From The Director's Desk
Editorial Views and Opinions

Tales of Woe and/or Intrigue from Our Customer Files

Many of our customers are, like ourselves, regular listeners to the weekly National Public Radio program Car Talk, which is broadcast from the studios of WBUR just a few blocks from our workshop and carried by NPR affiliate stations throughout the country. Even listeners who have little interest in automotive repair and maintenance tune in regularly to listen to Tom and Ray Magliozzi, who refer to themselves as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers. Their own unique brand of irreverent humor and their interactions with listeners who call in with questions about their automobiles have made them national cult figures in the past few years. If you haven't ever heard this pair in action and have a sense of humor about things automotive and non-automotive, I suggest that you call your local public radio station and find out if Car Talk is being aired in your vicinity. [Editor's note: Car Talk went off the air in 2012 after a decades' long run, due to Tom's advancing Alzheimer's Disease; he passed away on November 3rd of 2014.]

One standard feature of Car Talk is the Department of Woe and/or Intrigue, where listeners call or write in to share some strange and unfortunate experience that they have recently had with their automobile. We here at Antique Sound Workshop have a similar department, since we regularly receive from our customers stories about their experiences and mishaps with historical instruments ranging from the humorous to the tragic. Some day I will have to find the time to write my memoirs and incorporate some of our customers’ tales into that volume. For the present, our readers will have to settle for this column, which centers on the care and maintenance of woodwind instruments and some of the mishaps that can and have befallen our customers.

For many years we have provided a detailed, four-page brochure care and maintenance brochure with every recorder and other woodwind instrument sold by our workshop. In this information bulletin we have tried to anticipate and answer fully any questions our customers might have about such issues as break-in procedures, windway clogging, cleaning after use, periodic maintenance (such as bore and keywork oiling), storage, tuning, voicing, as well as some general playing advice. The density of information in these four brief pages is considerable and needs to be digested in small doses; we recommend that our customers re-read this information from time to time.

Our brochure was originally intended as an antidote to the wealth of folk tales and misinformation then currently in circulation about instrument care. In the past decade, unfortunately; there seems to have been little progress made in the general level of public information as regards the care and feeding of historical woodwind instruments. We continually hear the same old half-truths and falsehoods being promulgated and recirculated, much in the manner of a social disease. New customers of our workshop always seem to be genuinely appreciative of our efforts to provide them with a source of authoritative and reasonably comprehensive information and help them sort out the frustratingly incomplete and sometimes contradictory information provided by instrument makers, teachers, and writers on these important topics. It has always been apparent, however, that our brochure, in spite of its considerable information density, is somewhat less than complete on some topics and totally silent on some others. Judging from the letters and telephone calls we receive relating sad tales of woe and intrigue, it would seem that some of our customers are indeed quite creative in coming up with new ways of inflicting unintentional harm on their valued instruments. This column is an attempt to convey some additional information about the care and maintenance of recorders and other historical woodwind instruments, along with suggestions for avoiding damage or loss, and includes some case studies by way of object lessons. Some of the issues discussed may seem painfully obvious, others more exotic; but all have been prompted by information provided by our customers in regard to mishaps or problems with their instruments.

Many instruments come to grief by being placed temporarily in a location where they are later inadvertently damaged. For example, I myself have learned by bitter experience that it is not a good idea to put one or several instruments on the floor by the side of one's chair, even while practicing alone. It is very easy to be distracted by a visitor or telephone call, only to step on an instrument while one’s attention is otherwise engaged. Similarly; it is also not advisable to place instruments on the floor at a rehearsal or concert, where they may be stepped upon or knocked over by one’s colleagues (or oneself) during a break. Judging by the number of instruments received by us for repair; these types of accidents can and do occur with depressing regularity.

It is almost equally unsafe to place an instrument on a chair or sofa, either at home or in a concert hall. One of our regular customers called, greatly embarrassed, to confess that she had left a prized recorder on a living room sofa, left the room briefly; and then later returned and sat down on the sofa and the recorder, inflicting considerable damage on the instrument and, quite possibly, herself as well. While I was able to mend the several huge cracks in the instrument so that they were almost completely invisible and restore the instrument to almost-new condition, such miracle cures are not always possible. Often the instrument must be declared a total loss, or else one or more joints must be replaced at great expense.

A further source of damage to instruments is the family pet. Visitors to our home workshop are well aware that we have an abundance of animals in residence and love them all dearly. However; the pet owner should anticipate the ways in which his or her animals can cause damage to one’s instruments. Not infrequently we receive a recorder headjoint which has been chewed up by a dog. It seems that some dogs are attracted by anything that has the scent of human saliva, and other dogs will chew anything made of wood. None of our ASW basset hounds, I am happy to relate, has ever devoured a recorder. Thorndike, however, when a puppy, developed an inexplicable taste for the horsehide glue used in the binding of several very old and rare books in our extensive library on musical instruments. Fortunately, he quickly outgrew this exotic and rather expensive taste in snacks and is now content to settle for the occasional milkbone treat in addition to his regular ration of kibble. The answer to canines with a taste for musical instruments or books, of course, is to keep the instruments off the floor and low shelves that fall within nose range.

