The Care and Feeding of Musical Instruments

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(Woodwinds and Brass)

In order for any instrument to operate properly it needs constant and careful attention by both beginner and professional musician alike. The care and maintenance of any musical instrument is essential for its ability to operate and produce the optimum quality of sound it was manufactured to render.

An instrument that is well cared for can, and in most cases, last a lifetime.  This is an important aspect of instrument ownership as some instruments are so expensive, you want and need them, to last a lifetime; otherwise it becomes a serious financial consideration. If beginners are taught properly from the outset how to care for their instruments, it should carry over for the rest of their lives and become a habit. 

As a former high school teacher and later university professor, I have seen many students who have not adhered to a strict regimen of care and cleaning of their instruments. The result of this neglect is an instrument that does not play well and sound as it should.

If one does not clean and swab out after playing it may become an instrument with a smelly and distasteful mouthpiece. The results can be unpleasant at best and not healthy at worst. Not only does the instrument, especially the mouthpiece, need to be cleaned after each playing, but also the implements—swab, chamois and cloths—need to be cleaned for optimum sanitation.


The key work on all woodwind instruments is quite delicate and is precisely aligned so all keys, pads and tone holes can work properly.  If any of the key work is bent, or not properly aligned, the notes may not be playable or badly out of tune. Therefore when cleaning, care must be taken to be very careful when handling the instrument, and when removing all the parts that need to be cleaned.  Always hold the instrument carefully in order to prevent damage to the key mechanism.


After playing the flute, the bore of the instrument must be thoroughly dried with a soft lint-free cloth or piece of a chamois on the end of a cleaning rod. One can dust under the key mechanism with a small soft water-color brush. The intricate key mechanism should be oiled with a special key oil several times a year. Use a tooth pick or needle with a drop of the key oil on friction points.


Since the Oboe is made of wood it must be thoroughly dried after each playing. The wood may crack if moisture is left in the joints. Swabs are either cloth, chamois or pheasant feathers. Many oboists prefer feathers. Swab each joint several times to insure there is no moisture left. The Oboe reed needs to be blown out and put in a special case. One can clean the reed with a wet pipe cleaner.


There are five separate sections of the clarinet including the mouthpiece.  Make sure each section is dried properly and cleaned with a cloth or chamois swab. Start the swab at the upper end of a joint and draw it out at the lower end.  Like other instruments the key mechanism can be dusted with a soft water-color brush. Use key oil to oil at friction points on the intricate key work. The cork on the end of the joints are lubricated with cork grease. Remove the reed and dry the mouthpiece with the swab then place the reed in a reed case or holder.


A special saxophone swab is used to dry and clean the inside of the body of the instrument. The neck joint is cleaned with a special neck cleaner for the inside of the neck. Keys are oiled at friction points with key oil three or four times a year. Remove the reed and dry the mouthpiece and reed until free of moisture. Place the reed in a reed case or holder. Remember to keep the neck cork lubricated with cork grease. The neck strap and cleaning swabs should be in the small compartment inside the case to prevent damage.


Disassemble the instrument with great care as the key mechanism can be easily damaged. Swab out the inside of each piece so it is moisture free. The bocal or neckpiece may be cleaned periodically by running warm water through it. Shake the bocal and blow out the moisture. The joints should be well lubricated with cork grease. Tone holes should be blown out or swabbed with a folded pipe cleaner. Clean the reed with a wet pipe cleaner then blow the reed free of moisture. Keep the outside blades of the reed free from dirt so the vibrating surface is not hampered.


Instruments in the brass family require less meticulous care and maintenance than the woodwind instruments. This is because they have far less moving parts and are considerably less delicate, largely because they do not have an intricate key mechanism. 

But the finish on brass instruments requires special care. There are four finishes for brass instruments: Clear lacquer requires a moderate amount of care. This is the most common finish on most new instruments. Silver-plated finish is more expensive to purchase initially but in the long it is more economical because it is more durable. Wipe off with a soft jewelry cloth and apply a tarnish preventing silver polish when tarnish appears. A gold-plated finish is very costly and usually used by professionals only. Polished brass is the most economical finish to purchase and must be constantly polished as it tarnishes very easily.

One of the common problems in all brass instruments is the possibility of the air passage being blocked. Fortunately, this is a rather rare occurrence and does not often happen. Solutions are available and solved by experienced players or instrument repair technicians. Occasionally, a brass instrument should be flushed out with warm water (never hot). Never do this to a woodwind instrument!

Players, especially students, should not eat, drink or chew gum before or while playing. Water is the exception. Food particles can accumulate in the mouthpiece or blowpipe, becoming partially blocked, resulting in a fuzzy or breathy tone. The mouthpiece can be cleaned by a cone-shaped mouthpiece brush and the blowpipe can be cleaned with a flexible cleaning brush.

Trumpet, Cornet, Flugelhorn, Euphonium& Tuba

These instruments have piston valves in valve casings. In all of these instruments the valves should be removed, cleaned and wiped with a lint-free cloth. The valve casings are cleaned with a swab tool. The valves are then oiled with a special valve oil. The valves must be returned to their properly numbered casings. This should be done one at a time so a valve is not replaced into the wrong casing. Some euphoniums and tubas have rotary valves.  This requires different methods for care and maintenance.

French Horn

The rotary valves in a French horn are considered the most delicate mechanism of all the brass instruments. Only people skilled in rotary valves should attempt to remove one. The valves are oiled by removing the valve cap and placing a single drop on the axle. Only use oil specially made for rotary valves. Trombone oil or household oil should never be used as they may be too thick and cause sluggish action. 


The slide on a trombone is carefully machined to very close tolerances and can be easily scratched, dented or put out of alignment by a twisting motion resulting from sloppy handling. The slide can be oiled by a commercially grade light weight oil. Some advanced players and professionals use a thin glaze of cold cream with water sprayed over the cold cream. This combination takes more care but some players consider it a superior lubricant to oil.

Do not put any foreign objects like books or music in the case as it may put pressure on the slide and cause it to warp.

The best care for any woodwind or brass instrument is preventive maintenance. If young students or beginning players are diligent in the care and cleaning of their instrument there is no need to purchase another one. The exception, of course, is when one wants to upgrade their instrument to a more sophisticated or professional model.

The end result of a properly maintained instrument is one that will provide many years of productive and enjoyable musical satisfaction. Happy playing and take good care of that precious instrument.  It will be your friend for years if you treat it well.

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