Prolong the Life of Your Instruments with Regular Cleaning and Maintenance

After students, instruments are the most valuable asset in teaching instrumental music. I teach at Lexington Junior High in California, and every day I trust adolescents with these expensive and fragile items with very little supervision. Add to this that some instruments at your school may be older than you, and the importance of teaching […]

After students, instruments are the most valuable asset in teaching instrumental music. I teach at Lexington Junior High in California, and every day I trust adolescents with these expensive and fragile items with very little supervision.

Add to this that some instruments at your school may be older than you, and the importance of teaching our students the proper care and maintenance of instruments becomes even more clear!

The following guidelines are not about repairing your instruments, but rather, how to prevent them from needing repair through routine maintenance and cleaning.

Teach Instrument Care Early: Daily Tasks

Since a working instrument is essential to our student’s ability to make music, teaching care early on is as important as teaching instrument assembly, use of air, finger position or embouchure development. As you explain to students how each instrument works, also include how each maintenance task adds years of life to an instrument. When explained this way, certain care tasks can become a part of your students’ daily routine.

BRASS WOODWINDS PERCUSSION
Trumpet, Euphonium, Tuba — Turn every valve cap, pull every slide, oil valves, empty water, wipe mouthpiece, wipe fingerprints. Flute — Swab inside of body, foot and headjoint, wipe off fingerprints and lip plate. Drums — Store snares with snares on, only loosen/tighten stands as much as needed (one turn is usually enough).
Horn — same as above, except add rotor oil to the spindle and inside of valves. Clarinet — Swab top and bottom joints separately (not the whole thing at once!), wipe off mouthpiece (in and out), wipe keys and store reeds flat and dry. Mallets — Wipe fingerprints or dust from keys, cover instruments, store mallets appropriately.
Trombone — Pull tuning slide, add lube and spray water on the hand slide as needed. Empty water regularly. Saxophone — Shake water from neck, wipe off mouthpiece (in and out), wipe fingerprints and store reeds flat and dry. Timpani — Return heads to a neutral position, cover drums, store mallets in plastic.
Oboe — Swab top and bottom joints separately, wipe off keys and store reed in a dry container. Accessories — store in their proper place, along with the beaters.
Bassoon — empty boot, swab all joints, shake water from bocal and store reed in a dry container.

applying key oil with toothpickWhile you might not want your beginners to oil valves when they haven’t yet used them, start encouraging this practice once they start to push valves daily. The pulling and pushing of each tuning slide and the tightening and loosening of each valve cap by a turn or so will help prevent them from getting stuck. It also encourages students to not push the tuning slide all the way in.

Develop a classroom routine of how water is to be emptied. The more efficient this is, the more likely students will do it regularly. I provide each brass student a small towel that is always placed on the floor and taken home to be washed regularly.

checking flute key pads for residueYoung woodwind players tend to rush and default to swabbing out the entire instrument, which often results in the swab getting stuck. Pulling a cleaning swab all the way through a mouthpiece is a sure way to get it stuck as well. So, make sure to allow time for cleaning tasks to be done properly. Another tip: Use a reed holder — not the container the reed came in — which is a better way to encourage dry storage.

The start of your students’ instrumental career is always the best time to insist on and develop critical habits such as never sharing an instrument, keeping it in the case when not in use, and never sitting on the case.

Once your students have developed these habits, it’s time to introduce care tactics that take place more intermittently.

Weekly Tasks

BRASS WOODWINDS
Trumpet, Euphonium, Tuba — Pull out valves and wipe clean. Check that slides are lubricated. Check water key corks, springs and screws. Flute — Check for loose rail screws and torn/worn pads. Wipe the headjoint end and receiver end of the body clean.
Horn — same as above, plus check the rotor strings and screws. Clarinet — Check corks and re-apply grease as needed (and only when needed). Rinse the mouthpiece (be careful with the cork). Check for loose rail screws and torn/worn pads.
Trombone — Wipe the hand slide completely dry, then re-apply lubricant and water. Check water key cork and screw. Saxophone — Check neck cork and re-apply grease as needed (and only when needed). Rinse the mouthpiece and the neck, and dry them. Check for loose rail screws and torn/worn pads. Wipe the neck and body ends clean.
Bassoon — Re-wax tenon string as needed. Rinse bocal.

using cotton swab to check outside of tenon for cork greaseWipe brass valves and trombone slides dry every week to keep them smooth forever.

