When I was in high school we had the ‘drum closet’.
The ‘drum closet’ was a blackhole where the percussionists liked to hide, but it was also a house for outdated marching band uniform ruins, the marching percussion equipment, and the district’s unused loaner instruments. The ‘drum closet’ was a treasure trove of unused instruments, but it was ungodly hot. Our band room didn’t have AC, so why would the drum closet get such a luxury?
Brass instruments can fair pretty well under those conditions: being locked away for years on end, in the heat and freezing cold; most likely never properly cleaned by their former musicians. I had the privilege in high school of cleaning this ‘drum closet’ to do instrument inventory… I took home a euphonium one holiday break to practice and cleaning the thing- I’ll spare you the gruesome details of what I found inside, but I will tell you whoever played this instrument (which, by the looks of it, must have been at least a decade prior) did not like to rise out their mouth after lunch.
Woodwinds, in contrast, are high maintenance – they have springs/rods, pads, cork… all things that require annual upkeep lest you want to spent an unthinkable amount of money to either replace the instruments beyond repair or make a sad attempt to salvage a horn that has already phoned it in. I will make the argument that at the student-instrument level the flute is the most high maintenance of the woodwind family (only being rivaled by the oboe and bassoon). Most student-clarinets are made of some blend of plastic material, the cork is used to connect the joints which can withstand a little chipping and not impact the instrument’s ability to produce sound, the felt pads are sturdy enough; which leaves only the spring/rods to be the main thing to breakdown from wear-and-tear. And saxophones are the instrument equivalent to cockroaches and could probably withstand a nuclear explosion.
Things to consider about student-flutes:
- The cork in the head joint should NEVER be exposed to water. It impacts tuning and can form mold if not replaced or cared for properly. (And for the love of Sir James Galway, do not let your band students play a flute that is missing a crown… and then replace the crown with the color guard’s electrical tape, I speak from experience it does not work).
- They rods and springs are extremely fragile. The mechanism on the body is much more small and thin than on the clarinet and the soft metal of the student flutes can easily get damaged if a student grips too tight; knocks the flute on a chair, stand, etc; or tries to mess around with the screws.
- Temperature matters… this applies to the other woodwinds as well. But the metal of the flute – as well as other factors – can make the effects of climate more detrimental to the longevity of the pads.
Speaking of temperature effects, the silver plating on flutes will start pitting if not regularly cleaned and maintained. To my knowledge there is no DIY solution to pitting, once that happens it is either replace the flute or have a magical bag of money drop into your repair account and send the instrument out for service.
Alright, we’re through all the perils of up-keeping a flute so how do you actually protect your precious flutes?
During the school year: It depends on your inventory and how many students are actively in the program.
Some districts have only a few spare instruments that rarely get used unless a kid forgets their instrument while other districts are reliant on loaner instruments because the families would not be able to rent a quality instrument.
- If you have instruments that are rarely used, make sure you leave them in a space where the temperature can be regulated. Maybe that’s in the back of your office or in the back of the classroom, every school is different. You want to avoid leaving them in an area that fluctuates extreme temperatures or is exposed to extreme temperatures.
- Try to rotate instruments. Make sure you’re not letting instruments sit unused. If your program is small, consider having a bright, motivated student become a doubler – that way the instrument is still being used.
- If you are in a district that is reliant on school instruments, have a cleaning contract that makes the students aware of how to properly clean the flute. See the next bullet.
During the school year: Cleaning and maintaining instruments when in use.
- A cleaning contract for students who are loaning out instruments can be a massive help to saving money in the repair budget. Be proactive, don’t let it sneak up on you! So what should go on a cleaning contract?
When summer break hits: Immediately do instrument inventory and assessment
Don’t let those instruments just sit there in your hot band room or storage closet to fester. As students are bring instruments back to you after graduation ceremonies or after the final concert, use those final days of school to take stock and see what the status of instruments is.
- What needs to be sent off for repairs urgently? What can wait?
- Find out who is taking instruments home over the summer or for marching band, and do a quick check in on the instrument. (Trade in is necessary!)
- Be realistic (not always equal to optimistic), if you have an instrument on its last legs think about the frustration it will cause you next school year. Yes it looks like a flute, but does it sound like one? Especially in the hands of an intermediate student.
Summer break: Alternative storage solutions
In a perfect world, there would be reliable temperature control in public schools at the band director’s disposal. While you may be able to store your percussion and brass equipment in these conditions, communicate with your school and B.O.E. to consider your options for more fragile instruments.
- Is there a room in the school (or another school in the district) that will have regulated temperature? Is this room secure or does it get a lot of visitors and foot traffic?
- Could the instruments be stored in the school office or in the B.O.E. building for a short period?
- As a last resort: Is there an option to take the instruments home?
What kind of solutions have you been using to storage instruments? Share your success or horror stories in the comments!