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An Ounce of Prevention…….

15 Jul

An Ounce of Prevention……. I am forever amazed by saxophonists who show little or no interest in being proactive about keeping their horn playing its best. Surprisingly little time or effort is required for a few basic maintenance routines that you can perform yourself with tools and materials that you most likely have on hand or can easily obtain. Within this article, I’m also going to share some very simple and inexpensive procedures that any competent technician can perform for you at a very low cost. Let’s start at the top of the horn and see what we can do to either improve things or make them better…… REEDS The first thing we need to do if you are using natural cane reeds is to get you to accept the fact that there is absolutely no such thing as a “museum quality” cane reed. It’s most unreasonable to believe that the reed whose playing abilities outshine all others will last forever. That being said, here’s a couple of tips to help you preserve your favorites: Seal the fibers! The fibers (that’s the dark streaks you see…..the white stuff binding the fibers together is pith and does not influence the sound in any way) aren actually hollow tubes. Since the fibers are hollow, saliva (a digestive juice!) can fill them and break them down over time. Before you do anything with the reed, polish the vamp until it’s smooth and shiny. You can use a spoon, your mouthpiece, or anything smooth and hard for this polishing. The vamp of the reed will be somewhat glossy nwhen sufficiently polished. Soak the reed overnight in water, then place on a piece of glass and allow it to dry completely. This will take about 24 hours for the reed to completely dry. Then repeat the process. This will acclimate your reed to accepting and releasing moisture (remember, the can was aged before the reed was manufactured) so it will be more stable once you begin to use it. Some people use hydrogen peroxide instead of water and say that this brings out certain desirable qualities in the reed, but I’m not a chemist so I don’t know. I have a good friend who uses small batch Bourbon whiskey instead of water or hydrogen peroxide, and I’m not too sure about that, either. Flatten the back of the reed by lightly sanding it with some 1500 grit (yes, 1500) emery paper glued to a piece of glass. We want the back of the reed to seal perfectly against the table of the mouthpiece, and this will not happen unless both the reed back and the mouthpiece table are perfectly flat. Close to flat is totally unacceptable. I think it goes without saying that you should remove and dry your reed (a paper towel or cocktail napkin works just fine) after every use. Remember that saliva is a digestive juice and that there is simply no point in leaving it on your reed. Of course, synthetic reeds (full disclosure: I personally use carbon fiber reeds, which are virtually indestructible) don’t require all of this care and feeding, but should also be removed and cleaned after every playing session. Good hygiene is, after all, condusive to good oral health. MOUTHPIECES From time to time I have to work on a horn with a mouthpiece that can only be described as disgusting. Not only is this unhealthy, but a dirty mouthpiece will invariably have some playing deficiencies. These problems are easy to understand, and easy to fix. Before we begin discussing your mouthpiece, please raise your right hand and repeat after me: “I know and understand that the design and manufacturing tolerances of my mouthpiece are expressed in thousandths of an inch and should only be modified by someone competent and experienced in mouthpiece work”. Put another way, be very careful, don’t experiment. and don’t do any more than clean your mouthpiece, as you can easily permanently damage it. Here’s a few things to do to keep your mouthpiece playing its best: Keep it clean! Unless you are using a wooden mouthpiece (which I do from time to time), wash your mouthpiece from time to time with lukewarm (not hot) water and ordinary dishwashing detergent, scrubbing as needed with a soft bristled toothbrush. Do this frequently enough so that deposits do not accumulate on the interior. From time to time, lap the table into perfect flatness. You will be absolutely amazed at how much better your mouthpiece plays. Take some 1500 grit emery paper and place it on a piece of glass. Now, with a very light pressure, pull your mouthpiece across the paper just once and then have a look. You should be able to easily detect any high spots. Now, pass the mouthpiece over the paper again using a very light pressure until all of the high spots are gone. Your mouthpiece will never seal air tight until the table and the back of the reed are both perfectly flat. Now, turn the paper over, so that the smooth, non-abrasive side is face up. Using a very light pressure, polish the side rails of your mouthpiece. Be sure to carefully inspect your mouthpiece rails, tip, and table for any chips, nicks, or significant scratches. If you find any dings, dips, or divots in the rails or table, then take your mouthpiece to someone who is a specialist in mouthpiece repair and have it fixed. This someone is in all probability not you and it is also probably not your regular repair technician. Mouthpiece repair requires special skills and equipment. NECKS The neck of your saxophone is where the tone and pitch are set and requires your complete attention. If it is out of round at any point or is dented, you must have it repaired immediately. You’ll be amazed at how much better your horn plays if the neck isn returned to its correct specifications. Of course, there are a few things you can do yourself to keep your neck doing its job to the best of its ability. Keep it clean and dry! After every playing session, swab out your neck completely. I’ve always thought that “string type” swabs that you pull through the neck do the best job. Don’t allow calcium or other (more disgusting!) deposits to form on the interior. I’m not a big fan of the fuzzy gizmo’s some people keep in their necks because they retain moisture. You wouldn’t leave a wet sponge inside your neck overnight, now would you? Always store your neck in a well padded bag to prevent damage when it is in your case. Use socks to cover your feet and Crown Royal bags to hold bottles of whiskey, not your neck. Get a neck bag designed specifically for the job at hand. If your neck cork becomes compressed but is still intact, soak it overnight in water and then dry it with a hair dryer. The water which was absorbed by the cork will turn to steam and expand the cork when it is released. It is crucial that you keep the tenon and the interior of the neck receiver scrupulously clean. Use 0000 steel wool to remove any