Young woodwind players must be taught that cork grease only needs to be applied when it becomes difficult to move joints or the mouthpiece. Excess cork grease will work its way down through the cork and cause the cork and cement to deteriorate faster.

For percussionists at this level, reinforcing where things go is extremely important for daily class organization and keeping smaller accessories from getting lost. Another essential skill is for them to always loosen something before moving it to adjust the height, etc. (As a general rule, just one turn is sufficient to loosen or tighten any screw.) This will help avoid many stripped out stand pieces later on!

Long-Term Instrument Care

Long-term instrument care should be done at least twice a year under normal use; definitely before turning them in at the end of the year. Depending on the age of your students, you may want to supervise some procedures, and always demonstrate the task to your students first.

BRASS WOODWINDS PERCUSSION
Trumpet, Euphonium, Tuba — Flush out the lead pipe with warm, soapy water and rinse. Brush the mouthpiece shank. Remove old grease (with soap) from tuning slides and re-grease them.

Every 4 to 6 months: Completely disassemble the instrument and wash it inside and out with warm (not hot!) soapy water, dry, relubricate and re-assemble. Check valve cap felts and guide and replace if needed.

Flute — Gently clean pads with paper. Apply a drop of key oil to all rod ends. Use a Q-Tip or small brush to clean under rails. Check the head joint cork depth using the cleaning rod. Drums — Store snares with snares on, only loosen/tighten stands as much as needed (one turn is usually enough). Clean metal shells and hardware with window cleaner, wooden drums with Pledge. Check heads for dents, wear and tears, and replace if needed (replace batter heads after a year on frequently used drums). Clean stands with window cleaner.
Horn — same as above Clarinet — Every 3 to 4 months: gently wipe old grease off of tenon corks. Gently clean pads with paper. Apply a drop of key oil to all rod ends. Use a Q-Tip to clean under and in between rails, in tone holes and to remove excess cork grease from tenon ends. Mallets — Check cords and replace if frayed or broken. Lubricate wheels with white lithium grease or light oil. Check brake mechanisms and tighten nuts as needed. Use a vacuum or compressed air to clean out resonators. Check for bent cord stops.
Trombone — same as above, except for valve cap felts. Saxophone — Gently wipe off old cork grease. Gently clean pads with a piece of paper. Apply a drop of key oil to all rod ends. Use a Q-Tip or small brush to clean under rails. Tighten key guard screws. Timpani — Check heads for wear and replace as needed. Clear heads by checking pitch at each tension rod and adjusting to put drum in range. Clean bowls and struts with window cleaner. Lubricate wheels with white lithium grease or light oil. Check brake mechanisms and tighten nuts as needed.
Oboe and Bassoon -— Use a Q-Tip to clean inside tone holes, and to remove old grease from tenon ends. Accessories — store in their proper place, along with the beaters.

In some school districts, instruments are given an end-of-the-year cleaning by a repair shop, but much, if not all of it, can be accomplished by students. Some districts or repair shops own a sonic cleaner, which can be helpful in removing calcium build up from brass instruments. A good do-it-yourself remedy for calcium is to use white vinegar, but make sure to rinse well afterward.

Check-In

cleaning trombone slideYour final check-in process for school-owned wind instruments must ensure that they are clean and working for the next group of students. Any instruments that need outside repairs must be identified and set aside. To save you time in assessing instruments, have students make a note of anything they think may be wrong with theirs. If you have a lot of instruments to check in, this can be a lengthy process, so I follow the steps on the chart below to keep my process efficient.

This process is even faster if you train a group of students to do several of the tasks. Keep a vacuum with a hose attachment nearby to keep your cases clean.

