Looking After Your Woodwind Instrument
So you've bought yourself a shiny new (or second-hand) saxophone, clarinet, oboe, or flute and can't wait to get stuck in to playing it but how do we look after it and make sure it stays in good working order? In this blog, I'll be going through a few things you can do to help keep your instrument at its best for longer.
THE INEVITABLE SERVICE
First of all, it goes without saying that at some point in your instrument's life it will need at least one service (and then some). You can be as thorough as possible with your cleaning and maintenance but pads wear down, cork begins to peel, hidden screws come loose, springs rust and pop out of place, wood cracks, and clumsiness can mean accidental dents in the body.
So what's the point of this blog if the instrument will need a service anyway? Well, getting said instrument serviced and repaired can be very expensive. It can also take a while for it to be looked at and given back to you, especially now with COVID regulations meaning that the instrument has to be kept in isolation for at least three days before and after it's serviced. This, and the closing of shops during lockdown, has led to a huge backlog in repairs and I've had various students say they've attempted to book in for a service only to be told it won't happen for another six months.
The ways of maintaining your instrument that I mention in this blog will help you increase the amount of time between each service, meaning you spend less money and, hopefully, miss out on the long backlog (that's if it ever catches up).
Some of these will be obvious to the intermediate and advanced players out there but you'd be surprised at how many beginners haven't realised they need these items, especially if the instrument was purchased second-hand.
REED CASE Flautists can ignore this one (you lucky people!). You'll notice that when you get a new pack of reeds, they each come in little plastic containers. Something I've noticed with some beginners is that, when they open up a new reed, they throw that plastic container away. Don't do that. As a woodwind player, one must realise that the reed is one of the most important parts of the instrument and is very fragile. It doesn't help that they're also very expensive to replace if you're not looking after them properly.
When you've finished playing, ALWAYS take your reed out and put it back in the plastic case. You can even buy special reed cases but the original it came with is just fine if you want to save money. The reed is the first thing to pack away (as well as the first thing to take out and wet in your mouth while you set up the instrument before playing).
I've noticed that a lot of second-hand instruments (and some first-hand) don't come with one of these so I urge you to purchase one as soon as possible. It looks like lip balm but I wouldn't advise putting it on your lips. Instead, before (and perhaps after) playing, coat the cork you see on the saxophone crook (where the mouthpiece sits) with a layer of this. On clarinet, most of the separate parts of the instrument (including the mouthpiece) have cork so it's even more important that grease be used.
By coating it regularly, you avoid drying out the cork and allow all the parts to fit together smoothly. If the cork were dry, you would risk damaging it by forcing any parts together that were resisting.
Again, the amount of instruments I've seen that don't come with this is surprising. It essentially looks like a piece of cloth with a long attachment of thick string that has a weight sewn in to its end. When you've finished playing, after taking off the mouthpiece, this weighted end goes down the instrument first from the bottom/bell NOT from the top/barrel (it could get stuck going in that direction). The cloth part then soaks up any moisture residue as it passes through. Doing this a few times is best rather than just once. Again, do this after EVERY play session.
This one is for wooden clarinets but is a good segue from the pull-through seeing as you dab a few drops of this onto your pull-through before using it to clean the inside of the instrument after playing. The thing to remember though is that this doesn't need to be done every time you play. The time between using it can vary from player to player but I generally use it every couple of months.
Why is it used though? Well, wooden instruments have a risk of cracking on the inside. The oil is used as a lubricant to stop this from happening. Using it too frequently, however, can cause the same thing to happen so be careful.
Similar to the pull-through in use, the mouthpiece cleaner looks like a small pipe cleaner. It's not necessarily needed if you have a pull-through, as the cloth part of that can be used to wipe the inside of the mouthpiece (not pulled through though as it will get stuck if you do that). A longer version of the mouthpiece cleaner exists for saxophone crooks too, which I also recommend getting as using a pull-through on that doesn't work.
If you do purchase a mouthpiece cleaner, here again is a reminder to take the reed out first. If you don't, you will damage the reed, even if you don't intend to push the cleaner all the way through. You'll be surprised at how little you need to push it before it presses against the reed and splits it.
This is one most people don't tend to keep with the instrument at all times, which is a risky move. I didn't until a screw fell out of my tenor saxophone one day when I was practising. You see, all those keys, pads, and mechanisms of a woodwind instrument are connected by small screws. The constant pressing and spring-action of the keys and pads will cause vibrations that, over time, begin to loosen those screws until one day, they fall out if you don't spot the screw sticking out.
That's where the screwdriver comes in. You can get sets specifically designed for instruments but one small one is usually enough. After every play session, I check my instrument over and tighten any screws I think look a little on the loose side. It's a good habit to get into.
If you don't have to, don't leave your instrument out all the time. I know it's hard not to, especially when it feels convenient and means more incentive to practice, but you risk it being knocked over or being exposed to the elements by doing this.
As a saxophonist and clarinettist, I can't be very informative about other woodwind instruments, having only a basic knowledge of them in comparison, but hopefully this blog is still relatable and of some use.
If you know of any more useful pointers, let me know; I'd love to prolong the amount of time between services further!