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Why Do Trumpet Valves Jam?


Why Do Trumpet Valves Jam?

 Ed Dumas

Jamming valves on trumpet and other piston valved instruments is one of the most frustrating things that happen to young musicians. A jammed valve is sometimes called a sticky valve but is a little different. Sticky valves generally happen all of the time in the same consistent way & speed and are usually a result of the instrument needing some cleaning and servicing. The valves have become gummed up and just need to be cleaned out and freshly lubricated. A basic bath and service usually will solve that problem.

Jamming valves is something different. This usually happens at random times and is generally not consistent. Usually, it happens when the student lifts a finger to allow the valve to return to the up position. Partway up as the valve is lifting it just suddenly seems to stop and refuses to move, even if for just a split second. Sometimes one of the valves will even jam on the way down and momentarily refuse to move even with a firmer push from the finger. These events can be enough to cause the trumpet player to stop and have to deal with the problem valve and are most frustrating, especially for young players.

There are several reasons for valve jams but often the most common culprit is something that some teachers are not aware of. Presented here is a strategy for helping solve the valve jam issues for your trumpet players.
The first solution for valve jams is to apply fresh valve oil to all of the valves of the trumpet. This is usually the first thought for young trumpet players because it is what they know. If you choose to do this first, point out to the trumpet players that they should remove old valve oil before applying new oil to the valves. This will have the added benefit of cleaning off the valves and casings in case the jam was brought on by dirty valves. Just applying oil on top of old oil will not solve a dirty trumpet problem.

When trumpet players add valve oil, rarely do they remove old oil first. This really should be done each time oil is added, at least to the valve assembly if not also to the inside of the valve casing. Use a rag made of non-stretchy cottons, such as a piece of an old bedsheet, or the back of Dad’s worn-out cotton dress shirt. The size of this rag can vary, but it should be small enough to pass through the valve casings. About 1-foot square will do.
Please do NOT use the rag that comes from the manufacturers with the instrument, as these are usually buffing rags meant to remove fingerprints from the outside finish of the trumpet. These buffing rags give off too much lint to be useful inside the valves, as a small piece of lint left behind can cause another valve jam.

With the cotton rag, wipe off the outside of the valve stem where oil is applied, particularly the bottom half of the stem that is often grey. This is the part that contacts the inside of the valve casing where the oil is required.
Then remove the bottom valve cap of the valve that is now open. Have a look inside this bottom valve cap for any built-up residue and “yuk.” If a fair bit is sitting in here, then it is probably time to have the trumpet serviced. You can also remove the tuning slide to look down the lead pipe to see how much “yuk” is built up inside the tubes. If it is rough and jagged looking inside, again it might be time to have the trumpet serviced.
Now using a wooden pencil or pencil crayon (it doesn’t scratch) without a metal eraser tip, wrap a corner of the rag over the unsharpened pencil end. GENTLY push the rag through the open valve casing using the pencil so that it can be pulled through the other end. Pull the rag through allowing it to wipe off all oil and “yuk” inside the valve casing. This can be done a few times to make sure it is thoroughly clean.

At this point, I usually also check for lint left behind from the rag. As mentioned before try to use a cotton rag that absorbs oil readily, but hopefully, one that has less lint left behind. Look for tiny lint hairs left on the valve assembly or inside the valve casing. Gently blow out any lint hairs before applying fresh oil.

Replace the bottom valve cap. Apply oil to the lower half of the valve stem. Remember to not put the oil into the holes (ports) in the valve stem as this does not help. I suggest touching the tip of the valve bottle right to the bottom side of the valve stem and using this tip to spread the oil around to cover all of the lower surfaces. Note that “dropping” valve oil from a height onto the valve stem will cause a splash of droplets onto the musician’s clothing which will stain permanently and ruin clothes. Now turn the valve upright to allow any excess oil to drip off. Use the oil rag to catch any drops of excess valve oil.

Gently insert the valve assembly into the casing with the number on the side of the valve facing the mouthpiece. Note that some older horns have the valve number facing the bell. Rotate the valve slightly back and forth until it “clicks” and is locked into place. Gently do up the top valve cap, and then test the valve to see if it performs better.

There is one more test that students should know about. Blow gently into the trumpet without making any sound on the mouthpiece. If the air feels stopped up, gently push up and down on the valve that was just worked on. If there is a change in air pressure, the valve was inserted incorrectly. It just needs to be opened again and rotated 180 degrees and clicked into place once again before screwing on the valve cap.