With proper and regular care and maintenance, your instruments will serve you and your students well for many years!

FLUTE Visually inspect the headjoint, body and foot for cleanliness, bent rods, loose screws, pad wear or popped springs, adjusting screws and springs as needed. Run a slip of paper under several key pads with a little pressure on the pad; check for residue. Check that foot tenons and the headjoint end are clean and round. Use a cleaning rod to check crown cork depth and adjust if necessary. Lightly mist sanitizer on lip plate and in the headjoint. Apply a very small drop of oil at each key rod end or connection.
OBOE Visually inspect each piece of the instrument for cleanliness. Check upper and lower joints for bent rods, loose screws, pad and cork wear or popped springs, adjusting screws and springs as needed. Fit joints together and check bridge key action/fit. Run a slip of paper under several key pads with a little pressure on the pad; check for residue. Using a cotton swab, check inner and outer tenons for excess cork grease, and check each tone hole. Apply a very small drop of oil at each key rod end or connection.
BASSOON Visually inspect each piece of the instrument for cleanliness. Check wing and long joints for bent rods, loose screws, pad and cork wear or popped springs, adjusting screws and springs as needed. Fit joints together and check key action/fit. Run a slip of paper under several key pads with a little pressure on the pad; check for residue. Using a cotton swab, check inner and outer tenons for excess cork grease or wax, and check each tone hole. Apply a very small drop of oil at each key rod end or connection. Inspect bocal cork for wear.
CLARINET Visually inspect each piece of the instrument for cleanliness. Check upper and lower joints for bent rods, loose screws, pad and cork wear or popped springs, adjusting screws and springs as needed. Fit joints together and check bridge key action/fit. Run a slip of paper under several key pads with a little pressure on the pad; check for residue. Using a cotton swab, check inner and outer tenons for excess cork grease, and check each tone hole. Lightly spray or dip mouthpiece in sanitizer. Apply a very small drop of oil at each key rod end or connection. Bass Clarinet: also check neck and end pin fit.
SAXOPHONE Visually inspect each piece of the instrument for cleanliness, using a cotton swab to check under and in between rods. Check body for bent rods, loose screws, pad wear or popped springs, adjusting screws and springs as needed. Check the neck fit and octave key action. Run a slip of paper under several key pads (especially G# and C#) with a little pressure on the pad; check for residue. Check neck cork for wear. Lightly spray or dip mouthpiece in sanitizer. Apply a very small drop of oil at each key rod end or connection. Bari Sax: also check water key, if included.
TRUMPET, EUPHONIUM, TUBA Visually inspect the outside of the instrument for cleanliness and damage. Check water key corks and screws. On trumpets, pull the main tuning slide and visually examine the lead pipe to see if it has been properly cleaned (it’s more obvious on the euphonium and tuba). Gently give each tuning slide a “pull-push” to check that they have been cleaned and greased. Unscrew the bottom cap to the third valve to check if the instrument has been thoroughly washed; it should be clean, and perhaps still wet. Check valve action, then blow air through the instrument to ensure that the valves have been inserted correctly. After visually inspecting the mouthpiece, dip it in sanitizer and dry.
HORN Visually inspect the outside of the instrument for cleanliness and damage. Gently give each tuning slide a “pull-push” to check that they have been cleaned and greased. Unscrew the top cap of each valve and apply rotor oil if needed, and apply a small drop of oil at each rotor screw connection. Check valve action and adjust rotor strings if necessary. After visually inspecting the mouthpiece, dip it in sanitizer and dry.
TROMBONE Visually inspect the outside of the instrument for cleanliness and damage. Check the water key cork and screw. Pull the tuning slide and look through the bell section to check for cleanliness, and check the tuning slide for grease. Take apart the hand slide and look through the inner slide; it should look like a mirrored tunnel if properly cleaned. Using a cleaning rod with a folded square of paper towel, gently insert it into the outer slide, twisting the rod as you go, then remove to check cleanliness; it should not have any color on it. After visually inspecting the mouthpiece, dip it in sanitizer and dry.

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