Brass Instrument Repairs

While most musical instrument mishaps can be prevented with a little care and maintenance, occasionally things happen. Luckily, many minor repairs can be performed very successfully by the school music teacher. In this post I have compiled several useful articles and ‘how-to’ videos that I hope will help any teacher to quickly and easily find good instructions (or a refresher) for most common brass instrument repairs.

Rule #1: Neither student nor ‘handy’ parent should ever try to do any repairs themselves. Teach the student how to keep their instrument well adjusted, and periodically check all screws and other moving parts. Make sure students keep all slides and/or valves well lubricated, and generally treat their instrument carefully.

Rule #2: Don’t try to be a hero. If you are uncomfortable performing any repair, enlist the services of a qualified repair technician.

Vibrations or rattling sounds

  • Tighten all screws (3rd valve slide, lyre holder, water key, etc.) and valve parts (caps, buttons, etc.).
  • Check for loose braces or other soldered joints (these will require a repair technician).

Mouthpiece

Stuck mouthpiece

  • Do not use pliers. Do not try to twist the mouthpiece out forcefully. Pull out straight using a mouthpiece puller.
  • Instructional video

Dented mouthpiece shank

Water Key (Spit Valve)

Missing or worn-out water key cork and/or spring

  • Symptom: often the cause of an airy sound.
  • Tools: precision screwdrivers, pliers, wire cutter (optional: glue, lighter)
  • Instructional video
  • Optional: How to make your own cork in a pinch

Valves

Loosening stuck valve caps, stuck slides and seized valves

  • Tools: Plastic hammer or rawhide mallet; penetrating oil. Do not use pliers.
  • Put a few drops of penetrating oil into the joints and let sit. If necessary, a few very light glancing blows with a plastic/rawhide hammer will help break up any mineral deposits.
  • Instructional videos:

Piston valves misaligned or mixed up

  • Symptoms: the instrument is stuffy, or air won’t pass through at all.
  • Instructional videos:
  • Vertical alignment: replace worn-out felts with proper thickness. Port alignment can be checked with a valve piston/port inspection mirror.
  • Spring tension: If a valve feels ‘soft’ and doesn’t spring back quickly after being released, the spring may be worn out and need to be replaced. It is possible to get a little more life out of a spring by adjusting its tension.

Replacing strings on rotary valves

  • Tools: precision screwdrivers, scissors, 50-lb test fishing line.
  • Instructional video
  • Instructional diagram 1 (includes port alignment diagram)
  • Instructional diagram 2

Rotary valve port alignment

  • Replace worn bumpers (stops) on rotary valves if:
    • valves are noisy because bumpers have hardened; or
    • notch marks inside valve cap are misaligned.
  • Tools: Screwdriver; X-Acto knife or razor (to trim bumper to correct thickness).
  • Instructional video and additional information

Removing rotary valves

  • Rotary valves may need to be disassembled if:
    • they need to be cleaned well, especially if they sound scratchy or gritty; or
    • the valve action is slow and sluggish even when well-oiled; or
    • they need to be realigned, and simply adjusting the bumpers isn’t enough.
  • Instructional videos: part 1 and part 2

Repairs best left for a repair technician

  • Any of the above procedures if having trouble
  • Loosening stubborn stuck slides and seized valves
  • Removing dents
  • Soldering loose joints or braces
  • Trombone slide is misaligned or ‘sprung’

I hope you find this post helpful. If any of the above links are outdated and no longer work, please let me know, and I’ll update them.

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Brass Teaching Materials

Over the years I’ve created a few handouts on brass instrument techniques: warm-ups, drills, exercises, etc. Some of these are geared towards younger students (beginner & intermediate), which school music teachers have found useful; and some are for more advanced players, which I’ve used with university students. All of the beginner/intermediate exercises are also applicable to advanced students; the basic concepts can simply be expanded or adapted.

One of my goals was to fit the content for each topic into one page only; as a result, there is a lot of information packed into some of these. The student will benefit the most from:

  • reading the instructions;
  • learning and understanding the concepts;
  • being creative in applying these concepts to:
    • develop their own exercises/patterns;
    • develop a daily routine that progresses in a logical sequence.

I’m making these PDFs available here as a free resource; please help yourself and photocopy as needed for your students. Let me know in the comments what you find useful, or if there is anything else in particular that you would like to see added. I will periodically add new materials as they are created, so feel free to bookmark this page and visit again!

Printing tip: These PDFs are formatted in US Letter size (8.5 X 11). For best printing results, make sure scaling is set to 100%. Do NOT choose your printer’s “Scale to fit” option.