Now after doing this, many students still find that the valve still jams. Adding more oil once again will not likely make any difference. The next step is to examine the quality of the valve oil. I have always been convinced of playing on the best valve oil that I could find, as over the years I feel it has made a difference in lowering the frequency of valve jams. In the last few years, though, there have been some dramatic improvements in valve oils, and now there is only one that I recommend.

Valve oil used to be primarily made from petroleum, and as such, it is no wonder that it stained permanently, smelled bad, and required re-applying daily due to evaporation. Today there are several good synthetic oils, but the one that seems to me to be head and shoulders above the rest is UltraPure. I have handed this oil out to many trumpet players and I do not know of anyone that did not prefer it afterward. UltraPure is the only oil that I use on my own horn now.

If you are not sure if your valve oil is a petroleum product or synthetic, try this test that came to me from Drew in the Tapestry repair shop. Shake the bottle of valve oil in question until it makes a layer of foam at the top of the bottle. Watch how long it takes for the foam to dissipate. Shake the bottle of UltraPure and watch the foam at the top. You will notice that the UltraPure oil makes far less foam and is dissipated almost immediately. The petroleum product takes much longer to clear. The reason for this is the much lower surface tension in the UltraPure product, which means it lubricates better.

Now if your trumpet student is still getting valve jams after wiping off old oil and applying fresh oil, check the status of their oil. Switch them to UltraPure and see if that makes a difference. Considering that UltraPure is no more expensive than any other kind of valve oil and even cheaper than some, I immediately switch ALL of my trumpet players to UltraPure and just avoid the others entirely.

Now, if your student is still experiencing valve jams, it is not likely to be cleanliness or bad oil at this point. There is only one place left to look, and that is the students’ hand position. Sometimes when I suggest correcting a hand position, students are so stuck in the thought that there is something “wrong” with the trumpet that they just cannot comprehend how a bad hand position can cause this problem. I believe that bad right-hand position on trumpet is the leading cause of valve jams and have found that teaching better hand position from the beginning can completely avoid a lot of these problems.

Now examine the right-hand position of the trumpet players. Note that the palm of the right hand must NOT be lowered down to be almost touching the side of the valve casings. This position would have the palm vertical and the fingertips moving more side to side rather than up and down. It is the side-to-side movement that pushes the valves even just slightly sideways, yet enough to cause them to jam. The palm of the right-hand needs to be parallel to the floor, or close to it so that the fingertips are moving more up and down rather than side to side. 

To help ensure that the palm is in the correct position, place the tip of the right-hand thumb under the lead pipe and between the first and second valves. This placement will act as a spacer so that the palm cannot get closer to the trumpet. Note that the elbow does not need to be lifted, just the palm.

An incorrect position for the right thumb is for it to be in between the lead pipe and the bell of the trumpet, and then sticking upright almost the height of the first valve. As soon as this happens, the palm must approach the trumpet, and the valves are either pushed sideways or played with the knuckles which will be extremely slow. The best position is to keep that thumb under the lead pipe between the first and second valves, with the thumbnail facing the floor. This allows the fingers to naturally squeeze the valves down between the fingertip and the thumb below the lead pipe.

Now I have presented that order to check in the order that students will typically do when they face those valve jam frustrations. First, they will reapply oil though often not bother to wipe out the old oil which is a bad plan. Then they might consider the quality of the oil, and finally, they will consider themselves as the problem last or not at all.

You may want to consider reversing that order. If you have already made sure they are using UltraPure valve oil, and you have shown them how to apply it properly by wiping out old oil first, then you should consider hand position as soon as students complain of a problem. Remind them that the majority of valve jams are caused by bad right-hand position, and if they take care of this, there should be no more problems with jamming valves.
If students have done all of these things and have a good hand position when playing but the trumpet still jams, only then should you have the instrument checked out by a repairman. At this point, the valve casing has likely been slightly dented from the outside and nothing to do with oil or hand positions will repair that. It needs to go into a repair shop for servicing.

Yet, too many times trumpets which are perfectly fine are being sent to the repairman when the problem is in the hand position of the trumpet player. Best that you check out the other steps first to save you and your parents some unnecessary costs and your trumpet players some unnecessary frustration.


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