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Evaluating and Repairing Your Woodwind Instruments

Christina Colston • November 2022 • November 13, 2022

Every teacher has tools in their classroom. These can be your board at the front, computer at your desk, or baton in your hand. What every instructor may not have is a set of tools to help students fix small repair problems. Before using physical tools, evaluation is necessary.

Let’s be honest, most novices don’t know how to tell if an issue is theirs or their instrument. Unless something falls off, most assume sound production issues must be performance struggles. While technique may be an issue, anyone playing on a poorly maintained or damaged instrument may not realize the issues are in the instrument.

Instruments are machines and machines need proper maintenance to work well for as long as possible. What do you do if the problem is the instrument? Allow me to give you a handful of inexpensive evaluation tips to have in your kit to help you make a judgement call in the moment. 

Woodwind instruments can be intimidating. Parts can become bent or loose, pads can create leaks that cause the instrument to sound airy or jump registers. Key heights can change the tone or pitch of the instrument instantly. So how do you determine what the problem is? 

First, you will need to identify the issue. Here are some questions to help narrow it down:

Is anything out of place or frozen? 

Are there visible tears in the skins of the pads? (Or are they even fully present?)

Is something clicking that normally is silent?

Playtesting

Before or after a repair, playtesting can show you the problems in how it sounds and feels. Novices are still learning so their performance level can mask issues in the instrument. Before you start, consider the shared-instrument contact you will be dealing with. Swab it out first, use your own mouthpiece, clean and disinfect before and after. Listen, play slow and soft (pianissimo), use a light touch in the hands. Airy sounds usually mean leaks are in the system, pads aren’t sealing, keys aren’t adjusted properly, etc. Clicking sounds usually mean a silencer has fallen off or a key is bent. Tuning issues can be because of adjustments, a misaligned headcork, or key height issues. Frozen keys either mean it’s bent, a post is damaged, or rust has developed in the mechanism. 

Plan

Visually inspect the instrument and make a plan. If you want to do a thorough inspection a leak light can be your best friend, second only to the feeler gauge. Leak lights drop into flutes and saxophones and then by closing the keys one by one you can visually see if they fully close and where leaks are present. Feeler gauges are used on flutes and clarinets to test the pad seals by feel.

If you are unsure about something odd you find on the broken instrument, try comparing it to a functional instrument. Make sure the body of the instrument itself isn’t’ bent, cracked, or dented in odd spots that may cause issue to tone holes, posts, or keys. Major damage is usually obvious, but not always.

Once you’ve identified the issue you need to decide if you or a professional should fix it. The professionals are here for a reason, but 20 minutes before a concert, they are not always available. A lot of issues that come up in woodwinds can escalate quickly. One problem can lead to another and another. So, before you start going down the winding road to repair the problem, make sure it is in fact the only problem. Set yourself a limit, if you find more than “2-3” issues, or if a body is dented, or a key is frozen; then a classroom fix may not be the best solution. If you know how to repair it and you have the kit to do so, set it aside. But if you are like most instructors and have only the most basic repairs skills and tools, it is important you know your own limits and when to send it to an expert. Even if you have started the repair, you shouldn’t feel ashamed to take it into the shop for some assistance.

My best advice is an old saying “listen to your gut.” Whenever you are about to repair something, ask yourself the following questions: “Does this seem safe and controlled?” “Do I feel safe and in control?” “Does this feel like I’m about to slip and create some major damage to myself or the instrument?” “How would I feel if I completely ruined this instrument and had to cover the repairs or replace all or part of it?” I’m not trying to scare you… but I am… kind of. That gut feeling either motivates or stops you in your tracks. If you ask yourself these types of questions and feel the need to stop, STOP. Call and ask your tech for advice to try and save the trip over to the shop. It may not solve the issue, they may need to see the problem, but that’s at least better than accidentally causing major damage you now must pay for.

There are many more tools used when repairing instruments. I’ve only given the basics of evaluation here. Of course, a good toolkit may also include a feeler gauge, leak light, 1-2mm flathead screwdriver, some smooth jaw pliers, a spring hook, and maybe a canvas hammer for those who are experienced. Supplies on hand would contain some synthetic replacement pads and corks, and are easily removed at a shop when able to be seen by a tech. None of these tools or supplies will usually do significant damage, so long as you use them as intended and not as chisels or punches. 

TheTunefulTech.com 

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