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A Deep Dive Into Brass Instrument Maintenance

Adrian D. Griffin | October November 2023

Brass instruments require attention and care to continue producing beautiful sounds. Regular maintenance and cleaning preserve the quality and extend the lifespan of these instruments. This guide offers detailed instructions on cleaning and maintaining a brass instrument on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis to make sure it stays in top condition.

Daily Maintenance: After each practice or performance, take a few minutes to perform basic daily maintenance tasks:

  1. Begin by shaking and blowing out any residual moisture. A clarinet swab can clean the slides thoroughly. Additionally, gently use a mouthpiece brush to remove any debris from the mouthpiece. Afterward, wipe the mouthpiece with disinfectant spray to keep it clean and ready for use.
  2. Use a soft white cotton t-shirt or lint-free cloth to clean the outside of the instrument. This will remove accumulated dirt, dust, fingerprints, and watermarks. Be careful not to rub too harshly to avoid scratching or marking the instrument.
  3. Proper valve, slide, and rotor maintenance is crucial for optimal instrument performance. Before each practice session, apply a few drops of valve oil to each valve. Remove each valve completely to allow the new oil to clean the existing debris and create a clean surface for everyday playing. For trombones, wipe the inner slide tube to remove dirt or debris, and reapply a small amount of slide oil.
    Horns and rotary tubas require unscrewing the top cap from the rotor body and placing a few drops of rotor oil on the raised spindle. Ensure that the caps are screwed back on securely but not too tightly. After oiling the valves and slides, play a few notes to circulate the oil throughout the instrument and blow out any excess oil through the water key. Neglecting this step can lead to poor intonation and slow responsiveness due to oil build-up in the tuning slide.

Bi-Weekly Maintenance: In addition to daily maintenance, set aside time every week for more thorough cleaning and maintenance:

  1. Remove each slide from the instrument and wipe them off with a soft clean cloth. After removing all oils and grease, reapply fresh oil and grease to all slides. Slides that mainly stay stationary are referred to as slow slides and require grease, while slides used for tuning and moved by hand are referred to as fast slides and require oil.
  2. Consider using linkage oil to lubricate all other moving parts outside the valve body for horns and rotary tubas. This will ensure that your instrument is working properly inside and out.
  3. Repeat step 2 of daily maintenance, but emphasize cleaning the outside of the instrument. Polishing the instrument is not necessary and can be done every four months. However, it is crucial to remove water spots, stains, fingerprints, and sweat from your hands to prevent the lacquer or silver from wearing down.. Areas where raw brass begins to show are no longer protected and the instrument’s deterioration will accelerate in those places.
  4. Clean the mouthpiece weekly by soaking it in warm, soapy water for 10-15 minutes. Use a mouthpiece brush to gently clean the inside of the mouthpiece, paying attention to the inner shank and throat area where deposits accumulate. Rinse the mouthpiece thoroughly in warm water to remove any soap or oil residues, and dry it with a clean, soft cloth.

Four-Month Maintenance: It is essential to give your brass instrument an intense deep cleaning every four months to remove grime and germs. Follow these steps for effective four-month maintenance.

  1. Fill a bathtub or large container with lukewarm water and add a small amount of liquid dish detergent. Mix the solution gently. Liquid dish detergent is safe for cleaning brass and effective against germs, grime, and oil build-up.
  2. Before disassembling your instrument, students should receive guidance from a private lesson teacher or music director on handling this delicate process with care. Disassembly can vary depending on the instrument, and instruments with rotors, such as horns and rotary tubas, can be more challenging. Disassemble the instrument completely, removing all valve caps, slides, valves, rotors, mouthpieces, and other detachable parts. Place these parts in the container, ensuring they are submerged in the soapy solution. Let them soak for 30 minutes to allow the soap to penetrate and loosen stubborn grime and residue.
  3. After soaking, use an instrumental cleaning snake for the specific instrument’s slides and a soft valve body brush to clean the tubing, slides, and valve ports thoroughly. Pay attention to hard-to-reach areas where grime is common, including leadpipes and tuning slides. Apply gentle pressure to avoid damaging delicate slides and causing internal friction from scratching.
  4. Rinse each part thoroughly with lukewarm water to remove any remaining residue inside or outside the instrument. This is crucial to ensure that no traces of detergent or cleaner are left behind. Test each part by rubbing a finger on the metal; if it makes a squeaky sound, it is clean and can be safely reattached to the instrument once completely dry.
  5. Dry all cleaned parts with a soft, absorbent towel or cloth. Avoid carrying loose parts over hard surfaces to prevent accidental damage. Be careful that each part is dry inside and out, paying attention to valve casings and slides. Any remaining moisture can lead to corrosion and damage, even over a short period.
  6. Reassemble the instrument, applying a small amount of valve, rotor, and linkage oil as needed to ensure smooth slide, valve, and rotor actions and prevent corrosion or premature wear.
  7. Optionally, polish the entire surface of the brass instrument using a quality brass polish and a non-abrasive cloth. This step is not primarily for beauty but to protect against tarnishing and corrosion.

Regular cleaning and maintenance are crucial for keeping a brass instrument in optimal condition and performing at its best. Following the straightforward steps outlined in this guide, you can easily maintain an instrument’s cleanliness and longevity for up to 50 years or longer. Proper care and attention will reward you with a well-maintained instrument that has the potential to bring the music inside you to life.