Beginner/Intermediate:

Intermediate/Advanced:

Advanced:

Information for Teachers:

Fingering Charts:

Without question, chromatic fingering (or slide position) charts are the best for beginners, in terms of being able to find notes (and the most common fingerings) quickly and easily. However, fingering charts that show the notes in the harmonic series (i.e., all the notes for a particular fingering), are useful as well; they help students understand the construction of the instrument, and also show any alternate fingerings available. Mine are set up vertically – each column shows all the notes in the harmonic series for each fingering – with the low notes at the bottom, which is visually intuitive.

Scale Sheets:

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Discovering Takashi Yoshimatsu

I have a friend who, when he played percussion in the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, sent me a CD (Chandos 9960) of works by the Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu. It contains his Symphony No. 4, Atom Hearts Club Suite No. 1, and Trombone Concerto ‘Orion Machine’ (performed by Ian Bousfield). I already had a different recording of the Trombone Concerto (Camerata 30CM-354), excellently played by Yoshiki Hakoyama, so it was nice to compare the two performances. And I just love the Symphony No. 4. Yoshimatsu’s works are tonal, neo-romantic, and inspired by elements of nature, both earthly and celestial. He is also influenced by jazz and popular music, which are often juxtaposed with more traditional classical influences. His Atom Hearts Club Suite is a good example of this:

The suite combines elements from four sources: The Beatles’ masterpiece Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which draws on all kinds of music, from classic to rock; Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus, a great progressive-rock work of the 1970s; Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother; and Fragile by Yes. These have then been shaken using the 100,000 horsepower of Osamu Tezuka’s comic-book hero Mighty Atom (a.k.a. Astro Boy). There are four movements: the first is a progressive-rock-style Allegro molto in irregular time, the second a mysterious Andante in ballad style, the third a paramour’s Scherzo, while the fourth rounds the suite off in slapstick boogie-woogie style. – Takashi Yoshimatsu

Not every composer who tries this is successful – it can sound contrived and, well, cheesy. Although Yoshimatsu’s works aren’t completely dairy-free, there are many moments where his stylistic amalgamations work quite well, and the Symphony No. 4 is one very tasteful example – I absolutely love it.

If you haven’t heard Yoshimatsu’s music, I encourage you to check it out.

CHAN 9960

 

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Blow-air-o: Practice Strategies for the trombone solo in Ravel’s Bolero

The trombone solo from Ravel’s Bolero is one of the most challenging excerpts in the entire orchestral repertoire, and one of the few excerpts that is required on every single orchestral trombone audition. This solo passage, lasting just 17 measures (see Figure 1), is notable for its high tessitura, especially the repeated high D-flat in measures 5 and 6. More than just being able to hit the notes, the trombonist must be able to play this passage with precision, delicacy and style.

Figure 1. The solo trombone passage from Ravel’s Bolero:

Bolero Complete

The practice and successful performance of this excerpt requires the efficient use of breath and physical gestures, and mental quietness. Because this passage begins well into the piece (after about 7 minutes of waiting) and starts on a high B-flat, the trombonist can be susceptible to an undesirable degree of physical tension that accompanies mental uncertainty or anxiety. This can be mitigated by effective preparation. To this end, I suggest several methods for practicing this excerpt that allow the performer to target different sections in a variety of ways that focus on specfic technical and musical elements.

Octave Transfer

To begin the passage with confidence, first establish good tone production on an easy note, such as the B-flat one octave lower. Play the most beautiful middle B-flat ever heard, striving for a tone colour appropriate for the character of the work. Then, while keeping the embouchure set for a middle B-flat – indeed, without changing anything other than the tongue level – play the high B-flat just as beautifully (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Exercise to establish good tone production on beginning note:

Bb repeated

This concept can be applied to the first 8 measures in sections. To begin, try the first measure alone, followed by the first phrase up to the E in measure 4 (see Figure 3). Then isolate the next section, measures 4-8, and finally measures 1-8 together. It is important that all practiced elements, including the lower octave, be played with the same character and style that one would use in performance.

Figure 3. Measures 1-4 one octave lower:

Ms 1-4 8vb

Chunking and Looping

There is benefit to isolating certain figures and repeating them, for the purpose of reinforcing the technical and musical gestures. For example, create a pattern by playing the opening four beats and repeating back to the beginning (see Figure 4). This type of pattern repetition (or looping) will help the performer work on the first measure without always having to begin “cold”, and allows some repetition of the glissando between beats 4 and 5. It may be helpful to conceive of this particular pattern in 4/4.