High shelves are not always safe havens, however. A number of cat owners have had instruments knocked from high and otherwise safe places onto the floor by prowling felines who were presumably acting out Mitty-esque (or perhaps Kitty-esque) fantasies of being jungle cats.

Birds of the parrot family apparently love to gnaw on anything made of wood, including recorders. Several years ago, a customer informed us that his pet cockatoo (or was it a macaw?) had made short work of a recorder left lying on a shelf. If indulgent pet owners are not willing or able to discipline their animals and keep them from furniture, they should at the very least keep their instruments stored in cases or cabinets where they will be safe.

Automobiles are also a source of potential damage to musical instruments. Instruments should never be left either in the interior or the luggage storage compartments of cars, especially in extremely cold or hot weather. Below-freezing temperatures can cause woodwind instruments, particularly those made of very dense and inelastic woods such as grenadilla, to crack. Warm temperatures can cause instruments made of paraffin-impregnated softer hardwoods, such as maple, pearwood, and other fruit woods, to “bleed” wax into the windway, bore, and toneholes. It is rarely feasible to repair such instruments, as the time and cost of the repair would greatly exceed the value of the instrument. Instruments which are even slightly chilled by outside temperatures should be warmed up to room temperature slowly before being played, preferably by placing the instrument (or at least the headjoint in the case of a recorder) in an inside pocket where it will be warmed by body heat.

One further recommendation as regards automobiles: avoid placing an instrument case on the roof of the car while loading. Many customers have told us that they put a cherished instrument on the roof and then got in and drove off; forgetting that it was there. Sometimes the instrument slides off and is noticed immediately; with the result being only a banged-up hard case. In less fortunate uses, the instrument falls out of a poorly latched case and sustains considerable cosmetic and/or functional damage itself. In other cases, the instrument falls off unnoticed and is never recovered. In perhaps the saddest instances of all, the driver backs over the instrument and case, crushing both to splinters.

A few special words of advice for the peripatetic early music performer might be in order at this juncture. We strongly recommend that, if you wish to take instruments along on vacation trips, you leave your valuable wooden instruments at home and take several good quality plastic recorders, such as the Yamaha 300 series instruments, along with you instead. These are far less likely to be damaged by heat or cold or the excessive moisture and humidity to be found at some vacation spots and in the great out-of-doors. Furthermore, they are easily and inexpensively replaced if they become lost, strayed, or stolen.

We have always stressed the importance of acquiring good, substantial wooden uses in which to store and transport one’s woodwind instruments. The price of a wooden case may seem rather expensive, but it is in fact very cheap insurance indeed for one’s treasured instruments. A good case should be made of thin but strong plywood in order to withstand external forces, and should also be completely air-tight in order to prevent instruments from becoming dehydrated during periods of low ambient humidity.

It is an unfortunate fact that many if not most of the cases supplied by instrument makers are inadequate for one reason or another. The flannel-lined canvas bags supplied by many makers serve to protect the instrument from minor cosmetic damage, but are of little use in preventing more serious damage. Some so-called hard cases may appear to be relatively substantial but are in fact made of covered pressboard or cardboard and are simply too flimsy to withstand any kind of pressure or heavy blow.

Other cases, such as those supplied with Moeck recorders in recent years, are more substantial but are ventilated on the sides to allow the instrument to dry out. While such cases are perhaps desirable for maple, pearwood, or boxwood instruments which can develop fungus and woodrot in extremely humid climates, they are disastrous during dry winter periods for hardwood instruments, which are far more likely to suffer from dehydration.

Many American players have in recent years taken to carrying their instruments around in custom-made roll-up pouches which will accommodate several instruments. While these bags are often well- made, heavily padded, and handsome in appearance, they are in our experience not satisfactory for long-term instrument storage. Their padding is sufficient to avoid minor damages,but does not seem to be thick enough to prevent serious harm. Moreover, even though some of these bags are promoted as having a moisture barrier which will not only protect instruments from rain but also maintain humidity within the bag, this latter feature is largely wishful thinking on the part of the maker. We have experimented with such bags, placing both humidifiers and hygrometers within the bags for varying periods of time. It is our opinion that these bags do not retain moisture very well: the humidifiers run dry very quickly during winter weather; and instruments which are not played daily can become dehydrated very quickly.

A few months ago, a long-time customer of our workshop called to report that a fine hardwood bass recorder, which he had bought from us a number of years previously, had suddenly and inexplicably cracked. Since it is highly unlikely for a well-seasoned instrument to crack after the first year or so, we pursued the matter with him on the telephone and found that he had recently been transporting and storing the instrument in a custom roll-up bag instead of the perfectly adequate hard case that had been supplied with the instrument. The culprit, of course, was the bag, which did not retain sufficient moisture and caused the instrument to dry out, dehydrate, and eventually crack. Proper humidification of one’s recorders and other instruments should be a matter of great concern to every player.