corrosion. Never, ever apply any type of oil or lubricant, as this will attract and retain dirt and grit which will damage the tenon and receiver. It is most important to be certain that your neck tenon and receiver are both perfectly round and not leaking. This is very easy to check: place your neck in the receiver but don’t tighten the screw. Now, with a very light pressure, rotate the neck slowly in the receiver and feel for any difference in the resistance. If the amount of resistance is uneven, then either the neck tenon or the receiver (or possibly both) are out of round. To fix this, apply a bit of thick oil with just a tiny bit of ordinary tooth past evenly to the neck tenon, insert it into the receiver and rotate. This will lap down any slight high spots and allow the joint to be air tight. It is essential that after this joint is lapped into perfection, you thoroughly clean both the tenon and the receiver, leaving absolutely no trace of the oil/toothpaste abrasive. Whenever you have your horn serviced, be certain that the technician adjusts the fit of the neck. Before you leave your horn, ask to see the technician’s expander. It should look like an old, crank style can opener. Then ask to see the technician’s neck “shrinker” (actually usually used to make the neck perfectly round), which fits into the bench vise and has different sized collets. If your technician lacks either of these essential tools, quickly close your case and run for the door! PADS It’s easy to figure out how to care for your pads: just treat them like fine leather shoes. With very little effort, you can easily double the life of your pads, and considering the ever rising cost of repads, a little effort is time well spent. Here’s few things to do: Always dry your pads completely after every playing session. Remember that saliva is a digestive juice which will break down the leather if you fail to remove it. Simply blot every pad with a paper towel. You wouldn’t put your shoes in the closet if they were still wet, now would you? Over time, the leather (particularly if you are using sheepskin pads) will dry out and lose its flexibility. If you don’t let the condition progress too far, it is easily remedied with the application of a pad treatment which will restore the suppleness of the leather. Be careful in your treatment selection, and never use anything containing silicone or that is excessively oily, as this can cause the pads to stick and create embarrassing pad noise. Keep your pads clean using saddle soap. Never, ever, under any circumstances should use alcohol, naptha (lighter fluid), or any other solvent, as these all break down the leather. If your pads are sticking, or are noisy (that “kissing” sound), you must clean both the pads (use saddle soap) and the brims of the tone holes. It’s almost always the tone hole rims, and not the pads, that are the culprits, and cleaning them is very easy. Cut some 1500 grit emery paper into strips about one inch wide and four inches long. Place the strip with the abrasive side toward the tone hole between the pad and the tone hole rim, close the key with a light pressure, and pull then strip out. Repeat as necessary to clean the entire tone hole rim. If you will do this once a week, pad sticking will become a thing of the past for you. If the sticking persists, apply a pad powder which causes the pads to shed moisture. Never use a pad powder which absorbs moisture, as this will cause small lumps top form on the pads which will prevent them from sealing perfectly. I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but the principal ingredient of most pad powders on the market is either talcum or corn starch, both of which are absorbents. You have been warned. Always use key clamps when your horn is not being played. The felt underneath the leather absorbs moisture and distorts as it dries. This is why your horn plays a little differently every day (and you thought it was planetary alignment or phase of the moon) for no apparent reason. Clamps keep a perfect seat on your pads, as well as protecting the mechanism when the horn is being moved. KEYWORK AND MECHANISM Remember, this is basically just machinery, and with a little bit of care, you should have very few problems. Since most of the mechanism is metal, it tends to be pretty stable and trouble free. The springs are always under stress, so they have a different set of issues than the keywork. The main culprits are the silencers, bumpers, and adjusters. Oil the entire mechanism each and every month by applying a single drop of key oil to each and every gap and junction in the keywork, using a pin oiler. Only use high detergent key oil, which is self cleaning and eliminates the gummy deposits left after the volatile components of the oil have evaporated. These deposits can really slow the action down. Apply Lok-Tite or a similar product (or just use fingernail polish) to all adjusting screws so they are less likely to back out with useage. Keep all springs coated with oil. Apply a single drop monthly to each spring and allow it to run down and coat the entire length. Rusty springs break! Apply a small amount of thick, lithium grease to each spring cradle to keep the mechanism quiet. Your mechanism where metal to metal contacts among the components of compound keys should be sufficient to provide a seal. This is not something you have the tools or expertise to do yourself, so take it to somebody who does. Look at some of the work the technician has done. If thick corks or felts were used to regulate keys, close your case quickly and run for the door! The amount of material used between the components of compound keys should be extremely thin. Its only function is to serve as a silencer, not as an adjustor. Felt is OK, cork not so good, leather (preferably kangaroo or goatskin, which are both very durable and stable) is best. Take a look at all the key felts and bumpers, particularly the round adjustors for the low Eb, low C, low B, and low Bb, and be certain that they are angled to provide maximum contact with the curved surface of the body tube. If they aren’t, adjust them so they are, and the mechanism will be much more stable. Don’t forget to apply Lok-Tite to the adjustable felt holders for the lower keys. It’s pretty common for the lower stack keys to develop a “flutter” over time. Be proactive and replace the silencers on the key feet, which are usually cork, with Sorbothane, which is a miracle material which absorbs impact. You’ll thank me for years for this tip! Saxophones are expensive, and like any other major investment, need to be maintained. Hopefully, some of these tips will help you get the most out of your horn. Feel free to contact me with any questions via email at

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