Everyone can agree that playing our instrument is much more enjoyable than dealing with the maintenance needed to keep our horn in proper working order, but it’s a necessary evil. And if you think cleaning isn’t important, search for the article written by NPR of the trombone player who would get a very bad cough every time he played. Not only is it important for your health to clean your horn out, but it also keeps slides, rotors, and pistons moving quickly and smoothly so that your instrument is able to do what you want it to. This article won’t go into depth on HOW to clean your horn (there’s a PDF with instructions located on the bottom of our homepage) but will briefly give suggestions and advice on when and why you should do some much-needed maintenance.
It is recommended that you do a complete interior and exterior cleaning once or twice a year, which includes giving the whole instrument a bath, wiping slides, disassembling and cleaning the valves, reapplying oil and grease, and putting everything back together. