School Instrument Repairs

School Instrument Repairs

Ed Dumas

I remember seeing in some very old band rooms a quite large sink which was maybe just a bit smaller than a basic bathtub in a house. This sink, sometimes placed in the band room, and sometimes placed in a side room, was intended as a place for band teachers to bathe the brass instruments.

Over the years these old schools were being rebuilt due to just being worn out, and I have noticed that these large sinks were rarely included in the new buildings. Sometimes the band teacher would still get a small kitchen-sized sink in his or her office, but rarely did they ever include a sink large enough to fit a tuba. Today, many music programs do not even have access to a sink within the music room.

I can understand the reluctance to include such a thing in new buildings as there is a substantial cost to add any extra plumbing. I also understand that music teachers are more stressed today than ever before, and have more duties to complete with less available time to complete them. It is no surprise, then, that many music teachers simply cannot afford the time that is required to service a fleet of school-owned instruments, and those sinks are simply not used as much as they used to be.

Still, I look back at all the many things that I have done over the years to keep a fleet of instruments in working order, and I wonder where that all came from. I believe the correct answer is “Necessity.” I learned how to do some things, just because I had to.

Here is an example of necessity. In my VERY first school year of teaching, at our very first concert, just before our very first tune even, but of course after I had introduced the first piece of music to the parents, I was about to launch into the downbeat  when I hear a loud whisper “Mr. Dumas!” I kind of looked around as if to say “Not now!” and then I hear a more persistent “Mr. Dumas!”

Just then our tenor sax player holds up one of the rods of his tenor sax that had just fallen off his instrument! So, to a few chuckles, I asked the parents if they would just pause a minute before we start while I check on this. It turned out to be just a screw at the end of a rod that had come too loose leaving enough gap for the rod to fall out.

“Not a problem, easy fix,” I thought. I put the rod back in place, and use my thumbnail in place of a small screwdriver to turn the screw enough to keep the rod in place. That should get us through the concert at least.

But once I got the rod back on, I realized the needle spring was now not in the correct position, so the rod was flopping around still unplayable. So, I undo the screw, take the rod off again, and this time re-position with the needle spring on the correct side of the stopper on the rod, and tighten it up one more time. Good to go.

This only took a couple of minutes to complete, but it certainly seemed like ages under the gaze of the parents. Lesson learned about positioning the spring as the rod goes back on as well as teaching students what to look for on their instrument so that rods do not fall off at inopportune times. (Is there such a thing as an opportune time for a rod to fall off?)

The trick for new teachers is finding that line between knowing what to do to fix a problem, and knowing when you should most definitely leave it for a qualified repairman. Here is another story to illustrate how easy repairs can become very expensive at the hands of someone who does not know.

I had a student trombone player, let's call him Mark (names have been changed to protect the innocent!), who came in one day with a substantial dent on the bell of his instrument. It was more like several dents, but they were back from the bell about one foot, and it looked like the round tube was now made square-ish. When I asked him about it, I could see that this was very emotional for Mark as tears began to well up in his eyes.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “This is actually very minor. A good repairman will be able to get this dent out to the point where you will likely not even be able to tell that there was a dent there before.” I explained to Mark how the repairman had this special tool called a mandril that was the exact shape of the bell. It goes up into the bell of the horn, and then they use a special leather mallet to gently tap out the metal until all of the dents are gone. I tried to take enough time to calm Mark and let him know that it will all be okay. “The most important thing,” I said, “was to just leave it alone and after your parents have okayed the work, I will take the horn away and send it to be fixed up.”

Well, Mark was still emotional about it, and that night tried to undo whatever mistake had caused this little problem. So, he put a broom handle up the bell and tried to “reem out” all the dents with that broom handle. The trouble is, the metal does not become smooth this way even if the dents start to come out. So, he just kept going and going.

Mark then opened up the tubing of that bell piece so large that the entire instrument now played about one quarter-tone flat. The instrument was destroyed, the parents had to pay for the full value of the instrument, and then they still had to rent another one to keep the student in the band program. For me, the worst of it was that I ended up losing him soon anyway when I thought he would have enjoyed being in the band program in his senior years.

I have used that story numerous times to illustrate to students and parents why they should not mess with instruments when things go wrong. Stress to your students and parents that things will go wrong. At those moments, the first thing they should do is ask you, the teacher, about it, and not try something on their own. If you cannot deal with it, then it should most certainly go to a repair shop.

What Things Should Students Do?

Students should be taught how to do some very basic kinds of servicing on their horns. All students should know how to wash out their mouthpiece, or flute head, once per month or more. This is mainly for sanitary reasons, but even brass mouthpieces that do not get washed frequently start to close in at the throat. This means playing it becomes more difficult, so students should wash it often.

