Hi again! In this issue I share a few thoughts specific to caring for brass instruments. I also answer a few e-mail questions from readers.
Caring for Brass Instruments
Brass instruments should be seen by a repair technician once a year for cleaning and adjustment. Regular service will extend their service life and keep them playing well. Brass instruments tend more toward catastrophic failures than woodwinds do. They tend to play until they don’t, whereas woodwind performance will tend to gradually worsen over time.
Dents in brass instruments do not have a significant effect on performance unless they protrude into the bore more than 1/3 the measurement of the bore diameter or they affect moving parts or braces. Dents closer to the mouthpiece have a bigger influence on performance than dents close to the bell. Where tolerances are tight, small dents can affect the instrument’s performance. For instance, very small dents on the piston, valve casing, tuning slide or trombone slide can slow or seize a valve or slide. Sometimes these dents cannot be detected by the untrained eye. Dents should be referred to a skilled repair technician.
Here are some other things you can do to keep your brass instrument playing well:
- Apply valve oil to all valves every day you play. Amount: squeeze the oil container for as long as it takes to say “oil the valves.” Unscrew each top valve cap separately, lift the piston out just far enough to expose a finger width of the machined surface of the piston, apply oil and screw the top valve cap back in. Use commercial valve oil. As an alternative, lamp oil (100% pure liquid paraffin) is a very good valve oil and is quite inexpensive. Valve oil does three things: (1) it lubricates the metal surfaces, which speeds action and reduces wear; (2) it fills in the gaps between machined surfaces, making for less air leakage; and (3) it carries foreign particles away from machined surfaces, helping to prevent fouling or gouging. Lube the tuning slides weekly with commercial tuning-slide grease.
- Take stuck slides, pistons or rotors to a repair technician. It is very easy to do a lot of damage to your instrument by using force to free these parts. If a slide, piston or rotor is stuck, it is due to an accumulation of sludge and deposits, misalignment of tubing, or dents. All of these problems are best addressed by an experienced technician.
- Secure a failed solder joint with a zip tie. Twine or dental floss will also work. Avoid rubber bands, as the sulfur in the rubber will quickly damage the finish of your instrument. Do not use glue, especially superglue. No glue will hold this kind of joint, and superglue emits cyanide gas when it is heated, which is bad for the health of whoever must resolder the joint. Keep in mind that a failed joint will exert extra strain on the other solder joints of the instrument, which can in turn cause them to fail. Have the failed joint resoldered as soon as possible to prevent further damage.
- Take a stuck mouthpiece to a repair technician or use a mouthpiece puller. I have seen more instruments than I care to count receive hundreds of dollars in damage because pliers were used to pull a mouthpiece. Don’t even think about it! The “Bobcat” mouthpiece puller is inexpensive, relatively easy to use and readily available through music stores. It will work for 95% of the cases you will encounter. If the puller does not work after a few tries, take the instrument to a repair technician.
Here’s what you need for an emergency repair kit for brass instruments:
- “Bobcat” mouthpiece puller
- Zip ties or dental floss for broken solder joints (zip ties are best)
- Twist ties or hair elastics—use these on water keys if the metal spring breaks (have a repair technician replace the metal spring promptly after this temporary fix; rubber bands will also work, but the sulfur in the rubber will quickly damage the instrument’s finish)
- Synthetic water-key corks (the most common are Valentino brand; latex-free bandages or multiple layers of masking tape will also serve as a temporary fix for failed or missing corks)
Questions from readers:
My saxophone cork, where the mouthpiece attaches, gets loose after about six months. Is this normal? My saxophone spends too much time in the shop.
The neck cork on your saxophone should last at least a year or two if you know how to care for it. Try this: always take the mouthpiece off when you put your saxophone away. This allows the cork to expand again and helps it retain resiliency. Apply cork grease weekly and as needed to reduce friction and tearing of the cork. Readers, this advice holds for joint corks on clarinets, oboes and bassoons as well.
Hope this helps,
My flute is hard to put together. The head does not slide in and out very well. Is this something I can fix myself? Also, my G# pad makes a sticky noise.
Flute body joints are joints in which metal slides against metal. These joints should never be lubricated. They should operate smoothly and easily when they are clean and dry. The head joint should move easily but be tight enough to stay in whatever position you prefer. I recommend cleaning the joint. You will need isopropyl alcohol and a clean cotton rag or cloth. Moisten the cloth with alcohol and clean the head joint surface. Moisten the cloth again, slip the cloth over your finger and clean the body half of the joint, which is inside the bore of the flute. Do not use so much alcohol that it drips down the bore onto the pads. When these surfaces are clean, try the fit again. If the fit is still not good, then the joint is misshapen. Take the instrument to a repair technician. Your technician has the tools and the experience to refit the joint so that it will work properly.
As for the sticky G# key, I recommend using a clean piece of cotton cloth. Open the key, insert the dry cloth between the pad and the tone hole, close the key and, holding the key closed with a very light pressure, pull the cloth out gently. Repeat this operation, always using clean areas of the cloth, until the noise stops. I do not recommend using powder or powdered paper, as powder mixes with moisture and accumulates more foreign material. Paper will work also, but the cotton has a bit of texture which gives it “bite” for cleaning, and it is more absorbent than paper.
Next time I will talk about woodwind care and maintenance as well as a woodwind emergency repair kit. Keep those questions coming in!
Until next time,