Having never before written an article for a journal, I feel I should introduce myself. The topic is instrument repair related, but as I view myself much more addicted to the profession of playing the tuba than to the profession of repairing tubas, I will begin in much the same way that testimonials begin at A.A. meetings: My name is Joe… and I play the tuba. You might see me in a symphony orchestra, a Sunday brunch jazz band, a brass quintet, a polka band, a New Orleans brass band, a funk band, a recording studio, or even (eek!) a row of banjoists at a store’s grand opening or car dealership’s promotion.
Teaching is the world’s greatest and most noble profession, and there can be no higher admiration than that for dedicated teachers who are masters of their profession. Teaching requires extraordinary patience and a strong sense of purpose. I’ve been told innumerable times by family, friends, and acquaintances that I have no patience and that I serve no purpose, which may explain why I drifted towards repairing instruments rather than towards the classic teaching path. There are many music and music-related occupations that seem fascinating to others, and most any job has its rewards. But repairing instruments, much like playing instruments, teaching, or doing all sorts of other jobs, involves quite a bit of repetition, drudgery, and discipline. Encountering a high school or university’s eleventh beat-up silver sousaphone or marching baritone at 1:14 A.M. on July umpteenth probably does not line up with most young musicians’ typical images of the instrument repair profession, yet it is the reality. Repairing instruments, just like most other jobs, also has its rewards. As with any other discipline, taking shortcuts rarely pays off; seeking new ways to approach old problems occasionally does pay off.
The glamorous and mysterious world of instrument repair having now been revealed, the thing that will be discussed is not the latest-greatest add-on gadget, nor how various mouthpipes, mouthpieces, sheet metal thicknesses, or alloys affect intonation or sonority, nor whether a “big” F tuba or a “small” F tuba has the widest appeal to orchestra audition committees, nor even how to execute emergency repairs. The topic, simply, is “instrument cleanliness and its many benefits.”
Rarely do brass players bring their instruments to me with cleaning being the #1 thing on their list of issues (if even on the list at all). Quite often, though, it should be. Of more benefit than spot-on valve/slide alignment, venting that #4 slide loop, changing out that receiver to a “euro” shank, installing that (gold plated, of course!) main slide trigger, installing new synthetic piston washers, installing an entirely new valve, or just removing those unsightly dents, is cleaning. A truly thorough cleaning job would do more for the playability of many tubas and euphoniums than most any of these in-the-vogue shop adjustments.
On internet discussion lists, some tuba and euphonium players complain of sticking piston valves and swear that “this” or “that” oil works much better than other oils on their instrument; “Only Za-zoom oils work on my X-a-made instruments,” etc. What is likely occurring in most instances is one or more of the following:
• lime deposits on the valve casings
• chunks of loose filth (lime and/or other types of filth) lurking in the ports between the valve casings and bottom valve caps
• lime deposits in the valve guide tracks
• oxides and/or lime deposits on the pistons
• …As I am not a chemist, the best guess, probably, is a third: “Who knows…??”
Benefits of various oil brands might result from better valve oil interaction with lime deposits (perhaps a formulation of oil that somehow coats or temporarily absorbs into lime deposits and allows for a smoother surface than lime deposits normally offer). Or, a particular make and formulation of oil might actually allow valves to stick less often due to less of a detergent type of action, allowing chunks of filth to remain stationary and away from the valve casing proper.
Some brass players cling to the belief that suddenly releasing a vacuum on a valve will cause it to stick. If nothing more than this slight change of air pressure can cause valves to stick, what sort of disaster then, can holding an instrument cause? What is actually happening is that sudden vacuum releases occasionally blow chunks of filth from valve knuckles into valve casings – and those chunks of filth are then temporarily wedged between valves and casings.
A far simpler solution, rather than depending on that certain oil- an oil that allows the pistons to function “not as badly as” with other oils, is to thoroughly clean the interior of a brass instrument. Not just to an instrument owner’s perceived “satisfaction,” but to the point that it is truly clean. At that point, most any in-the-ballpark oil, from the cheapest music store promotional oil to dollar-store-bought lamp oil to someone’s favorite boutique-y/secret formula/synthetic oil will work great, and will offer minimal-to-no sticking.
This is not directly related to cleanliness, but understanding that tubas and euphoniums are large heavy instruments, and picking them up by their large body parts, rather than grasping small tubing which leads directly into valve casings, will avoid the possibility of distorting the shapes of valve tubing knuckles. Tubing that leads into a valve casing can become distorted via excessive force, and just like filth, can cause sticking problems.
