Maintaining & Cleaning Brass Instruments

Over the last several weeks, we’ve spent some time discussing the general points of instrument maintenance and repair you can do at home. We started with the guitar, before moving to the piano & keyboard, then to the drums, and finally, the string section last week.

We’re going to continue that trend this week, with a few tips for maintaining brass instruments!

Just like with the rest of the band or orchestra, trips to the repair shop for your brass instrument can be costly and time consuming. But, also like the rest of the band, simple maintenance can help you avoid expensive repairs, while also keeping the sound quality at its absolute best. Regardless of whether you play the trumpet, trombone, tuba, or other brass instrument, these simple tips will help you take the best care of your instrument.

General Care

Despite the fact that these instruments are literally made from metal, they are surprisingly fragile, and very susceptible to dents and other structural damage. Treat your brass instrument with the utmost respect, and keep it in a sturdy case when you aren’t practicing or performing. To make doubly sure that you avoid any damage, store the instrument and its case in a place where it isn’t likely to be disturbed. Think about it this way: you wouldn’t want to leave you instrument or case on the floor where someone might kick it or trip over it.

You’ll also want to be sure that you avoid storing your instrument in a hot car. Brass instrument, like most things that make music, are susceptible to the effects of extreme temperatures, and the inside of a car on a sweltering summer day can cause serious damage to your instrument. Extreme cold, though not as big a worry, can also be damaging, but perhaps the worst is moving an instrument from one temperature extreme to the other. Try to keep your brass instrument in a climate controlled environment as best you can.

When storing your instrument, never stand it on its bell; in fact, it’s best to store it with any valves pointed up. It’s also extremely important that you empty all the water from the instrument before putting it away, as moisture can have a negative effect on metal. And with that in mind, it’s also best to wash your hands before each session, as the oils and dirt from your hands can also damage your instrument’s finish. Wiping the instrument down once you’re done playing is also a great way to protect that shine

Of course, you don’t want to only take care of the outside of your instrument. Bits of food can easily build up over time inside your instrument. The best way to avoid this nasty accumulation is to make sure you brush your teeth, or at least rinse your mouth, before each practice or performance. This is also why you shouldn’t eat, drink, or chew gum while you’re playing.

Cleaning Your Brass Instrument

As gross as it is, your mouthpiece will need to be cleaned a bit more regularly than the rest of the instrument, mostly because of the food and spit that is bound to buildup in it. Luckily, it’s really easy to clean; simply use some gentle soap and a mouthpiece brush at least once a week, or more, depending on how often you practice. To stop the mouthpiece from getting stuck, oil the lead pipe once a week or so.

As for the rest of the instrument, a general rule of thumb is to give it a good cleaning about once a month. You’ll be able to tell when it needs it because the lead pipe will begin to smell. Every month, flush the instrument to clean out anything that has accumulated inside; this also helps fight corrosion. The bathtub is ideal for this. Start by filling the tub with lukewarm water and a little mild soap – never use detergent! Remove all your instrument’s tuning slides, unscrew the top and bottom on any valve caps, and remove all valves and felt. Then submerge your instrument in the soapy water. Use a brush to scrub inside the tubes. Once you’ve finished cleaning all the tubing, make sure the instrument dries thoroughly, replace any felts, and reassemble everything. Remember always to use a quality valve oil.

This sort of cleaning regimen can definitely help your brass instrument last, but every once in a while you’re going to want to give it a deep clean that you just can’t do in your home bathtub. Keep in mind that a professional deep clean uses an acid bath or chemical flush. It’s harsh on your instrument, and costs a lot of money. For those reasons a professional deep clean should only really be done once every five to ten years.

You should, however, think about bringing your brass instrument to a professional repair technician about one a year for more in-depth general maintenance and cleaning if you want to avoid the scourge of “red rot,” a type of corrosion that often affects the brass family.

Instrument Specific Tips

Trumpet:

  • It’s a good idea to oil your valves every time you play, or at least three times a week. Clear away any debris that’s built up, coat the entire valve in your valve oil, and replace it.
  • Keep your slides airtight by using slide grease. Never use Vaseline for anything on your brass instrument; it’s corrosive.
  • Clean your slide receivers by inserting a clean cloth with a cleaning rod. Just work the cloth back and forth until it comes out clean.

Trombone:

  • Make sure you blow all the moisture out of your instrument before storing it.
  • Lock the slide when you’re not playing; it will stop you from moving the outer slide.
  • For younger players, you should apply slide oil once a week. More mature players should use slide cream and water.
  • You can clean your deeper slides in exactly the same way as the trumpeters, with a clean cloth and a cleaning rod.

Just like with any instrument, proper care and maintenance of your trumpet, trombone, tuba, french horn, or any brass instrument, is extremely important. Taking the time now to perform the proper care can extend the life of your instrument, keeping it looking and sounding great for years to come!