Any lifelong multi-instrumental musician can tell you the countless suggestions they've been given by instructors, conductors, concertmasters, section leaders, sectionmates, standmates, and laypeople who "took lessons for a few years but didn't keep up with it," on the topic of how to maintain a musical instrument and get the best performance out of it. The more frequently-replaced components the instrument features, such as a reed or strings on a fiddle, the fussier and more specific the advice gets, because chipped reeds and broken strings (or worse, an ejected bridge!) in the middle of a live performance can be anywhere from challenging to catastrophically embarrassing... not to mention expensive and time-consuming to correct afterward.

Solidly half these recommendations are pure superstitious nonsense that have no meaningful effect on the instrument's sound during performances, or its longevity of use, but they still have an underlying psychological purpose: by rendering instrument maintenance more time-consuming and complicated, the musician is driven to be that much more careful in their handling of their instrument. If hours went into preparing a clarinet reed (or the far fussier double-faced oboe reed), odds are the musician will treat that reed like a Fabergé egg for the remainder of its usable lifespan.

This writeup shall attempt to differentiate instrument maintenance myth from reality, and in doing so it will range widely across several families of instruments.

Myth: Metallic musical instruments are antiseptic in nature, and do not need disinfecting. You can just empty your spit valve and swab dry your flute, and put it away, every time.

Mold and bacteria grow easily inside any wind instrument that doesn't dry fully between uses, and doesn't receive a disinfectant swab (vinegar and Listerine are both good options) at least once per cumulative six hours of use. The disease hypersensitive pneumonitis, commonly called Bagpipe Lung or Trombone Player's Lung, is brought on by inhaling air in a practice space used by musicians with infected instruments. The mold spores and bacteria get blasted into the air of the practice space, and everybody in the vicinity is subject not only to catching the infection personally, but also to getting their instruments infected by the same spores and bacteria. Since an entire band can't be trusted to scrupulously look out for each other's health, under normal circumstances, practice spaces should have dehumidifiers and fans to use between sessions, or at least windows that can be opened, to ventilate spore-infected air.

Myth: Pianos last longer if you play them gently and sparingly. They go out of tune faster if they're played too much.

In reality, pianos actively need to be played, frequently and at full dynamic range (loudness), to remain fully functional. The hammers inside the piano are padded with stiffened felt, held onto the hammers by animal glue. Both felt and glue are sensitive to temperature and humidity. Regularly striking the strings forcefully creates just enough pressure to force moisture out of the felt, like wringing a very thin sponge. If piano felt - also called "voicing," as its absence renders a piano "mute" - gets too saturated by humidity, it starts to soften, thicken, and peel away. When this happens, the piano needs to be "revoiced," which is when the felt is replaced by new, firmer felt.

Furthermore, pianos do not go out of tune faster or slower, either way, based on how much they are played. Rather, they go out of tune due to changes in ambient temperature, which cause the metal of the strings and tuning screws to contract or expand minutely, which cumulatively affects tuning. The myth that pianos fall out of tune faster when played, is actually a simple matter of biased perception: if you play a piano constantly, you'll notice much faster if it begins to go out of tune, than a piano left to sit neglected.

Myth: To make a clarinet or sax reed perform as well as possible, for as long as possible, you have to soak it in water for several hours/days to rehydrate the cane, and then you have to burnish and seal the pores on the vamp (back) of the reed to keep it from getting waterlogged.