Most early instrument players also become collectors, and it is only natural that a collector-player would wish to display his or her instruments on the wall or in a case or cabinet. Early instruments are not just efficient tools to produce music but also objects of considerable artistic and esthetic value as well. We at Antique Sound Workshop typically have several hundred display recorders hanging on the wall at any given time and very much enjoy being surrounded by so much visual beauty. However; we take considerable trouble to insure that all of the instruments in inventory are well-humidified during the winter months. We have three ultrasonic humidifiers running during the driest and coldest months, and constantly monitor the temperature and ambient relative humidity with the excellent and highly accurate Sundo thermometers and hygrometers which are listed in the accessories section of our ASW catalogue. We strongly urge those of our customers who wish to exhibit their instruments in their homes or have larger instruments, such as harpsichords and organs, which are not kept in cases, to provide adequate humidification of at least 50% at all times and monitor the humidity levels with accurate (not department store) hygrometers.

Yet another possible source of damage to a recorder is the wool swab which is provided by most manufacturers. While all wool swabs look vaguely the same, the fact is that these swabs very greatly in quality. Cheaper swabs have rough wire ends which can easily scratch the inside of an instrument or bore a hole into the face of the block. Teachers of recorder classes in music schools or classrooms should remind their students not to ram the swab all the way into the headjoint and against the block. Students and teachers should be aware that the purpose of the swab is not to dry out an instrument completely, but rather to simply spread the accumulated moisture uniformly around the bore so that the instrument dries out slowly and evenly. A gentle, spiralling twist of the swab through each joint is sufficient, and vigorous, athletic, back-and-forth movements should be avoided.

A few months ago we received a letter from the fine Swiss recorder maker H. C. Fehr stating that they would no longer provide swabs with their recorders as a matter of course; they will, however, include swabs on special request and at additional cost. They, like we, have also apparently encountered a high incidence of instruments damaged by careless cleaning and are now of the opinion that recorders are far less likely to be damaged by not being cleaned after use than by the overly zealous use of a wool swab. There is indeed a good deal of merit in using a clean piece of cloth on a plastic or wooden stick to wipe out a recorder after use, reserving the wool swab for occasional oiling of the bore.

In recent years, we have become increasingly aware that instruments can change, sometimes substantially, when they have been loaned by their owner to another player for even a brief period of time. During my teaching career, I frequently loaned instruments to students for concerts or recitals. I quickly learned, however, not to loan my good solo recorders to anyone, regardless of how careful they might be. The instruments never seemed to be quite the same, whether they were loaned for just a few days or an extended period of time. Many customers have reported similar experiences to us.

The reason, I suspect, has to do with the fact that, during the break-in process, the windway of a recorder not only becomes accustomed to the warmth and humidity of the player’s breath, but also becomes coated with a layer which stabilizes the voicing and causes the condensation to drain properly through the windway and not pool in or clog the air passage. When an instrument is played by another musician, the different chemical composition of the saliva disturbs the coating and changes the aerodynamics of the windway, causing the instrument to clog and/or respond differently.

This unfortunate occurrence is apparently not restricted to recorders or woodwind instruments. Many years ago, a friend who played horn in the Boston Symphony Orchestra told me that he would no longer loan instruments to his students for recitals, auditions, or other special occasions. In spite of the fact that the instruments were always returned in seemingy pristine condition with no dents or nicks, my colleague insisted that they never played or felt as well as they had before they were loaned and were never the same again. At the time, I thought it might be his imagination; but I now firmly believe that minute, unmeasurable changes in the saliva deposits in the mouthpipe were probably the source of the difference. I also suspect that the reason why the valves on Wagner tubas always seem to give more problems than those on horns is that the tubas are often loaned, rented, or passed around among many players, whereas a horn is usually played only by one player.

Some of the saddest tales of woe and intrigue that we hear are about stolen instruments. In the February 1990 issue of Chrestologia, we remarked on the desirability, if not the absolute necessity, of having one’s instruments adequately insured. Household insurance is rarely sufficient, and we have always strongly urged our customers to obtain insurance policies which specifically identify each instrument and state its current replacement value. So-called floater policies attached to one’s homeowner’s or apartment-dweller’s insurance are often a good and relatively inexpensive way to obtain musical instrument coverage, but the owner is well-advised to read all of the fine print very carefully and question the insurance agent as to precisely what kinds of damage or loss are covered and which are not. Policies can and do vary from one company to another. Needless to say, even full financial reimbursement for a damaged, lost, or stolen instrument is little recompense for the loss of a treasured, mature, well broken-in and cared-for instrument. The proverbial ounce of prevention is still the best cure.

Copyright, Antique Sound Workshop, Ltd., 1991. All rights reserved.

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