Buckner, Dr. Jim: Importance of a Clean Instrument

As the end of the marching season nears, it is time to begin thinking about getting out your cleaning brush, or “snake” and removing some of the gridiron dirt that has moved inside your horn. This is more important than a cosmetic cleaning of a surface that cannot be seen. Three major reasons make this imperative: the intonation of the instrument, its longevity, and your health.

Brass instrument leadpipes are manufactured to very exacting specifications. A quality leadpipe is designed to give good response throughout the range of the instrument and to aid the musician in playing in tune. In order to achieve these goals, the leadpipe is built with an accuracy measured in only a few thousands of an inch. If you remove your tuning slide and look down the leadpipe, you may see deposits on the side. I have seen these exceed a tenth of an inch, about 100 times greater than the size instrument designers allow in their specifications. The result is an instrument that no longer plays well in tune. The dirt adds resistance to the instrument, and it is harder to blow as well.

Along with dirt in your instrument is moisture from your lungs, and probably small amounts of food inadvertently blown into the instrument. Bacteria form and frequently produce chemicals which begin to eat into the metal of the leadpipe. In time these chemicals can eat all the way through the leadpipe. On lacquered instruments you can sometimes see pinkish spots, the result of the metal being eaten away beneath the finish. On silver instruments, you will see black spots, and the silver plating will frequently flake away.

Dirt can also get into the valve casings and wear away the metal. Quality valves are built to extremely high tolerances. As they wear, valves begin to stick because the wearing away allows the valve to move side to side as well as up and down. Be certain that you use only a cloth to clean valves and valve casings. A brush has a wire core which can easily scratch them. With the increasing cost of instruments, it is important to make them last as long as possible.

A dirty horn can also harbor germs harmful to your health. Frequently musicians with colds blow germs into their instrument. The germs can easily cause the player to catch the same cold again and again.

The mouthpiece must also be cleaned with a mouthpiece brush. The dimensions of mouthpieces are even more critical than those of the instrument. The chances of catching a cold over and over are much greater with a dirty mouthpiece.

How often should you clean your brass instrument? At least once a month, and even more often during marching season because of the greater exposure to dirt. One summer I cleaned my trumpets once a week. My instruments never worked so well before or since. My valves never stuck or responded slowly, and the valve slides were fast and smooth. Take the time to clean your instrument it pays off with an instrument which plays well, works well, and will last for many years.