The only reason to rehydrate a reed before first use is to remove the factory chemical taste that it comes with naturally, and to inhibit the discomfort of a fresh, dry reed drawing all the moisture off your tongue and sticking to your tongue. "Sealing" the pores not only does nothing to prevent waterlogging, but it slows the process of the reed returning to a dry state again for storage and transport. The only purpose for taking paper or sandpaper to the vamp of your reed, is to remove splinters that might have remained from factory mishandling. Additionally, there is essentially no process that will extend the lifespan of a clarinet or saxophone reed: any chemicals applied to it to inhibit wood warping, splitting, chipping, and other upsets, is just another attempt to swindle the dedicated reedman out of their money, in the futile effort to preserve longevity in what is fundamentally an intentionally disposable component. The disposability of reeds is a virtue, not a disadvantage, in the long run: there is absolutely no way to disinfect a clarinet reed, that does not damage it and shorten its usable lifespan. Reeds spend a lot of time inside human mouths, so they get coated in some pretty foul microorganisms, given enough time. It is a stroke of luck that they tend to break or go bad on the performer, faster than they can properly start tasting and smelling horrible, or getting us sick. Reed prep that goes beyond removing splinters and factory taste, is complete superstitious nonsense, and any experienced reedman with a strong embouchure will usually find they reflexively compensate for individual idiosyncrasies from one reed to the next, without needing to think very hard about it. Coping with squirrelly reeds is the cost of entry.

The one and only significant task of reed maintenance which isn't largely superstition, is removing the "window bump" from a reed that has been in use for some time, and isn't ready to be pitched yet. Uneven water retention between the free-vibrating portion of the reed, and the vamp below the ligature, can cause a small spot of swollen wood to form, which forces the vibrating section farther from the mouthpiece window, disrupting airflow. This is easily removed with a flat metal file, and requires no additional action.

Myth: Never ever touch the bow hair on a violin bow. The oils on your hands will degrade the hair and make rosin stop sticking to it.

Hoo boy. First off, how oily are your hands, when you're playing violin? Second, since when do horse hairs not encounter natural oils from the source? Third, do you have any idea how sticky rosin actually is? It's literally refined pine tar, one of the stickiest substances known to man, a point I can emphatically attest, as a frequent childhood climber of pine trees.

Yes, if you slather hand lotion all over the place and then methodically caress every last inch of your bow hair, you'll have issues, but plenty of professional violinists manually test the tension of their bows by pressing the hair near the frog with their thumbs. Few violinists rosin the bow all the way to the frog; most leave the last inch of the bow untouched by rosin, and it's ridiculous to play that far back on the bow anyway.

Is it a pain in the ass to rehair a bow, not to mention expensive as hell? Absolutely. Needing to do so is a product of over- or under-tightening the bow and playing too forcefully, however, and not a product of the occasional contact between thumb and bow hair. The real practical reason for this superstition is to keep the grubby, sticky hands of small children away from one's fragile instrument and bow, since "look but don't touch" is not every child's first reflex when they see a shiny new thing. If your own hands are clean and dry, or have nothing on them more offensive than a light dusting of rosin, your bow hair is safe to handle gently.

Truths of instrument maintenance:

  • Wooden woodwinds are more temperature sensitive than metal and plastic ones, and exposure to rain can damage them, so they are for indoor use only.
  • Stringed instruments and pianos similarly need climate-controlled conditions. Outdoor public pianos require frequent tuning and maintenance to account for this.
  • The same rule applies to all drums which have leather drumheads. Never leave a leather-headed drum in a hot car, exposed to the sun. It can rupture. Additionally, leather conditioner or shea butter should be used on the drumhead to protect it, especially if you strike it with your hands rather than with mallets.
  • Drum mallets with felt heads are just as climate-sensitive as the felt voicing inside a piano. Frequent use preserves them, while disuse degrades them.
  • Never use alcohol or solvents to clean a wooden musical instrument. It strips the varnish, exposing it more severely to sweat and ambient humidity, which can warp the wood.
  • Install and tune the middle-range strings on stringed instruments (including guitars) first, then the lowest strings, then the highest strings. Starting at one end and moving toward the other end creates uneven tension and pressure on the neck and bridge, which causes your already-tuned strings to fall out of tune as you get later strings in tune, and can also accumulate damage on the bridge that is hard to detect until it fails suddenly in the future.
  • Wear eye protection while tuning stringed instruments and pianos. (I personally know someone who lost an eye to his bass guitar, and I've had close calls with my mandolin and violin both.)
  • Cork grease your clarinet corks. For the love of god, use cork grease. It's the one and only thing saving you from needing to get your clarinet recorked every couple years, which is expensive and makes the instrument not fit together right until the corks adapt to ambient humidity weeks or months later.

Iron Noder 2019, 29/30

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