Make sure you show students how to use the PROPER mouthpiece brush. Using a reed mouthpiece brush on a brass mouthpiece will not fit, and using a brass mouthpiece brush on a reed mouthpiece risks scratching the inside of the mouthpiece. Tell your students, too, that they should use gentle dishwashing soap, the kind you would use to do dishes by hand.

Beginning woodwind players should also know how to swab an instrument dry to protect the pads, and that they should NOT leave the swab in the case. That just puts the moisture back onto the instrument. Put the swab in an outside pocket of the case, or tie it to the case handle. Beginners should also know how to use a rag (not the swab!), to wipe off the corks or the joints of the instruments. They should clean off where metal touches metal such as the neck of a sax, the head of a flute, or the shank of a brass mouthpiece. This keeps these parts moving smoothly. Once it is clean if it is still slow and hard to slide together, wipe one finger across their brow to gather a bit of skin oil, and wipe that on the metal. That is plenty. Keep the cork grease just for the corks.

Young clarinet players should also know how to check for dryness of the cork before adding more grease. They can also use Q-tips to clean the cork grease out of the finger holes of the clarinet, which happens after they apply cork grease with their fingers. Beginning sax players should also know to keep the end stopper in the sax when it is in the case, as this keeps the octave key mechanism from being damaged.

Beginning brass players should know how to oil the valves by wiping off the old oil on a rag before applying new. They can also learn how to wipe off old slide grease from slow slides before applying new grease. The faster trombone main slide requires a similar treatment of wiping off old before applying new, but use slide oil, not grease.

New brass players should also be reminded to check how close the slow slides (like the main tuning slide) are to seizing. When the student attempts to move the slow slide and it “pops,” meaning it suddenly jumps in or out, this is a huge warning sign. Students may have only a few weeks or less before that instrument needs to go in to get the slide unstuck. Wiping off and applying grease now can prevent that.

There is a good explanation of slides in the article “Slide Lubrication” and is worth a visit if you have not read it.

What Things Should Parents Do?


Okay, that might be a bit extreme, but Dads that are paying the bills for their child to play an instrument tend to get a bit neurotic when something goes wrong with the instrument. And things do go wrong. I have seen more plier scratches on trumpet mouthpieces and lead pipes than I care to think about. Many of those trumpets would come back to me from defeated fathers who still could not get the mouthpiece out. I would take out my trusty mouthpiece puller and pop the mouthpiece out in seconds in front of the student (and sometimes Dad). This would make the Dad feel doubly foolish for leaving the scratches behind.

Stress to your parents that the role of the parent is to NOT try to fix the instrument unless they happen to be a musician or musical instrument repairman of course. Instead, they should just keep the student calm when things wrong (and they will…), and then just direct the child back to you. You can then decide what the next step is, and usually, it is not nearly as bad as they think it is.

What Should the Band Teacher Do?

There are plenty of things that band teachers can learn to do that can help solve some of the problems when things go wrong. (Need I say this again…) These are things like knowing how to put a spring back on a flute, clarinet, or sax. Popped-off springs are very common and if you can do this in a few seconds, you can save everyone some dollars and lots of wasted class time. You might even want to know how to reposition rods that come loose because the end screws have come undone too far. Keep in mind that you must not overtighten as then the rod and key will not move at all. If the end screw keeps coming undone, then send it to a repairman for a more long-term fix.

For your flute players, you should also know how to set the cork in the flute head by using the line marked on the flute cleaning rod. It is even worthwhile knowing how to remove the cork, wipe it clean, and re-grease it to set it again. This is something that your senior players could also do, and it will help with the intonation of their flutes. Your senior flute players may also want to know how to clean off a sticky flute pad with pad paper.

New band teachers should know how to bathe a brass instrument, even if you may not use it very often or at all. If you have bathed instruments a few times, you will be able to teach this to your senior students better, and this could save them some funds.

New band teachers need to know how to re-assemble brass valves, both trumpet style with spring on top, and euphonium style with spring on the bottom. I have seen students accidently disassemble these valves completely, and then not know how to put them back together. They have been directed to see you first, so if you know how to reassemble that trumpet valve, you can save days of waiting for an instrument to go into the shop. Here, you might want to revisit the article “Why Do Trumpet Valves Jam?” for a good explanation of how to avoid these problems, and how to diagnose the problem when it happens.

Also, band teachers should have a quality mouthpiece puller that will fit any size brass mouthpiece. Practice using this puller on older dead instruments until you are comfortable using it.

For percussion instruments, it is useful to know how to put on a new head on a snare drum or bass drum. I have never seen one break, but I have seen them become so worn that they are dead. This is a simpler job than you would think once you have seen it done and once you understand the concept of tightening the lugs “across the clock.”

Know What to Not Do

Knowing what to do is important, but it is just as important, or maybe more, to know what to not do. The trouble here is that the list of “Don’ts” is just so much longer than the “Do’s.” Our human brain is just so good at imagining things, that we are very creative at ways to screw things up, even if we did not mean to. It is quite literally impossible to cover all of the don’ts, but here are a few common ones that I have seen. You might want to teach these to your students.

