How to Care for Your Flute

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.

A Weekly Routine to Keep the Flute Clean

Besides keeping the flute looking shiny and new, cleaning is a basic maintenance activity that will keep it playing at its best. After the instrument has been disassembled, polish the flute body and keys with a polishing cloth to remove dirt, oil, and any other substances that can harm or dull the finish or components. Be careful not to grab the instrument too aggressively, or press on the instrument using too much pressure with the polish cloth.

Accumulated debris under the key shafts can be difficult to reach with just a cloth, but gently using a small paintbrush to remove dust and dirt can help keep the area clean. Swabbing the inside of the instrument, which will be covered in detail later in the article, keeps the inside of the flute clean and dry. To clean and sanitize the lip plate, dip a cotton ball in alcohol and run it over the surface of the plate, using an alcohol dipped cotton swab to clean the embouchure hole.

These activities should be performed on a regular basis—swabbing and polishing the flute can be done daily, while dusting the key shafts and sanitizing the lip plate can be done less frequently, on a weekly basis.

How to Maintain Good Tenon Joints

Most flutes can be broken down into segments for increased portability. The separation points are called tenons, and divide the headjoint, body, and foot of the instrument. The tenons on a flute are uncorked—unlike those on a clarinet—and ensuring that they remain clean and undamaged can prevent the segments from getting stuck together, encouraging injury to the keys and other components during attempted separation or assembly.

Maintaining the tenons on a flute requires little more than occasionally wiping them with a cloth. It is important to do this gently, because using too much pressure can bend the tenons, ruining their round shape and preventing them from fitting properly to the rest of the body. As with saxophones, Gene Adams says, "Grease should never be used on the tenons, as the grease can easily move into the body of the instrument, damaging the pads."

Never Oil Your Own Keys

When caring for a flute, it's easy to get over-ambitious, especially when products like key oil are sold at many music stores. The implication, of course, is that this maintenance activity is something that can be handled easily. In fact, however, most players should avoid oiling their own keys. According to Adam, "Under normal circumstances, you should never oil your keys, even though some stores sell key oil. All that does is attract dust and gum up the keys much faster than having a repair tech do it properly."

When is it time to have the keys oiled? The loud, metal clattering sound sometimes heard when a flute is being played can be a good indicator that the instrument is in need of key oil. Simply bring the instrument into a qualified repair technician, and he or she can oil the keys properly.

Store the Instrument Properly

Something that should always be done when the instrument is stored is swabbing. Using a good silk swab and cleaning rod can keep the inside of the instrument dry for proper storage. To swab the instrument, simply thread the cleaning cloth through the eye of the rod, and then run it into the headjoint, body, and foot of the instrument.

Be sure never to store it inside the instrument, as this can effectively hold moisture in, and the metal cleaning rod can dent the inside of the flute as it rattles around. Remain cautious of swabs with loose fibers, because these can sluff off during cleaning and get stuck in the keys and pads, which will then need to be cleaned.

According to Adam, storing a flute for long periods of time can lead to skin-crawling results. "Don't store a flute for many months at a time," said Adam, "You'll get cotton-weevil activity." The tiny insects love to feed and nest on and in the felt pads, not only leading to a disgusting surprise next time the case is opened, but requiring a re-padding, which can be costly. Ultimately, if the pads are well taken care of, they will last a long time. "If you don't store the instrument for a long time and you don't let it get rained on, your pads will last for a long time," said Adam.

Make Sure That the Only Thing in Your Case is Your Flute

This last tip is a simple one, but is frequently overlooked. Store only the instrument and its components in the case.

"Cases need to fit tightly over the body of the horn to protect it," said Adam. "When you store anything else in there like a book, cleaning cloths--anything you store in the case, on the keys can slowly but surely bend everything out of adjustment. I see that a lot."

Storing other objects in the case with the instrument can, at the very least, push the keys out of adjustment, if not bend the keys and other components to the point of their needing to be replaced.

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