Students love their instruments to death. If one of your students alerts you of an instrument in need of life support, here are a few triage tips. While many of these woodwind repairs are not permanent fixes, they may help you get through the concert.
When an instrument is in good working order all keys should move easily. If you have to apply more than minimal effort to press any key, something is out of alignment. Usually, the key is bent and catching on a post or another key. If the key presses down easily but doesn’t immediately return to its original position when released, check the screws and springs. A loose screw or tired spring could be causing sluggish movement.
Like keys, pads should work effortlessly as well. Leaky pads can be muscled into sealing, but this causes students to grip their instruments tightly. Tight grips can get in the way of students’ technical development, cause arm tension, and occasionally result in pain. To test for leaky pads, play a chromatic scale; if a note sounds fuzzy with very little finger pressure, check the pads.
For clarinets, check one joint at a time. Press down all the keys and seal the far end with your other hand. Suck out all the air you can from the near end, and when you release, there should be a crisp “pop”. If you have to apply extra pressure to get the pop, something is leaking.
Flutes and saxophones can’t rely on the handy suction trick, but if you can find a long, thin light (rope lights are magical for this), you can use it to check for leaks. Turn the light on and insert it into the instrument. If you see light between the tone hole and the pad when pressing down that key, you have a leak. Some pads may be translucent, so the light won’t detect leaks as well on those types of pads.
First, check to see if any screws are missing . A missing screw often results in the loss of an entire key, so see if you have a non-functioning instrument of the same brand to cannibalize parts from. Sometimes parts from other brands will work, but the same brand is the best bet. Go ahead and check the rest of the screws on the instrument while you’re at it, making sure they’re snug. You can find a mini screwdriver set for under $15 dollars online, and purchasing one will likely save you more than once.
These little needles make woodwinds work. If a key is moving sluggishly or flapping in the wind, and you’ve already checked the screws, take a look at the springs. They should be caught in hooks attached to the key rather than dangerously sticking out. A small crochet hook, about a size C, makes a handy spring tool.
Hook the spring carefully and pull it back into place as seen in the image at the top of this article. If the spring isn’t applying enough pressure, it may be bent out of shape. Unhook the spring and CAREFULLY bend it further in the direction it is already inclined. Don’t bend too far; springs do break easily, and once broken, you’ll have to send the entire instrument to the shop. Also, be aware that springs are needles and not clean, so don’t stab yourself! If the key is supposed to be shut while not being used, you can also use a rubber band for the day until sending it for repairs.
Sticky pads? Try taking a dollar or other coarse paper and trapping it between the pad and the tone hole. Gently pull the dollar through a couple of times to remove any gunk built up. Don’t apply too much pressure; you don’t want to damage the pad.
If the pad is falling out, you can reheat the glue already in the cup or on the back of the pad. Place the pad back in the cup making sure it is as level as possible. With a lighter, gently heat the pad cup. Be careful not to get the flame too close to the instrument to avoid scorching the body or the pad. Reheating the glue should only take a few seconds. Using a rag as a hot pad, gently press the key shut. Don’t apply too much pressure as you don’t want to crush the pad, but make sure the key is firmly closed. The pad should be seated well enough to get the student through the day or the concert, and then you can send it out for a more permanent fix.
Leaky pad? Use cigarette paper to check all four cardinal directions (top, bottom, left, and right) to see where the leak is:
You can use the same reheating process to attempt to re-seat the pad for the day. Again, be careful not to actually touch the flame to the pad cup since that is too near the rest of the instrument and could result in scorching the body or pad.
While these quick fixes should help get you through the concert in one piece, make sure that students subsequently send instruments to a repair shop for a complete, permanent fix. Have a great concert and a happy new year!
Maggie Greenwood directs the woodwind studios and orchestras at the Colorado School of Mines.
An active teacher, clinician and performer in the Denver area, she holds the Master of Music degree in clarinet performance from the University of North Texas, where she studied with Daryl Coad.