Treat Your Instrument with TLC

Marching season can cause a lot of strain on your horn. Keep your woodwind or brass instrument in tip-top shape with proper cleaning, maintenance and protection.

Picture this: You’re on the field, and it’s the final performance of the season. You’ve spent weeks preparing—memorizing every note and perfecting every step. This is your moment. You push your valves in to test them out, and one of them gets stuck. You try to pull it out, and then try unscrewing it, but the valve won’t budge. Now instead of belting out all those notes and rhythms you’ve memorized, you’re miming the entire show with a busted instrument. If only you’d done a deep clean at some point in the season, right?

Instrument maintenance is one of the most important parts of being a musician. Proper care is essential to ensuring a consistent, powerful sound, but there are a lot of things that owners don’t think about when handling their instruments.

Instrument Selection

Before taking a single step, a performer needs to consider what instrument he or she will be bringing onto the field. In a marching setting, the most high-end instrument available on the market might not be the one you want to use; it will almost certainly get clogged up with various liquids, have dented or bent parts, and endure all sorts of unintentional abuse in the course of a single marching season.

For woodwinds, Ohio State University professor Katherine Jones recommends dropping flutes altogether in favor of piccolos for their superior ability to cut through the rest of the band and make themselves heard, as well as the lighter strain it puts on one’s body in regards to proper posture and carrying.

“Flutes are difficult to hear, the posture is hard on the body, and there can be substantial wear and tear on the instrument,” Jones says. “Piccolos will provide a wonderful top to the band, and flute students will learn to play the piccolo, which will be useful for concert season.”

Similarly, Texas Lutheran University professor Paula Corley recommends using synthetic clarinets on the marching field instead of wooden ones as the trade-off in tone is well worth not taking a valuable concert instrument onto a marching field.

“You shouldn’t march outdoors with a wooden instrument, period,” Corley says. “It’s not safe to play a wooden clarinet outdoors because of the wear and tear and the damage it’ll receive below 60 degrees. I think every marching band should use synthetic clarinets.”

Brass instruments are less finicky. Though no one would recommend bringing, say, a Bach Stradivarius horn onto the field, most brass instruments hold up well enough under marching band duress.

Cleaning

One of the most important aspects of proper instrument care is ensuring that its interior stays clean. Wind instruments are particularly susceptible to being gunked up by saliva, water and any other liquid one might drink during a practice session.

Jones recommends two kinds of cleaning—light upkeep on a regular basis and a deep clean by a professional at the end of the season. Particularly, she suggests regular cleaning of the tenons and cork to ensure that woodwind instruments can be put together and taken apart easily, as well as dabbing at the instrument’s pads with a clean tissue if they are sticky or dirty, by opening and closing the pads against the material.

Jones add that the cleaning cloth should always be stored in an outer case or tied around the handle, away from the instrument.

Corley recommends swabbing the interior along with wiping the keys off.

Kenneth Tse, president of the North American Saxophone Alliance and a professor at the University of Iowa, recommends using cotton swabs to clean hard-to-reach places.

Columbus (Georgia) State University professor Bradley Palmer advises players to remember to clean both the inner slide and the interior of the outer slide when performing trombone maintenance. Additionally, he recommends using oil to maintain the valves and to use slide grease on the tuning slides after cleaning them in soapy water.

“Wet cleaning means taking it into the bath/shower and cleaning slides and leadpipe with soapy water using a brush, and then rinsing it out afterwards. It depends on use, but a wet cleaning should probably be done at least a couple of times a year, or possibly more often.”

Mouthpiece and Reed Care

Mouthpieces come into direct contact with the player’s mouth, a perfect opportunity for germs and grime to enter one’s body. Cleaning that mouthpiece, as a result, is an essential part of being a musician. Tse and Corley both recommend rinsing the mouthpiece under running water (room temperature, not hot) and dry it off with a soft cloth. Jones gives this same suggestion for flute mouthpieces while also warning players not to touch or bend the embouchure plate.

Brass mouthpieces, by their very nature, are much more durable than woodwind mouthpieces but still require regular, extensive cleaning to ensure that the mouthpiece’s shank does not become clogged over time.

“There is some nasty stuff that can grow in there, and in extreme cases, I’ve seen the size of the bore in the mouthpiece affected by buildup of who-knows-what,” Palmer says. “A mouthpiece brush should be used under running water. Some do this a couple times a week, and others far less often. It depends on, for instance, whether you eat a Krispy Kreme donut right before rehearsal, or you have good habits in terms of brushing between eating and playing.