A long-standing trend in tuba design, a trend within the even longer-standing trend of front-action piston valvesets on professional-grade tubas, is large diameter pistons known to most players as “big valves.” Anyone who has ever seen large bore front-action (Grand Rapids, Michigan) York pistons recognizes the German-made stainless steel “big valves” as York replicas. A few problems involved with the European-made replicas are:
-shorter overall length than the York originals
-stainless steel exterior piston wall tubing (which is difficult to manufacture as thin as the original York pistons, which were made of nickel-silver tubing)
-much closer tolerances, yet still a great deal of surface area
The original York large-bore/large-diameter pistons were longer and sported a deep pocket in the bottom which received the spring. Big Michigan York pistons were also much lighter weight – allowing for lighter springs, constructed of softer (raw nickel silver) or slicker (nickel plated) metal, and built with more forgiving tolerances. For the German replicas (shorter, heavier, tighter, harder) to work as well as the York originals, everything must be nearly perfect…and nearly perfectly clean. The suggestion here is that big valves which have “never been right” may simply have “never been clean.”
Besides affecting reliability, significant collections of filth inside in instrument can absolutely affect playability. One of my own tubas features a mouthpipe with conservative dimensions. In my view, its dimensions are about as close to perfect as they could be, but that also means that when it becomes smaller (due to filth) it quickly becomes imperfect, and everything is different. Our shop once received for repair a tuba that was so full of “nasty white stuff” that the tuba was barely playable. The instrument’s owner had no idea that the entire mouthpipe and valveset – every square inch of the bore – was covered with a roughly 1/16″ to 1/8″ thick coating of nasty white goo. After seeing the interior, it literally made me ill to think that I had just inserted my own mouthpiece into that instrument to test its playability. After cleaning, it was apparent that the instrument was not just OK but one of the best of its model I had ever played. The instrument’s owner, a doctoral candidate in performance, also discovered after the cleaning that they were not the struggling also-ran they had previously thought themself to be. Immediately, it became quite apparent that they were quite a fine player indeed. This is an extreme example, but it is an actual example.
How do tuba and euphonium players keep their instruments clean without the inconvenience or considerable expense of taking them to a repair shop for a professional cleanings every time they need to be cleaned? A few things that can be done at home will be briefly discussed. The mechanically inclined and the more observant to detail will have more success. There is not space here to discuss the proper techniques for removing rotors, so those techniques will need to be already mastered or learned elsewhere. Here are a few very general cleaning tips for the careful and the observant:
-A strong liquid (dishwashing) detergent is your friend, but it will not dissolve lime. If there are hard lime deposits in an instrument, not only can these deposits freeze parts, but lime can rot an instrument from the inside out. This phenomenon is called dezincification. Regular yellow brass can lose its zinc (leaving red-colored spots of “dezincified” brass…which consist of copper only) when subjected to heavy interior lime deposits. Nickel silver, red brass (aka gold brass), and occasionally-used pure copper parts have proven themselves far more resistant to this disastrous dissolving action, which is why fewer brass instrument mouthpipe tubes are currently being manufactured of yellow brass. If heavy lime deposits (white or greenish-white hard deposits) are observed, possibly the best decision is to take the instrument to someone who can professionally remove them. This is very important, as lime can dissolve away parts of instruments, and dezincification does not discriminate between student grade and professional grade instruments. Can white vinegar or “CLR” remove lime? Those determinations should best be left to individuals who choose to try those products.
-If a particular surface inside an instrument is completely away from any line of sight, it is a fairly safe assumption that the surface is dirty, simply because it is remote. It is beneficial to devise ways to safely, yet aggressively, clean remote surfaces. These surfaces would include (in particular) the tubing knuckles between valve casings, tubing knuckles which lead into valve casings from various slide loops, and “return crooks” (fixed crooks which are not attached to movable tuning slides).
-Brushes with firm bristles and brushes that are reasonably snug (snug, yet with no danger of getting stuck in an instrument) tend to do more work. Most filth is fairly stubborn and, to a point of reasonableness, the better it is scrubbed, the more filth is removed. Stiff bristle brushes with nice strong twisted steel handles can often be obtained at gun shows and gun stores. If a surface is not one that ever moves against another surface, brass bristle brushes are not out of the question. Buying several duplicate brushes so that some can be bent for specific applications is recommended. When there is no other choice but a long flexible “snake” brush, one that is plastic coated and has the largest diameter bristle cluster available is the best choice for the most scrubbing action. The metal tips of brushes should never contact the interior surfaces of an instrument. In particular, the metal tips of brushes should never contact any articulated moving surfaces.