Don’t bathe a woodwind instrument! Flutes, clarinets, and saxes really do not like water, so putting a woodwind instrument in water to “clean” it will do far more harm, maybe even destroy it! Just don’t!

Don’t take dents out yourself! Do I need to repeat Mark’s story?

Don’t leave instruments on chairs! The safest place for a musical instrument is laying on the floor. I have NEVER seen a musical instrument get stepped on in my entire life, but I have seen them fall off more things than I could ever possibly count. Chairs are the most common.

Don’t leave instruments on beds either! Okay, this one is for your students, but I have seen more banana-shaped flutes because of practicing on a bed than I care to think about. The student is practicing away, gets distracted by a phone (yes, this was a thing even before Smartphones!), goes out of the room, comes back into the room, forgets the flute is on the bed and sits on bed and flute. Cases are your best friend. The floors are pretty good too.

Don’t leave flutes on music stands! Loose stand bolts mean big bills for flute players.

Don’t stand an instrument on its bell! Unless you have a dedicated instrument stand, just don’t do it. See the above comment.

Don’t try to put on woodwind pads yourself! A fair number of old-school band teachers, even before me, used to temporarily put a clarinet pad back on with a lighter. Just don’t. Those days are over since we discovered what plastic is about. Plastic and heat are a bad mix.

Don’t try to free a stuck slide yourself! Okay, maybe try some gentle tugs and see how bad it is. But if it will not move soon after, just leave it for a repairman. Forcing a stuck slide could mean increasing the bills because you can break solder joints and bend tubes.

Don’t forget to ask! If you do not know but would like to, please ask. For example, if you are unsure how to remove the cork from a flute (it goes through the bottom of the flute head), get some information first. Pushing that flute head through the top (small) end will stretch the metal out and potentially damage the flute head. All instruments have their little quirks and knowing some of the more common ones will help.

Using a Qualified Service Department

Students that are renting or own their instrument should consider having their instrument serviced by a pro every year or two at the most. This is especially true for beginners who may not be ready to service their instrument themselves. But even as the students get older, they may find it still needs to go into the shop more often as the instrument has aged, because now the instrument is beginning to show wear.

Sending in your school-owned horns each year to the Tapestry Service Team is well worth the investment. I know it is an expense to music programs that are underfunded these days, but in the long run, there is money saved by not spending on “things that didn’t go wrong.”

For example, flutes and clarinets that are left unopened after a student has played it for a while and then returned it to the school, will deteriorate on their own. This happens because usually, the student has left moisture in the case from either not swabbing, or leaving a wet swab in the case. The wetness allows mites to grow. The mites eat the pads of the instrument as a food source. After a year or two of not being played, you then open the case to discover huge chunks taken out of the pads. This causes a much bigger bill than just a basic service at the moment when the instrument was returned to the school.

For brass players, stuck slides and valves can grow more stuck over time. The finish on the instrument also gets more corroded from fingerprints that are not removed. Build-up on valves and in tubes becomes harder to remove later after it has had time to dry and set.

One of the ways that I found basic yearly servicing valuable was by stocking the instruments with all the necessary supplies for the next player to begin. This way I did not need to take valuable class time to hunt down all the things that each different instrument needed. I could simply go into the instrument room, choose from the serviced instruments, such as flutes, clarinets, trumpets, and so on, and then hand these instruments out.

I knew that if I sent the instrument in for servicing, part of my ask of the service department was that all valve oils, slide oils, swabs, starter reeds, flute cleaning rods, and any other necessary supplies were already in the case. I wanted my instruments to have the same supplies that a store-owned rented instrument would contain so that the startup for the students was faster. That task alone saved me many hours of class time every year.

I encourage you to talk to your local Tapestry Music rep and schedule a time to look at which instruments need to go in for servicing. The reps are capable enough that they can tell you which ones are very urgent, and which can be delayed if necessary. Having all this done over the summer is one of the best ways you can ensure a smooth and faster startup with less stress for you and more fun for your students.

Your administrators will understand the concept of Deferred Maintenance, or delay the maintenance to some unspecified point in the future. Our school system in BC is struggling under an overwhelming amount of deferred maintenance. During the time of political restraint created in the early 2000s, about 15 years of Deferred Maintenance created a system that is now being crushed under some extreme bills for school repairs. Administrators understand that Deferred Maintenance means more than just delaying costs, it also means substantially increasing costs.



Ed Dumas is a retired band director who taught his entire career in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District. Ed is now living with his lifelong partner Laurie in Parksville, BC.  Ed & Laurie also work as Mid-Island reps for Tapestry Music while enjoying making music in retirement.


You can find Ed’s other writings for the MusicED Blog at:


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