How to Care for Your Snare Drum and Other School Percussion Instruments

Learning to play a new instrument is an exciting and rewarding experience, and having an instrument that is in tip-top shape makes the process go even more smoothly. A well-maintained instrument can make learning much less frustrating for the new player, allowing them to focus exclusively on the nuances of playing the instrument, instead of hassling with sticky keys, damaged corks, or science experiments growing inside of the instrument.

This series will examine some basic tips on instrument care for the new player, focusing specifically on band and orchestra instruments, to help new band students get off to a good start.

Portions of this article were taken from a 2015 interview with Gene Adam, repair technician at Ernie Williamson Music in Joplin, Missouri. Adam was a band director for more than 25 years, in the business of instrument repair for 13 years, and is a player himself.

Find more maintenance guides for other band and orchestra instruments.

Your Snare Drum

The snare drum is the center of any drum kit, and perhaps the most recognizable percussion instrument because of its iconic sound in almost all genres of music. Don't let it fool you: Just because it's made to withstand being hit with a stick all the live-long day doesn't mean that it's indestructible. Caring for the snare and other components of a concert percussion kit will help ensure that they last for years to come.

Clean and Maintain a Drum Head

The part of the snare drum that will require the greatest amount of maintenance is the drum head. Drum heads are the components most similar to the strings of a guitar: They are struck first and rely on the rest of the instrument to resonate. Like guitar strings, they wear out and have to be replaced occasionally, but cleaning the drum head can lengthen its life and keep it sounding better, longer.

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As dust and dirt settle on its surface, it can deaden the sound of the drum by choking the head and keeping it from vibrating freely. To clean off debris from the surface of the head, simply wipe it off using a microfiber dusting cloth after use. A painter's brush can be used to dust the hard-to-reach areas in between the drum head and the counterhoop rim. Smudges and oil left behind on the shell by hands or fingers can be removed using glass cleaner and a rag.

Clean and Maintain Your Drum's Snares

The snare is the metal ribbon stretched across the resonant head on the bottom of the drum. This is what gives the snare drum its characteristic sound, and keeping it clean and free of debris is as easy as occasionally wiping it off gently with a microfiber cloth. Be sure that fibers from the rag aren't left behind during the process. If one of the snare wires has become disconnected or broken, snip it off with wire cutters to prevent it from becoming tangled with the other snare wires or affecting the sound, being careful to leave behind no sharp pieces that can pierce the thin resonant head of the drum. Setting the drum on an uneven surface can also damage the snare wires and head, so inspect the area before setting the drum down.

Lubricate the Moving Pieces

Finally, keep the adjustable components on the drum well-lubricated with an oil or grease such as Gibraltar Lube, which is made specifically for drum hardware like tension rods, or even petroleum jelly. Keeping them lubricated will prevent them from becoming stuck. When tightening or loosening any threaded parts or pieces, be gentle to avoid cross-threading them. It's important to remember that these components are under an incredible amount of pressure.

Your Bell Kit

Ah, the bell kit. Alongside the sleigh bells, it's the instrument of middle school Christmas programs all across the country, and it's also an indispensable part of any players practice ensemble (because fitting a marimba in the backseat of a van is just as hard as it looks). Its small stature allows the player to become familiar with the layout of almost any other mallet instrument, and as you might have guessed by looking at it, it requires a pretty minimal amount of maintenance.

Try to avoid setting anything except for mallets on top of the keyboard. Though it might look like a perfectly flat surface for storing all your music or other percussion equipment, excessive weight can bend the keys, causing them to go out of tune or just sound bad. Similarly, avoid playing the bell kit with drum sticks, though it might be tempting to do so. Again, this can dent and bend the keys.

If the keys or body of the bell kit become dusty or dirty, take a microfiber cloth and wipe them down, using glass cleaner for any stubborn dirt or buildup. A painter's brush can be used to dust hard-to-reach areas under the keys.

Your Percussion Stands

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The stands and hardware that come with a percussion kit are usually given nothing more than an afterthought, but they require maintenance and care just like any other component of the kit. After all, the stands are in charge of holding secure the snare drum or bell kit, and neglecting to care for them can result in disaster as the snare drum or bell kit tumbles to the floor.

The most important rule is to always loosen the screw before adjusting the height of the stand. Though it's tempting to forcefully pull up or push down on the top part of the stand for a quick adjustment, this can increase the tolerance between the two components. Overtime, this can cause the stand to lose its tenacity, making it difficult or impossible to adjust the height of the drum or bell kit. Taking the time to properly adjust the stand allows the player to confidently place the drum or bell kit on it without worry.

Similarly, be gentle when adjusting the set screws on the percussion stand. Using too much pressure can cause them to become stripped, cross-threaded, or stuck. When adjusting the stand, twist the set screw until it is snug, but don't over-tighten it. Keep it lubricated with oil or grease, just as with the snare drum hardware.

Your Mallets and Sticks

Percussionists need to have a variety of sticks and mallets at their disposal in a concert or marching band setting. Stick bags provide a convenient and easily accessible place to store all sorts of sticks, mallets, and other strikers, keeping them safe from the perils that await them in the average school backpack or gym bag. A good stick bag is a percussionist's best friend, and buying a well-made one with plenty of room inside is the best way to keep sticks and mallets safe. Stick bags can range in price from as low as $10 for a very basic bag to more than $250 for handmade leather bags with shoulder straps, but any stick bag is better than no stick bag.

Let's talk about mallets exclusively for a second. As tempting as it may be to touch the material on the head of a marimba or timpani mallet, doing so can actually damage it. Oil from the fingers and hands can soak into the ball of the mallet, causing it to wear down much faster. Remember that mallets, both the sticks and heads, are very fragile. Never clank the sticks of the mallets together, as this can cause them to crack or break, and there's nothing worse than being in the middle of a performance when a mallet decides to give.

Mallets will naturally begin to wear out—after all, they are being hit continuously, sometimes very hard—and this is completely normal. This is most obviously expressed by the wrap on the top of a soft mallet. Over time, the yarn or material may begin to fray or break away from the rest of the ball. It can be trimmed to lengthen the remaining life of the mallet, and keep it looking new. This is best done with nail clippers, which provide the greatest level of control when cutting, but can be done with regular scissors or clippers as well.

Finally, be sure to use the proper mallet on the instrument being played. Not doing so can cause damage to the instrument and to the mallet, eventually requiring repair or replacement of both. Mallets are to be used on the respective instrument for which they were designed to achieve the most desirable sound from the instrument.

How to Care for Your School Band & Orchestra Instruments
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