Figure 4. Isolating and looping the first 4 beats:

opening bar repeated

Subdivision

It is very important to play this excerpt with rhythmic accuracy. There are several instances where a note is tied into the downbeat, and the next articulated note comes on the 2nd sixteenth-note or the 2nd eighth-note of the beat (see measures 1, 3, 5, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 16 in Figure 1). This type of figure can be problematic; many performers are often late coming off of the tied note, especially on a sixteenth note. Practicing the passages with 16th note subdivisions is a very useful tool for ensuring their rhythmic accuracy, and provides a good foundation for the eventual mental subdivision required in performance (see Figure 5). This strategy can be applied equally well to measures 9-17 (leaving the single triplet figure in measure 10 intact – see Figure 6). Remember to keep the tongue light, and the slide arm relaxed and efficient.

Figure 5. Measures 1-4 subdivided:

Ms 1-4 subdivided

Figure 6. Measures 9-17 subdivided:

Ms 9-16 subdivided

Glissando

While trombonists normally strive to avoid glissandi when they play, the technique can be used as a practice tool to establish good air flow, to open up the sound, and to work on smooth connections between notes. Play measures 9-17, for example, tonguing only the first note after each breath, allowing glissandi to occur (along with natural slurs), with the goal of keeping the air flowing continuously, without pulsation, through the phrase. This air pattern becomes a model which is then applied to the passage, played again using normal tonguing. The performer should find that the passage has become easier after having established a more efficient air flow when using the glissando.

This method can also be used to improve slide technique. Again, without tonguing, allow the glissandi to occur, but with the goal of minimizing its effect through fast slide action. This establishes a more rhythmic impulse to the slide arm by shifting the responsibility for rhythmic integrity away from the tongue. After having reinforced the importance of a rhythmic slide, the passage should be noticeably cleaner when repeated with normal tonguing.

Expanding the limits

As previously mentioned, the high tessitura of this passage is one of the biggest challenges for the trombonist. A very effective technique for mastering any skill is to expand one’s limits. If a performer has practiced skills that go beyond what is normally required, than the required skills become much easier. With this in mind, try playing the opening 8 measures one semitone higher, one wholetone higher, etc. (see Figure 7). Regardless of the outcome, returning to the actual pitches is guaranteed to seem easier!

Figure 7. Measures 1-8 one tone higher:

Ms 1-8 tone higher

The practice techniques described above will help the trombonist better prepare the Bolero solo for performance or audition. With imagination, these (and many other) techniques can be applied to the practice of any other piece of music. Effective practicing is intelligent practicing. Haphazard or non-directed practicing reinforces undesirable habits. By devising thoughtful practice methods that target specific concepts or techniques, the performer can make efficient use of practice time, establish good habits, and derive great satisfaction from making music!

Recommended Reading

de Alcantara, Pedro. 1997. Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Sorensen

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Green tip: Make your own foam soap (and save $!)

When choosing hand soap for a family with kids, foam soap is the way to go. Bar soap makes a slimy, gunky mess of the soap dish, while liquid soap seems to trail a stringy mess all over the dispenser and the sink. With foam soap, you get the right amount of lather in the palm of your hand with one pump of the dispenser; no drips, no gunk.

The problem with foam soap, however, is that a bottle doesn’t last long – about one week in our house. And at $3/bottle, the expense adds up, and means a lot of bottles tossed in the recycle bin.

Buying eco-pak refills is a good option, both economically and environmentally, allowing you to re-use a single dispenser that you fill as needed from the eco-pak (1 eco-pak refill will provide about 3 bottles of soap). But, there’s an even better option. You may know foam soap’s fancy sounding main ingredient aqua by its more common name: water. This got me thinking: how much actual soap is in there, and could I make my own by diluting regular liquid soap with water? After some experimenting, I discovered that it actually takes very little liquid soap to make a batch of foam soap, and it works quite well! Here’s the simple recipe I use for a 300 ml container:

First, you will need a special foam soap dispenser (which aerates the soap, making it foam). You can buy this on its own, or you can just buy a bottle of foam soap and reuse the container once it’s empty.

Add 40 ml of liquid soap to the empty dispenser (notice in the photo below how little soap is needed). To avoid bubbling, gently top up with water (260 ml), cap it, and then shake to mix. There, you’re done. Tip: warm water dissolves the soap faster.

It takes very little soap to make a batch of foam soap.

It takes very little soap to make a batch of foam soap.

Our soap of choice is the BioLife liquid hand soap 1-litre (1000 ml) eco-pak, available at Shoppers Drug Mart for $6.99 (but any liquid hand soap will do). Using 40 ml for one recipe, that’s 25 bottles of foam soap from 1 eco-pak. Compare that with buying 25 bottles of foam soap at $3 each – that’s $75!! (not to mention 25 bottles in the recycle bin).

