How to Care for Your Brass Instrument

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.

1
Care for Your Mouthpiece

To an untrained eye, the mouthpiece looks to be one of the smallest, most insignificant parts of a brass instrument, but any experienced player knows that the bulk of tone production takes place there, and that neglecting to care for it can cause big problems. Fortunately, maintaining your mouthpiece and leadpipe is easy and only takes minutes.

How to Clean Your Mouthpiece

The mouthpiece of your instrument is the first line of defense against any food particles that may still be hanging around from lunch. Though it's unlikely that food particulate in the mouthpiece itself will have any noticeable effect on tone, cleaning it will keep any of that debris from being blown further into the instrument and causing problems. Plus, it's just sanitary!

To clean your mouthpiece, take a toothbrush and apply a small amount of toothpaste, applying warm water as needed to both the brush and mouthpiece, and gently scrub the rim, the cup, the outside, and the shank (the straight tube that fits into the leadpipe). If you have a mouthpiece brush, running it through the inside of the shank can help remove any debris that isn't easily accessible with a toothbrush. Rinse the mouthpiece thoroughly to remove any excess toothpaste that could gum up inside the mouthpiece or leadpipe of your instrument.

While cleaning the mouthpiece of an instrument, it's also a good idea to clean the leadpipe. The leadpipe is the part where the mouthpiece attaches to the body of the instrument. Occasionally running a mouthpiece brush around the inside of the leadpipe can help remove debris that can cause the mouthpiece to become stuck. Be sure to only use warm water, as removing toothpaste from this part of the instrument can be challenging.

What to Do if Your Mouthpiece Gets Stuck

Occasionally, mouthpieces do get stuck, but far too frequently, this inexpensive — and, in many cases, free — repair can become expensive very quickly.

"One thing I see a lot is when mouthpieces get stuck, people try to take them out with pliers or vice grips or something like that," Adam says. "I just got off the phone with a customer who tried to remove the mouthpiece at home, and while it would have been free for me to pull the mouthpiece with the mouthpiece puller, they ran up a $176 bill by twisting the lead pipe and popping braces and solder."

Brass instruments are very delicate, and aside from marring the finish, things like pliers and vice grips can cause significant amounts of damage. "It's a lot better to take it into a repair tech to get the mouthpiece pulled," Adam says.

Cleaning the mouthpiece shank regularly, removing the mouthpiece when not in use, and twisting the mouthpiece in and out of the horn can help reduce the chances of getting the mouthpiece stuck.

2
Oil and Grease Your Valves, Slides, and Other Moving Parts

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There are many moving parts on the typical brass instrument, so it is important to ensure that they are properly oiled. On a valved instrument, pistons that have not been adequately oiled will wear out much faster than pistons that have been oiled. Oil also helps remove debris caught in between the valve and valve casing wall.

"Make sure you oil the valves every day with three or four drops of oil," Adam says. "The oil that I recommend is Hetman. It's a synthetic oil and can be stored for several weeks at a time without turning the valves yellow or discoloring them. Other oils evaporate much faster, but Hetman seems to be more persistent."

Just like valves and slides, other parts of the instrument can get stuck if not properly cleaned, oiled and cared for. Parts like valve caps, which are not moved as regularly as valves or slides, are especially susceptible to binding up.

"It's important to move everything on the horn," Adam says. "Unscrew the top and bottom valve caps, and while you have the bottom valve caps off, once a week or even once a month, wash them out with water." When washing your instrument, Adam recommends using soaps that do not contain bleach or other additives, which can damage the instrument.

3
Deep-Clean Your Instrument Monthly

Brass instruments should be cleaned and flushed once a month to remove dirt, oil, and particulate. This is something that can be done at home easily and inexpensively. Simply fill a bathtub with lukewarm water and a mild dish soap, such as Dawn dishwashing liquid. Submerge the parts (besides the felts, if there are any) of the unassembled instrument into the soapy mixture, ensuring that all slides, valves, and valve caps have been removed from the instrument.

Let the parts sit in the tub for at least 30 minutes, giving the dish soap enough time to dissolve oil and remove dirt from the inside of the horn. At this point, using a snake brush is recommended, because it can help remove any stubborn dirt from the inside of the instrument, and especially in the case of a trombone, can reach parts of the instrument that aren't easily accessible.

To dry the instrument, wipe the outside with a cloth, and leave the parts to drain and dry on their own overnight. Reassembly of the instrument provides a great opportunity to ensure that the instrument is properly and adequately oiled and greased, as discussed above.


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4
Have Your Instrument Professionally Cleaned and Serviced Yearly

While properly cleaning an instrument with soap and water can significantly reduce the possibility of many problems, it's good to have an instrument professionally cleaned and serviced regularly.

"Once a year you should take it into a service tech and let them make sure that everything is going well," Adam says. "Even with all of those preventative measures, you can still have some issues come up."

Instrument repair technicians have the tools and techniques to clean and service an instrument more thoroughly. They can also look for and hopefully catch any looming catastrophes before they stop a performance in its tracks. It's important to be proactive.

5
Don't Do too Much on Your Own

Every time do-it-yourself-dad strikes with a set of pliers, instrument technicians everywhere die a little bit inside. There's nothing worse than taking a small, inexpensive repair and turning it into one that costs hundreds of dollars. As a general rule, if you don't feel comfortable doing something on your own, or know that you shouldn't, don't.

"On a brass instrument, there really isn't anything you can do on your own other than just preventative maintenance, like lubrication of the valves and the tuning slides, or basic cleaning. There is such a tiny amount of clearance between the valves and the valve casings that you can screw stuff up really fast if you don't know what you're doing," Adam says.

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