Hannemann’s Music Corner: Instrument Malfunctions – Avoiding the Gremlins

Hannemann’s Music Corner

By RICHARD HANNEMANN

Instrument Malfunctions: Avoiding the Gremlins

There you are on stage. You have a solo part. Murphy is rubbing his hands in evil glee. Waiting. Do you know how many things can go wrong with your instrument at this magic moment?

Strings, reeds, pads, corks, felts, springs do not last forever. Tolerances in thousandths of an inch do not tolerate wear.
 
Adjustments re-adjust. Delicate parts get bumped, bent, dinged, dented altering the air flow of a wind instrument thereby altering the tonal quality and intonation.
 
Glues unstick and suddenly your stringed instrument sounds like an angry bee. Lubricants cease to lubricate. Woods warp and split. Brass bends – imperceptibly and absurdly easily.
 
Spit, sweat, skin oils, lubricant residue, air crud, humidity, temperature changes all conspire to do bad things to your instrument.
 
Playing your instrument tends to make your instrument become unplayable. Not playing your instrument has the same effect, only slower. Either way, it takes a while to notice this.
 
You start with an instrument in optimal playing condition. Almost immediately it begins to become less than optimal. Your inner ear sends a note to your thinking brain “uhm, something isn’t quite right” but your thinking brain doesn’t get the memo.
 
So you play on whilst playing your sound into the ground. Your instrument continues its steady decline, your inner ear starts getting frantic, and finally your thinking brain wakes up and says, “gee, something doesn’t sound right.” Yeah, and hasn’t for quite a while.
 
Okay, your thinking brain is not always the smartest part of you so you will have to outsmart your thinking brain with regularly scheduled maintenance of your instrument.
 
Change your strings and reeds on a routine basis – I change out my nylon strings once a month, usually the second week; my steel strings every six weeks, and my clarinet reed gets changed every other week (which may not be often enough.)
 
Get your instrument on a regular schedule of annual service and maintenance — this should include thorough cleaning and inspection and replacement of felts, pads, corks and springs. Pianos should be tuned every six months.
 
Use the same service/repair person – over time he or she will come to know your instrument, you and your playing, and be able to monitor the instrument accordingly. And by all means keep a detailed record of that maintenance.
 
Ask for a complete listing of everything done with the instrument each time it is worked on. I usually keep a record for the instrument by make, model, serial number, date of service and what was actually done with it.
 
Often something will go a bit hinky just prior to or during a performance situation requiring a quick fix to get the instrument quickly playable. A clarinet, which is not speaking properly can be tweaked, but bending a key for the moment won’t solve the problem of the real culprit – a pad, foot cork, or spring that should be replaced.
 
As quickly as possible the key should be returned to its original position and the instrument should go in for serious inspection and repair. Far too often the quick fix becomes the permanent fix and the underlying problem remains to the detriment of the instrument.
 
A string breaks just prior to, or during, performance, the string gets replaced but, again, the temporary fix tends to become permanent.
 
Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish about this – pay attention to the symptoms. If a string breaks, change the set. If a pad pops out, figure that the glue on the other pads is likewise not reliable.
 
If a felt gets frayed, or a cork starts to flake, figure the others are not far behind. A sticky valve can be unstuck for the nonce with a lot of valve oil, but there is a reason it got sticky in the first place. Make certain to find out why.
 
Your instrument should, and can, last several life-times (vintage instruments become vintage for a reason.)
 
With regular maintenance and service, and attention to problems which are symptomatic of something else, your instrument will always play its best and happily let you take all the credit for an excellent performance.
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