“With a clean mouthpiece, if you still taste raw brass, or the surface of the rim is rough or pitted, get a new mouthpiece.”

For reed care, Corley recommends having at least four or five reeds on hand, swapping between them each day. “Most people will play on the same reed over and over, and it’ll turn black from the sweat and the dirt, but you shouldn’t do that, not at all,” she says. “Don’t play on the same reed for a week. Try to rotate a reed every time you march.”

Corley also suggests synthetic reeds, particularly for marching band members, as they require far less maintenance. Synthetic reeds do not need to be wet before playing, and they last far longer than wooden reeds. Specifically, Corley recommends the synthetic reeds of Légère Reeds, based out of Toronto, Canada.

“They’re made from a polymer, so you just put them in and play,” Corley says. “You could play on those for a month, or even longer, and they won’t deteriorate.”

Maintenance

Maintenance can be a contentious issue. Most players don’t want to shell out a lot of money on professional repairs. That leaves them at the mercy of their own expertise. However, professional repair at least once per season can often be essential to keep one’s instrument in optimal condition.

As an ounce of prevention, Jones gives a good suggestion for ensuring a player’s flute always stays tightly together over time. “Take care when assembling and disassembling the instrument,” she says. “Be sure to line up the tenons carefully, and twist on and off the same way every time. This will set slight grooves, which will maintain the position of the three parts of the flute. If you just pull and push on and off, with time the flute will not stay put together!”

Corley advises that key damage—a bent key rod or damage to the pads—should be handled by a technician to avoid unintentional additional damage. “If they bend the wrong key, it’ll just do even more damage,” she says. “Always go to a reputable technician.”

She also notes that pads should be replaced when they start to become discolored and frayed by the instrument’s internal moisture.

Palmer’s advice focused on the slides. On trombones, the main slide is often most susceptible to damage due to its length and relative fragility while slides on other brass instruments can be damaged just as much by dents.

“If a slide is dented or bent, it needs to find its way to a repair person right away,” he warns. “Think about a big dent in the slide. If the metal of the outer slide is pushed into the metal of the inner slide, the slide will stop moving. Don’t try to force it to move. Doing so causes that dent in the outer slide to drag along the inner slide, and more damage is done. A good repair person can get the dent back out before removing the slide to finish the work of getting the inner and outer tubes round again.”

Placement

Most professional musicians recommend against placing instruments on the ground, instead suggesting that a player hold onto it at all times or have someone else hold it when he or she can’t.

“Don’t put your instrument down,” recommends Corley. “The key mechanisms are so delicate and complex that they can get bent very easily, and the wood can be very fragile. The joints will leak; the pads won’t seal. Either hold onto it, or have it in your case.”

In some instances, an instrument stand could come in handy. “A saxophone stand is not compulsory, but it is useful,” Tse says.  “Of course, whether putting [an instrument] down on a table or floor or leaving it on a stand, one must be watchful and mindful for potential danger of people bumping into it.”

When laying down instruments is a necessity, Palmer recommends grouping instruments together with the rest of the section in a large, noticeable cluster. “Instruments are always safest when they are ‘stacked’ with like instruments, all in a row with the bells lined up,” he says. “It is much less likely that someone will accidentally step on or kick an instrument that is in a big stack with other like-instruments than an instrument that is sitting by itself.”

For trombones, Palmer has some unusual advice for placing the instrument on the ground. Place it upside-down. “The instrument should touch the floor in three places (ideally with the mouthpiece removed): the top of the receiver where the mouthpiece goes in, the tuning slide and the bell,” he advises. “If it is not upside-down, it will rest on the bottom of the slide, which we want to avoid.”

Additionally, a player could consider a more novel option to protect his or her instrument. Gary Barnfield produces a product known as the Rim Protector, a rubber ring designed to fit around the bell of an instrument and help protect it from dents and scratches when it is placed on the ground.

“As I watched the band director give commands, all of a sudden everyone laid their instruments on the blacktop,” he says, explaining the product’s inspiration. “I couldn’t believe what I had just seen, but I soon found out that that was a common occurrence.

“I had an investment in my son’s saxophone, as most parents have an investment in their children’s instruments, so immediately I started looking for something to protect the bell of the instrument as that was the first thing to hit the ground.”

Barnfield’s Rim Protector is available for all bell and rimmed instruments.

In the end, realize that an instrument in good condition can sometimes be the difference between succeeding and failing, and treating your instrument with respect is the key to success. “If you take care of your instrument,” Corley says, “it will always take care of you.”

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