PSA: Get your horn fixed, NOW!


A few days ago, I picked up my alto sax and my flute from repair by Steve Schoene at Schmitt Music.  The alto repair, a Keilwerth SX-90R black nickel, was a full repad.  The flute was just in for a checkup and since he did a full repad on the flute about 2 years ago, there was no cost for that. While I haven't had a ton of time to put both instruments to the test (read: I have 2 little tornadoes at home), they are both playing extremely well.  

Which leads me to make this public service announcement:


There's no time like the present to make sure your instrument is in the best shape that it can be.  Woodwind instruments are complex, and require the pads to have a perfect seal on the tone hole in order to maximize air flow efficiency to get the best possible sound.  Think about all of the pads and tone holes on your instrument(s).  If even one of them has a leak, that can cause problem for every note below it going down the tube.  It will take more air to get a response out of the instrument, and you won't be able to play as soft as you want.  Air ends up being wasted because it's used just to blow past the leak.

I'm not sure exactly what was done to the flute.  It wasn't playing poorly by any means.  I just figured since I was making the trip and have a spare flute, it was worth having it's mechanical workings checked on.  Steve didn't say much about it, other than a few tweaks were needed.  Everything just feels tighter now, and it is extremely easy to play in the low register.  Response in every register has improved, and I love the tone I am able to produce.  I may just be in the fog of newly fixed instrument, but it is really a pleasure to play.

My alto was a different story.  I knew it needed major work.  I had been taking it in on and off for the last several stops, and the last one I was told it would need major work sometime soon.  That need became very apparent during a two gigs I had with the Cab Calloway Orchestra this past fall.  The charts were difficult enough to read (both technique and font), but I could not get the response I needed which is extremely frustrating, especially when your surrounded by great lead players who were flown in from New York.

The last time the horn had major work done was in 2004.  I discussed it here.  This time around I could afford the whole repad, but I needed to decide if I wanted metal resonators.  At this moment (pre-2014 repad) it had plastic.  I conferred with 2 friends who had the same resonators installed by Steve, but with differing results.  One loved the boost he felt, while the other experienced intonation problems so severe he ultimately replaced the horn.  So I took the conversion to the SOTW forums.  Here I thought I would meet mostly fans of going metal, but it turns out the most consistent advice I received was to get what was original to the horn.  So I reached out to Al at Keilwerth (super cool they have a rep who will answer questions).  Al told me my horn originally had metal resos, which made the decision to switch back to metal easy.  When I had the horn repadded 10 years ago, I couldn't afford pads with metal resonators, and of course I did not recall what the horn initially came with.


I had my first gig with the horn recently, and it is playing extremely well.  I no longer fear having to pay notes below F, as they all respond with ease. Tim Bell on lead alto also confirmed an increase in volume.  It's unsure how much of the volume increase can be attributed to the metal resos or if it is simply a product of having all those leaks fixed. Either way, with everything fixed I enjoy playing the alto again.  It feels like a new horn.



With that in mind, here are a few things to look for when having repair work done on your instrument.

- Have corks and felts checked.  Corks and felts mostly function to keep things quiet.  Test every key, and if you hear loud clicks, it's most likely metal on metal, and can be repaired easily.

- Almost always, some closed pads will need to be replaced (low Eb, palm keys).  Springs function to hold keys open or closed.  The ones that are closed are subject to come into contact with more moisture, and therefore need to be replaced more frequently. Also, make sure the same type of pad is replaced.  If you have metal resos and your low Eb pad needs replacing, make sure you get a metal reso in the new pad.  I've seen techs miss that.

- Check joints of a clarinet for wiggles.  I see this issue most often on student level rented instruments.  None of the connections on a clarinet should wiggle, wobble, or have any play.  It is especially concerning where the upper and lower joint connect, as the bridge keys need to be properly set not only for the 1+1 Eb/Bb, it also sets ring heights.  This can usually be fixed by recorking the tenon with thicker cork.

- Remove play within keywork.  This can be a harder one for a student to identify.  Many of the keys on a woodwind instrument work with other keys, through various mechanical systems, that you cannot see from the front.  Sometimes the mechanics will get looser and you may feel a slight moment when pressing the key, before the key hits the mechanism.  Most of the time, those small gaps in the mechanics can be tightened up.

- Check flute headjoint cork.  There is a cork in the tip of your headjoint that needs to be aligned properly.  You can  check this with the back end of your cleaning rod.  Insert the end of the closing rod with no hole into your headjoint.  When you look into the embouchure hole, you should see an alignment line.  If it is not centered, an adjustment needs to be made.


- Have a relationship with a repair technician.  If you can, meet the person who is working on your instrument.  They will usually explain what needs work, or what work they preformed.  Repair technicians have vast working knowledge of the instrument, and conversations with them are always educational.

- Play test the horn before you leave.  It may go without saying, but don't forget.  Too many times have I sent a student back because they never checked the thing they wanted to get fixed.

Got any repair tips?  Leave them in the comments below.