Brass instruments need to be cleaned and lubricated regularly, or they just won’t work the way they’re intended to. Over time, the valves become sticky, the slides get stuck, and disgusting gunk can build up and accumulate inside your instrument, deadening the sound and vibrancy of the tone. Think of your brass instrument like you would a car- if you want it to perform at top-level, you must take good care of it. And, the best way to take care of your brass instrument is to keep a fully stocked supply of cleaning products on hand at all times. From cleaning cloths to valve oil, here’s everything you need to keep your brass instrument in tip-top shape.
If you do one thing right, wiping down your brass instrument after every performance or practice session should be it. The residue, dirt, and acids on your fingers and hands will not only cause your instrument to tarnish over time but, depending on how long you allow it to build up and the acidity of your sweat, can actually eat through the metal of your instrument. While some musicians prefer to purchase specialized cleaning cloths, others use old lint-free cloths or towels they may have lying around the house. No matter what you do, make sure the cloth isn’t abrasive. Some musicians make the mistake of accidentally scratching their instruments with cleaning cloths. As far as replacement goes, this varies from musician to musician but, in general, cleaning cloths should be replaced as soon as they show signs of being worn out.
Reserved solely for valve instruments, valve oil prevents the corrosion of the inside of your instrument and should be placed on valves before they’re placed back in the horn. Never use slide grease or Vaseline to oil your valves, as this can actually harm your brass instrument. Essentially, valve oil has three purposes: to clean, lubricate, and fill air space. Not only does valve oil extend the life of your instrument’s pistons, but it’ll flush out any small debris or dirt that’s stuck in the hard-to-reach crevices of your instrument. Since you should be oiling your valves a couple times a week, you’ll likely run out of valve oil before it becomes too old to use. If you come across an old bottle of valve oil that’s separated or smells bad, it’s a good indication it’s reached it’s shelf life and should be discarded and replaced as soon as possible.
While some wouldn’t consider slide grease to be a cleaning supply, keeping the slides of your brass instrument lubricated is a crucial part of maintaining and caring your horn. Once they’re stuck, it’s usually too late to “unstick” the slides on your own and you’ll be stuck taking your instrument to a repair technician for a costly repair or an acid bath. To avoid all that hassle and an expensive repair, all you have to do is grease the slides every month or so. Most slide grease containers have a “use by” date imprinted on them and, if you’re greasing your slides as often as you should be, you’ll likely run out before it’s reached. If you’re concerned that your slide grease may be past its prime, keep an eye out for a change in color, consistency, or smell, as these are all indications that the slide grease may be too old to use.
Typically reserved for trumpets, euphoniums, and tubas, cleaning snakes will help you get all the gook out of your horn. Snakes coated in plastic are preferred over metal, as you could accidentally damage your instrument with a metal snake. Also important is the size of the snake. Since tubas are larger than trumpets and both are different sizes than euphoniums, most snakes come in sizes that are instrument-specific. To use the snake, run it through your horn’s tubing (after you’ve taken it apart) and it’ll pick up remnants of last week’s lunch. It may sound gross, but it’s an important part of keeping your instrument in prime shape. As with any other type of cleaning brush, snakes should be replaced as soon as they become too worn to be effective. If you notice it’s not cleaning as well as it used to, replace it during your next haul.
Mouthpiece brushes are a must-have accessory after every gig, performance, or practice. Not only will a mouthpiece brush remove anything that’s accumulated in your mouthpiece while it was being used but, in doing so, it’ll keep your tone pure and your pitch right. After each use, simply scrub out the inside of your mouthpiece with a mouthpiece brush and use a twisted piece of paper towel to dry out the inside. If you’d prefer not to use a mouthpiece brush, your other option would be to remove and boil your mouthpiece. Boil for a few minutes at least twice a year to keep your mouthpiece sterile and germ free. To keep things as sanitary as possible, make it a point to boil your mouthpiece after you’ve recovered from a cold or flu. Note: mouthpieces are the only part of your brass instrument that can be boiled.
If you’re new to playing a brass instrument or simply want to toss out your old inventory and start fresh, some manufacturers take the guesswork out of stocking up by selling cleaning kits that are specific to different brass instruments. For example, most trombone kits include slide lube, snakes, mouthpiece brushes, and polishing cloths, while trumpet kits contain all the essentials you’ll need to care for and maintain your trumpet. If you play the trumpet and want cleaning tips that are specific to your brass instrument, check out Proper Trumpet Maintenance & Care. If you play a different brass instrument, speak with your music teacher or a repair technician for information that’s specific to your instrument.