Help it Last: General Care For Your Instrument

Mar 2, 2016

blog - Help it Last General Care For Your Instrument

With winter coming to a close soon, one way or the other, I think it’s safe to say that we’re all looking forward to the warmth, light, and song that goes hand in hand with the blooming of spring. Spring brings with it a certain music meant for the soul, which in turn, of course, inspires those of us who are more musically inclined to let that song out through our fingers, lips, and lungs. So, if I were to try to guess, I would put money down that thoughts and minds are starting to turn back to those instruments that may have been put away for the colder months, or set down as the days got darker. Well now is the time to get them out, and get ready to play again! But sitting unused can have some unfortunate side affects on instruments, so before we all get too excited about the coming warmth and music, let’s go over some helpful tips and tricks for basic maintenance of your instrument, because a well cared for instrument can be a welcome companion for a lifetime.
General Care
Let’s begin with some basic, general tips that are useful no matter which section of the band you’re a part of. First and foremost, if you’re instrument has a carrying case, try to keep your instrument inside it whenever it is not in use. Your instrument’s case is its first and best defense against all kinds of damage, and as such, you should take care to make sure all the handles, hinges, locks and/or zippers are in good working order to best protect your valuable instrument. Your case is almost like a suit of armor for your instrument, but unfortunately, it is far less impenetrable as it may seem, so even inside the case, your instrument needs to be treated with a of of respect; never store anything on top of your instrument, even inside its case. Of course, even with due diligence, your instrument will be out of its case from time to time when you are not playing it. Whatever the reason for having it out may be, you must never leave it unattended. Regardless of what instrument you play, it represents a large monetary investment; even if you trust the people you play with not to steal it, accidents happen all the time, and even accidental damage can be quite costly to repair.
Fluctuations in temperature are another concern for all the instruments of the orchestra. If you are moving your instrument from a cold area to a warm one, allow it to warm up to near room temperature before playing it. Playing to early can cause undue stress on the instrument, and while doing it once or twice may not cause any real harm, getting into this bad habit can cause cumulative damage that is not easy or inexpensive to repair.
Lastly, never attempt any repairs on your own unless you have the proper training and experience (which I’m betting you don’t). Always take your instrument to a technician if repairs are needed. Trying to do it yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing is a recipe for disaster.
Strings
Violins, cellos, violas, bass; the string section has a variety of instruments of different shapes and sizes, but they all share some basic maintenance tips. Above all else, be care of the varnished areas of your instrument. These parts are very delicate, and can be scratched quite easily, so keep all zippers, jewelry, and buttons as far away as possible. It’s not even a good idea to directly touch this area with your hand. And speaking of the varnished areas, you should try to polish it every two to four weeks to prevent rosin from building up, and to keep it looking fantastic. But never use a commercial or household solvent to clean it! These chemicals are far too harsh for your instrument. If you need to polish it, always buy products specifically made for string instruments from a music store.
The other area of concern for us today is the actual strings. Strings should be replaced every 12 months or so. When you go about changing the strings, be sure to wash your hands first (the oils in your skin can have a negative effect on the strings), and change them gradually, one at a time, to maintain tension on the instrument.
And lastly, the bow. Handle the bow with care, as it is fragile, and never touch the bow hair with your fingers (again, the oils in your skin can prevent the rosin from sticking).
Woodwinds
Woodwind maintenance is somewhat easier than with the string section, but it is no less important. The biggest concerns with woodwinds such as the saxophone or clarinet, are excessive moisture, and the delicateness of the keys
Excessive moisture left inside a woodwind when it is put away or stored can have a lasting negative impact on the instrument. Moisture can cause warping, cracking, mildew, and in the worst of cases, actual rotting. However, preventing these things is as simple as wiping the instrument down after each use. Always pull a clean, dry swan through the instrument, and gently wipe moisture away from the keys before putting it away. And of course, avoid eating or drinking right before you play, or anywhere near your, or anyone else’s, instrument.
The other main concern is for the keys themselves. Woodwinds have a lot of moving parts to make the keys work properly, and many of those moving parts are quite small and frail. Keep them in good working order by only lifting your instrument by the bore, taking care not to bend anything while assembling, and being sure to place parts back into the case properly, without trying to force anything in to place.
It’s also a good idea to periodically give your woodwind a once over, looking for loose screws and key mechanisms. Adding just a drop of oil every 12 months is also a good idea, though be sure to use only a tiny amount. Don’t over do it.
Brass
The brass section may have some of the simplest maintenance, but again, it is no less important. With the brass section your main concern will be keeping things lubricated. Bare brass parts will stick together if they aren’t moved for even a relatively short period of time, so it is important to move all your key valves and slides at least every few weeks if you’re not playing regularly. If your mouthpiece should become stuck, never pull it out alone, you could damage the instrument. Instead use a designated mouthpiece puller to limit any problems. Keeping the mouthpiece as well as all valves and slide lubricated with oil designed specifically for brass instruments will prevent the worst of any problems.
In addition to keeping things lubricated and moving, moisture can also be a concern. As with the woodwinds, you should try to keep you brass instrument as dry as possible when storing it. A yearly professional cleaning is also recommended.
And lastly, brass is prone to denting. Do not try to hammer out dents on your own. Without training and experience you are likely to make things worse, so just bring it to a professional.