1 refill = 25 bottles.

1 refill = 25 bottles.

In our house – a family of 4, with fairly regular hand-washing (I also use it as my shaving cream!) – the eco-pak lasts about half a year. Good for the wallet and good for the environment!

– Saving the Earth one soap at a time.

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Call for scores – The Canadian Trombone Project

Are you a Canadian composer who has written for solo trombone (with any accompaniment), trombone ensemble, or chamber ensemble featuring the trombone? If so, I would like to include information about your work in my Canadian Trombone Project – an internet database that will increase the exposure of your music for trombone! This will be an indispensable resource that allows performers, educators and students to discover and learn about any work in the Canadian trombone repertoire, which will result in more frequent performances of this music, and perhaps even stimulate the composition of new works.

Make sure your work is included!

Eligibility: Any Canadian citizen (by birth or naturalization), or permanent resident (i.e., landed immigrant).

Contact: Please provide information via the submission form here:
www.islandtrombone.com/submitwork.html
or send information and/or scores by email to dale[at]islandtrombone[dot]com.

Even if you think I probably know about your work already, please contact me anyway. I would like to have your contact information if I need more details.

Additional information: This project is an extension of my research for the DMA program in performance at the University of Toronto, where my dissertation will be an annotated bibliography of Canadian solo trombone music. This resource is being created in conjunction with a searchable internet database that will be continually updated to include recently composed and discovered solo, chamber and ensemble works for trombone. I am hoping to find every Canadian trombone piece ever composed! For more information, please visit www.islandtrombone.com.

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Dear Grammie (a letter inspired by the Charlottetown Festival Orchestra cuts)

Dear Grammie,

Hope you’re enjoying the Holidays! The celebrations must be incredible where you are.

I know it’s only been a week since I last wrote, but a lot has happened since then. I’m sure you’ve been following all the news over the proposed cuts to the orchestra at the Charlottetown Festival. We’re not sure yet who is going to be cut. I guess it depends on the directions the orchestrator is given. Our worry is that it could affect more than just six of us. Rather than being told to cut six specific instruments, the orchestrator may simply be instructed to create an orchestration for 13, in which case he could just as easily write for a completely different set of instruments. There is talk of using electronic keyboards; I know that would drive you crazy! Anyway, we’re going to try not to let the stress of this news interfere with our enjoyment of the Holidays. The Christmas show must go on!

The whole thing has gotten me thinking, reminiscing about when I first started playing the trombone. I remember practicing in the living room while you were reading. I could always tell when you pretended to keep reading, but weren’t really paying any attention to your book. I especially remember when I played “Pomp and Circumstance” how your eyes would well up with tears. I never did get around to asking what it was about the music that moved you so. Although I couldn’t have explained it then, I realize now that your response was my introduction to the emotional power of music. It’s something that has stuck with me ever since, something I experience every time I perform, or when I listen to music myself.

Just last week I played a concert for some school kids. You wouldn’t believe the cheers after every piece. After it was over they swarmed the stage, asking for our autographs. One boy even wanted me to sign his sneaker! Ha ha, that reminds me of one time when I left through the stage door after an Anne performance, and this sweet little girl asked me for my autograph. Her mom said, “Oh, he’s just a musician.” Can you believe it?! The girl wanted my autograph anyway, but her mom dragged her off in search of bigger fish. It’s such a shame that some people grow up and forget how to feel the magic of music.

Anyway, our kids have certainly been bitten by the music bug. I can’t remember if I already told you that Alexandra started playing violin this year, and is still singing up a storm. Bailey’s been asking for a guitar for Christmas, and he has recently learned to whistle (and does it non-stop!). You should hear him! Alex and I went to hear the Toronto Symphony together. The sound of their 80-piece orchestra sent chills up my spine. Alex got so caught up in the music that I had to tap her arm because I was afraid her physical rapture would disturb some of the other patrons! I love seeing the joy music brings to their lives. They are aware of what’s going on with the Charlottetown Festival, and understand, but we are trying to shield them from the fallout as much as we can. Such sweet kids; I wish they could have known you.

Grammie, every day I remember your words encouraging me to follow my dreams, no matter what obstacles get thrown in my path. Every hurdle I face makes me more determined to live up to those inspirational words.

Here’s hoping you have the best Christmas ever! We miss you so much.

Love,
Dale

P.S. I don’t know how it works up there, but if you happen to know Norman Campbell, please tell him we’re doing our best to look out for him and his music. He must be going crazy looking down at all this nonsense, but at the same time he must also be overwhelmed by how many people have spoken up in support of protecting the legacy of his music. Please give him my best.

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