Shop Talk: The low-down on instrument repair & maintenance

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Ken in his element

Here’s hoping that there are at least a few people out there that are as mystified by instrument repair as I am. I’ve never been a gadget person and when it comes to repairs, I just can’t even begin to fathom the most basic of tasks:

  • Slide alignment – huh?
  • Chemical cleaning – what?
  • Valve rebuilding – no clue.

Just seems like a lotta ins, lotta outs to me. And yes, I am the exact same way with my car.

But I live in Boston, and as luck (or necessity) might have it, I live right next door to Ken Pope, one of the finest brass instrument repairmen in the US.

Recently I sat down with Ken and asked him all of the things I’ve been meaning to ask him for… ten years. Here are a few things I learned:

Basic Care:
The importance of  basic instrument maintenance can’t be stressed enough. Simply put, the #1 issue he sees in the shop is not enough lubrication.

Not lubricating regularly (ie. a few drops down the leadpipe daily, and oiling valves every few days) can cause red rot (a reddish residue), that is a sign of instrumental rotting from the inside out. Little or no lube can also cause copper carbonate (a hard green crust), something akin to having sand paper inside your instrument.

Also recommended: snake your instrument once a month, to remove any excess build-up.

DIY: A good idea or not?
Clearly for me this is a bad idea. But nonetheless I asked: Are there minor repairs we can tackle ourselves? Ken replied in the affirmative, adding also that he plans to produce a series of short YouTube videos on do-it-yourself repairs.

And while I’m fairly certain you won’t see demonstrations of bell cutting or soldering, you can expect this project and others like it to cover the basics of upkeep, minor dent removal, stringing valves, etc. So stay tuned. I’ll be sure to follow-up on this one. :-)

Advice on finding a good repairman:
Talk to the best horn/trumpet/trombone/tuba player or teacher in your area- and ask them where they go. Also, if you play any sort of custom instrument, be sure to take it somewhere that’s familiar with the idiosyncrisies of your particular make and model.

Generally speaking, when you’re looking for a repairman, chances are likely that if they play your particular instrument, they’ll have better expertise repairing that instrument as well.

Sure signs of a bad repairman:

  1. They look at a double horn and say they’ve never seen one with four valves.
  2. They are unfamiliar with the make of your instrument.
  3. They are your Dad.

True story: Ken told me that he once had a customer- I’m assuming a very young one (but you never know)- who’s Dad thought he could fix a broken brace just fine. He took out his solder gun and promptly burned a hole right through the bell. Sometimes the truth is just so much stranger than fiction. I am always amazed by this…

And finally, Cryogenic WHAT?!?!
Cryogenic freezing- the latest most peculiar thing ever. Apparently it’s a service offering to bathe your precious brass instrument in liquid nitrogen at minus 321 degrees farenheit.

This is supposed to alter the molecular composition of your instrument- and thus proports to make you sound like Wynton Marsalis, for the tune of a few hundred dollars. Or something like that?

However many reputable repairmen don’t believe in it, and some even try and talk their customers out of this sci-fi experiment. Indeed it sounds like an expensive placebo to me.

You can read more on this topic here:

So are there any alternatives to improving instrumental sound quality? Well, in Germany people used to fill their horns with goat’s milk and leave them in a closet for a few days- although I’m not sure I’d endorse this either. Interesting piece of trivia though!

5 Responses to “Shop Talk: The low-down on instrument repair & maintenance”

  1. ‘goes out to find a goat’ :)

  2. I’ve heard practising can help tone. *ducks!!*

    Sorry guys, I meant that you should store the horn in a blessed coffin and only drink Châteauneuf du Pape. Actually all im all in favour of that post practise wine. Helps the long tones drift by!

  3. Raquel says:

    Bwahahahaaaa! Practicing?! What are you some kind of fundamentalist?

    On another note, Jon & Mike- are you enjoying the holiday on your side of the pond? I heard there’s been a big to-do about a certain nuptial ceremony. Were you guys in attendance, will you be having a tea party? 😛

    • Jon Gorrie says:

      haha teas all round! 😛

      Well, not really… the first I heard about the royal wedding was last night.

      As I live Sweden I (thankfully 😉 ) don’t get to hear too much about the royals – well, the British royals at least. The Swedish royal family, well, that’s another story 😀

  4. they played with the state trumpeters I think…. 😛

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