-Hot water often cleans better than cold, and fast water often cleans better than slow. If there is a way to attach a hose to a hose fitting that offers hot water (the drain valve on a hot water tank in a garage, as an example), there is an opportunity to possibly break loose more filth than with cold water. There are several safety considerations. The most obvious consideration is that the hot water will not be mixed with cold, and scalding is a definite risk. Vinyl hoses (typical “garden hoses”) should NEVER be used to carry hot water. A vinyl hose will come apart at its joints a few seconds after it becomes hot. Please do not doubt me on this. Only a genuine rubber hose in excellent condition should be used to carry hot water. Attaching a nozzle to the end of the rubber hose will increase velocity, but (for obvious reasons) it will also increase the risk of scalding. Repeating for additional emphasis, safety is the most important consideration when using hot water. Determining where water will come out of an instrument is also a safety concern when using hot water. Always know where water will come out of a disassembled instrument before sending hot water into the instrument.
-The expanding bows (past the valveset) of an instrument usually do not collect filth or lime very quickly. These surfaces rarely need to be cleaned as often as the valveset. This suggests that the large part of an instrument can be kept dry for most routine cleanings.
-As a good-looking instrument exterior is always nice, silver plated instruments can be polished with a very soft synthetic sponge and a substance consisting of 50/50 silver polish and dish detergent. Wright’s Silver Cream (also recently seen sold as Weiman Silver Cream) seems to mix nicely with most liquid dish detergents. As tubas are large, the actual monetary cost of the polish becomes a factor, which is one reason for a 50/50 mix with dish detergent. An additional benefit of mixing polish with dish soap is that this mixture is much easier to rinse away from the instrument than pure polish. Again, I’m no chemist, and I would encourage anyone to pay attention to whether things seem right, and, if not (funny reaction with the silver plating/excessive fuming/etc.), rinse away immediately. Assuming the mixture is a happy one, simply hose the mixture off the instrument (outdoors on a towel in the lawn) when the polishing is completed, pat dry with a soft absorbent towel, and touch up the dry instrument with a light-duty silver polishing cloth. It’s best to remove piston valves when silver polish is applied, particularly when valve washers are natural felt. Installing the piston caps, though, will prevent a collection of silver polish in the casing threads.
-Lacquer finishes can easily be cleaned with furniture spray waxes such as Pledge, or store-brand generics, and a soft towel. If remote lacquered surfaces are not dirty, spraying them with furniture wax creates unnecessary work, so thoughtfulness during application is recommended.
Tubas and euphoniums will perform optimally when their interiors are clean. Assuming no mechanical defects, truly clean valves will rarely stick, and a clean instrument offers the best chance for the most resonance. One parting tip is to clean an instrument well in advance of some important lesson, audition, recording, or performance. Things can happen (though, of course, unexpected things NEVER happen when I work on instruments…Ha!) when disassembling and reassembling instruments. Please do not create some unnecessary emergency for yourself, particularly just prior to an event that already involves considerable stress.
Finally, finding the best possible instrument repair person that is within commuting distance is a wise strategy. Though some in need of help do not seem to embrace this reality, repair people cannot repair instruments over the telephone, nor can they download instruments, change a few zeros and ones, reattach them to a emails, and send them back to their owners , completely repaired over the internet. The point here is that just because my name is at the top of this article I’m no more of a guru than a well-qualified instrument repair person within commuting distance of your home. After all, shipping an instrument across the country often causes more problems – namely shipping damage – than the problems which prompted shipping the instrument in the first place. To understand that keeping the interior of an instrument clean is directly related to greatly elevated performance potential is not rocket science.
This article is being written on the cusp of a series of presidential debates. Since I began with a twisted quotation, ending with a twisted version of a famous debate quotation seems appropriate. As a brilliant and lifelong friend of mine once told me, “Joe, I grew up with a rocket scientist. I know a rocket scientist. A rocket scientist is a sister of mine. You’re no rocket scientist.”
Joe Sellmansberger currently performs with the Iris, Eroica, and Jackson Orchestras as well as with the Mississippi Brass Quintet via a longstanding artist-in-residence association with the University of Mississippi. As a jazz musician, Joe has performed with Al Hirt, Ray Charles, Henry Mancini, Henry Cuesta, Branford Marsalis, and many others. He can be heard on recordings with the Iris Orchestra, the New Orleans Jazz Ramblers, and the Hot Cotton Jazz Band. His company, Mid-South Music, has served as a woodwind and brasswind repair and retail facility for over a third of a century, and his Sellmansberger-Houser line of stainless steel tuba mouthpieces, including the Solo, Imperial, Symphony, and Orchestra Grand – along with a myriad of rim choices – has proven widely popular throughout the world.