddenly there is no sound coming out of your recorder. You put a finger over the window, blow out the moisture, and are good for another minute, but then the recorder refuses to play again. Aarrgghh!

Why recorders clog up: Clogging occurs when moisture beads up in the windway, like rain on a newly waxed car. Your windway is already very small:
1: the window; 2: the lip; 3: the ramp
A large bead of water will block the airstream going through the windway. The first solution is always to introduce a surfactant, something that will cause the moisture to sheet rather than bead up by breaking the surface tension. Fortunately, dishwashing liquids (I like the lemon scented ones) are specifically designed for this purpose. Make a solution of 8 parts of water to 1 part detergent, put your thumb over the blowing end of your recorder, hold it upside down, and pour the solution through the window into the windway. Hold it there for half a minute, let it run out, and let it dry before playing the recorder again. Ta da! Problem solved.

Still having a clogging problem?
Your recorder could have junk in the windway. It could be food particles, it could be mold or mildew. Without knowing the source of the problem, you can try two tricks to clean your windway.
  1. Start by pouring white vinegar into the windway, using the same technique you used for treating the windway with detergent, but wait a little longer before letting the vinegar drain out. Five minutes later rinse the windway with luke-warm tap water, (the kitchen sink sprayer is good for this) then dry off your recorder and swab the bore with a soft cloth. This will kill any mold or mildew, and will change the pH of the windway, making it less likely you'll grow mold in the future. It is always better to kill mold before cleaning your recorder, to prevent the mold spores from getting forced into the bore.
  2. If you have a plastic recorder, let the head soak in soapy water overnight to dissolve anything in the windway. Rinse well in the morning.
  3. If you have a wooden recorder, trying running tap water through the head when you're finished playing every day for a week. No, tap water isn't bad for your recorder. You introduce hot, moist air every time you play. Tap water won't do any damage. You may need to re-treat the windway with detergent solution.
Temperature can make a difference with clogging, because the wood of the instrument is cooler than your breath, causing the windway to fog the same way a car window fogs when it is cold. When the more humid air we release inside the windway comes in contact with the cold recorder head it releases some of its moisture, leaving condensation or fog in the windway. Heavier woods will take longer to acclimate to temperature, and are more likely to fog up. A cold hall, or playing instruments that have been in the cold, will make the problem more noticeable.

Still Clogging?
If you've done all of the things suggested above and your recorder still clogs, there are two probable causes:
  • There's still something physically blocking the windway. If you can remove your block, you can clean the windway with a baby bottle brush (because it's soft and won't damage your instrument) or a soft toothbrush. If you aren't comfortable removing your block, it's time to find someone who will. DO NOT force something through the windway with the block in place. You could change the dimensions of the chamfers, the angles cut into the end of the block and roof of the windway. Even very small chamfer changes can make a big difference in how your instrument performs.  
  • Your recorder needs revoicing. Even with a wonderfully designed and crafted instrument, the cedar block will swell, changing the dimension of the windway, and will need to be restored. This is most likely to occur when the instrument is new and being broken in, but can happen with a move to a different climate even for a mature instrument or when you start to play a recorder you've left alone for a long time. When the top notes of the recorder that used to play with ease, or the solidity of the bottom notes start being temperamental, that's a good indication your recorder is asking you for a voicing (lowering the block to the correct height and adjusting the chamfers).  If you are playing a recorder that has a flat windway, rather than a curved one, you will always have more problems with clogging because there isn't
    a "gutter" along each side to channel moisture.
    Macintosh HD:Users:barbara:Desktop:RecorderStandInstrumentsJP.jpg
    Photo: Jay Pransky

A few more tips
  • Let your recorder air dry whenever possible. Closing it up in an airtight case will promote mold and mildew growth, which will contribute to a clogging problem.
  • Recorders don't "get tired." If your recorder isn't playing well, but used to, you need to have your recorder cleaned and voiced.   

Barbara Prescott of the Prescott Workshop , and an ARS Board member        
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