Sometimes I am asked if there really is much to be gained from an instrument service. Obviously, I believe there is - and here's what I've learnt from my years at the workbench.
Musical instruments are essentially mechanical devices and, just like other mechanical devices, they require regular preventative maintenance to insure against premature wear and deterioration. This wear isn’t limited to metal components. All instruments have natural material components, which are also subject to wear and deterioration. The cork, leather and felt on instruments will all compress over time, and this causes the regulation (the ways the keys and mechanisms interact) to go out of alignment, resulting in inefficient movements or worse still, notes that won’t resonate properly. On woodwind instruments, the pads (leather or synthetic) are constantly subjected to moisture, which over time can cause them to expand and shrink causing small leaks and eventually holes or tears in the skin of the pad. In brass instruments the repetitive movements causes parts such as valve guides to wear creating extra 'slop' in the action. It is also common for calcium deposits to build up inside the tubing, which decreases the tube size, adding resistance.
Often as a player you may not notice these gradual changes, and they may not seem like much, however, you automatically adjust to compensate for them. This can lead to harder work in playing or (worse still) poor habits in technique.
So, is it time to service my instrument?
As a general rule I advise having your instrument serviced annually. Just like a car, you will still be able to use your instrument if you wait longer but it will not be working as efficiently as it should be. This will cause unnecessary wear, which will be detrimental to the long-term playability of your instrument. But, even if you’ve not had your instrument serviced in the last year, here are some tell tale signs that your instrument is ready for a service.
Excess key noise - clicking, rattling, etc.
Some notes are harder to play than usual (e.g. clarinet: middle B/C, sax/flute: low D and below)
You have to squeeze the keys hard to get notes to sound
The keywork is 'wobbly' or moves in directions it shouldn't
The pads stick and don't open straight away (e.g. G# on sax)
The pivot screws and rods loosen themselves
The tenons don't fit well – either too loose or too tight
On wooden instruments the wood around the tenons looks light brown and extra dry
The valves are a little sluggish or sometimes don't return fully
Tuning slides are stuck or don't move freely
There is a build up of scale deposits inside the instrument
The instrument is harder to play than usual – requires more pressure
The instrument does not ‘sparkle’ and ‘zing’ the way is used to – the edge on the tone
The water key cork has deteriorated to almost nothing
There is a distinctly bad smell in the instrument
We love our instruments and love the music they help us play, so making sure they are at their best means we can play at our best all the time.
If you have any other questions about instrument maintenance feel free to contact me, or any of the team at The Music Place.