Saxophone Maintenance

Sean Murphy | June July 2012

   The saxophone’s many moving parts can be easily damaged. Students sometimes overestimate the durability of this instrument and frequently, and usually unknowingly, put the saxophone in a dangerous situation. A few simple precautions can save hours of frustration for both educator and student.
   Preventative maintenance of the reed should come first. This is the most important component of producing sound on the instrument and also the most fragile; the slightest chip, tear, or split of a reed will render the tone of the saxophone unacceptable. The primary cause for damage to the reed is an inadequate storage system. To keep the reed unharmed, it must be stored in a case which keeps the tip, the most sensitive area, flat; students should purchase a reed guard for this purpose. Storing the reed in the plastic holder in which it came or leaving it on the mouthpiece when not in use will most assuredly result in damage to the tip, and, therefore, the overall sound of the reed. Students must be encouraged to store their reeds correctly.
   Among the most common types of problems is a sudden loss of the ability to play low notes. If all notes in the first octave suddenly begin sounding one octave higher, the problem is that the octave mechanism on top of the neck has been bent and is no longer sealing. To correct this, apply gentle pressure with the thumb to the octave key pad, while tugging gently with the other hand backward on the rounded metal end of the octave mechanism which comes in contact with the body of the saxophone. Gentle bending will cause the octave mechanism to seal again, instantly correcting the problem. The director should do this rather than students until they learn to safely replicate the procedure.
   To prevent this, explain to students the fragile nature of the neck, and make sure it is stored safely, in a component of the case separate from the reeds and mouthpiece, if possible. Also, students should put the mouthpiece on the neck before the neck is inserted into the body of the saxophone. When the neck is put on before the mouthpiece, students may apply too much downward pressure on the neck, which can bend the metal of the neck and prevent the octave key from sealing.
   Neglecting to use the end plug can also cause problems. The end plug is a simple circular device that is inserted into the body of the saxophone while it is stored. Students may conclude that the plug serves no function and simply stop using it. It can also be tempting to skip it when in a rush to pack up the instrument, and the plug is small enough that some students may simply lose it. The sole function of the end plug is to protect the octave mechanism on the body of the saxophone. On the backside of the saxophone, at the top, a small vertical post inserts under the neck mechanism that opens the octave tone hole.
   This small vertical post must remain completely straight in order for this aspect to function properly. The end plug sits inside of the body of the saxophone in order to keep that vertical post from being bent while stored. Most commonly, students do not use this device because they do not understand how it functions. Explaining its importance will go a long way in getting saxophone students to use this apparatus on a daily basis.
   A similar tool of preventative maintenance is the mouthpiece cap. Students lose the mouthpiece cap, or simply do not use it to save time in saxophone disassembly. Not using the cap increases the likelihood that the mouthpiece will get chips and cracks from any loose objects in the case. Damage to this area of the mouthpiece will render it unplayable. If you have an old, cracked or chipped mouthpiece, show it to students so they can see the potential damage.
   Other common types of repair are the numerous corks and felts located across the instrument. These regulate the height that keys open or close on the saxophone. Frequently when one falls off, students ignore it because the note still sounds. However, without the prescribed corks or felts, a metal-on-metal reaction will occur on the instrument. Over time this will wear a dent in the metal. These dents are usually difficult to remove.
   The lack of felt also causes a loud clicking sound which can be distracting to both students and audience. It is good practice to get students in the habit of having all cork and felt problems fixed, because on some occasions a missing felt will prevent certain notes from being playable. Specifically, losing felts on the left-hand spatula keys will not allow the low notes of the saxophone to respond properly. Getting students in the habit of fixing this problem every time it occurs will prevent a major problem from lingering.
   In the same category of felts and corks are springs. On a saxophone, springs either help keep a key closed or open. When a spring comes out of place, a key will then begin doing the opposite of what it is supposed to. It is simple to put a spring back, but sometimes a spring will lose tension and no longer remain in place. If a spring frequently comes out of place, it should be replaced. Getting students to watch for this problem, will prevent disastrous pre-concert catastrophes.
   A lesser known preventative repair strategy has to do with the correlation between the G# key and low B and Bb of the saxophone. When the low B key is pressed the G# tone holes are also opened. A small vertical bar above the right hand key closes the G# key when the B key is engaged. If it is out of place, the G# hole will open while trying to play a low B. This will not allow the note sound, as the open key prevents the body tube from completely sealing. The small vertical bar can be adjusted horizontally across the key with a small screw that can be tightened with any small screwdriver. If the low B becomes unresponsive, check the vertical bar and see if it has become loose. If so, slide it left or right until it allows the G# key to remain closed and then retighten it.

   Screws can come loose from the repetitive motion of the keys and can quickly become a nuisance. Frequently, after retightening a screw on the saxophone, students will observe it has begun coming unscrewed again only days later. Also, if the screw goes unnoticed, it may fall out and be lost forever. A simple way to correct this is to use clear nail polish. When a screw comes loose, retighten it and apply a thin coat of clear nail polish over the head of the screw. After letting it dry for a moment, the screw will no longer be a problem. Keeping a watchful eye out for loose screws will prevent these tiny components of the instrument from becoming lost.
   Sticky pads are frequently the source of irritation for a saxophonist. As moisture dries on the pads of the instrument, they become stuck closed. This occurs most prominently in areas where gravity causes water to settle during storage of the instrument. Most commonly this affects the E flat key. On many saxophones the G# key and low C# key also have this problem. It is important to keep this from becoming a chronic problem, as the pad can quickly become worn down and ruined. To clean the pad, it can be lightly scrubbed with a damp cotton swab and then dried with a paper towel.
While storing the instrument, place a small square of paper towel under the pad; this will prevent it from sticking. Students must remember to remove these squares of paper towel before the saxophone is played.
   The most frustrating maintenance problem is leaks. This is so because these develop slowly and are usually invisible to the naked eye. Leaks prevent pads from sealing properly and make it more difficult for notes to sound; this is frequently a problem in the low register. It is already difficult to play in this register with a clear sound, and invisible leaks often add extra frustration to this difficult task. It is recommended that every saxophone be sent to the repair shop once a year for regular maintenance, including checking for leaks. If this is put off, the severity of the leaks is compounded over time, making playing the saxophone extremely difficult.
   On the saxophone, many seemingly minuscule components can cause a severe problem in tone production. Both the saxophonists and music educator should diligently check the areas where potential problems can occur.