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It’s Aliiiiiiiiiive! Long-term Storage and Retrieval of Brass Instruments
When we pick up a musical instrument, we all intend to stick with it for the rest of our lives. Unfortunately, sometimes interest wanes or other life obligations intervene, and we must set our instruments aside for months or even years. Many a sad and lonely trumpet or euphonium has languished in Mom and Dad’s attic for decades at a time.
But how can you store your brass instrument safely, with the least risk of damage?
(Band directors: this is also the correct technique for storing your brass instruments for the summer.)
Preparing Your Brass Instrument For Long-Term Storage
First of all, and most importantly, take the instrument in to your repair shop for an ultrasonic cleaning. In most cases, it’s the stuff that’s blown down into the instrument that causes the most harm. Human saliva contains particles of food and bacteria that can become trapped within the pores of the metal, where it calcifies and creates gross build-up. Tap water contains minerals that can accumulate and clog valves. Get all of that out instead of leaving it to sink into the instrument for years.
When you drop the instrument off at the repair shop, tell the technician that you will not be playing it for a long time. They may be able to offer more detailed advice for your specific instrument. At the very least, they will probably add an extra dollop of oil to it for no extra charge.
When it comes time to actually put the horn in the attic, it’s better for it to be either completely dry OR very thoroughly lubricated, not in some wishy-washy state of halfheartedly lubricated. If there’s just a little bit of oil, the slides and valves will jam up, and getting the instrument back into playing condition will be many times more difficult.
The recommended but labor-intensive way:
Completely disassemble the instrument. Pull out the mouthpiece, pistons, and slides.
Thoroughly wash every last trace of oil off the instrument, then thoroughly dry every last trace of water. Do not leave a single drop anywhere.
Store each of the parts separately. Don’t store it with metal touching metal. You might want to put each piece in its own plastic bag inside the case.
The easier method:
Oil the instrument according to the manufacturer’s instructions. In particular, ensure sure the slide legs have a lot of slide grease on them. Every individual piece of metal needs to be separated from the others by a thick, protective layer of oil, so don’t skimp on the lubricants. Optionally you can pull each piece apart and store them in separate plastic bags.
Whichever method you use, don’t forget to pull the mouthpiece out and store it separately – you don’t want it getting stuck in the leadpipe.
If you have followed these instructions, your horn should be safe pretty much indefinitely. The primary concern is moisture getting trapped on the surface of the metal. To be extra safe, maybe save the little silica packets from other purchases and include them in the bags with each individual piece of your instrument.
Be careful not to lose anything! Ten years later it might be very difficult to find a replacement slide if the original got separated from the body of the horn during a move or spring cleaning. Find some way to store all of the parts so they stay together, no matter what happens in the intervening years.
If the case has a lock, don’t forget to tape the combination or key to the side of the case.
Put the instrument away somewhere high and dry so it is safe from flooding, leaks, and other exposure to water. If the case does get wet, immediately remove the instrument and fully dry everything out.
Then tuck your horn in and say goodnight (the hardest part).
Restoring a Brass Instrument to Playing Condition
Finally, that day has come! Ten years have passed, and grandpa’s old trumpet will once again see the light of day. It’s aliiiiiiiiiive!
Play a few notes. Gently test the levers and slides. If anything is stuck or sluggish, DO NOT FORCE IT. Just take it into your repair shop to have it looked at.
I repeat, DO NOT FORCE anything that does not want to move. We won’t name any names, but we’ve had customers do a lot of damage trying to use pliers to remove stuck mouthpieces or twist off a bell with the horn held between their knees. You don’t want to be the spooky horror story the repair technicians tell on Halloween night.
Give the instrument a thorough oiling according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If you aren’t sure what oil was originally used, completely wash the old stuff off and start again with a reputable brand. (Our repair shop uses Meinlschmidt.) Do not mix two or more types of lubricant together.
Toss the old string, bumpers, and cork and replace with new ones.
If particles of food got left behind inside the instrument, it might be smelling pretty foul. A bath in some warm water and baking soda should take care of that. If it doesn’t, take it in for an ultrasonic cleaning.
The interior of the case can also harbor smells. Freshen it up with baking soda and vinegar. Maybe carpet and upholstery cleaner, but spot-test that in an out-of-the-way spot first to make sure it doesn’t bleach the fabric.
With a little bit of luck, you’ve now got a fully functional horn! Time to boogie!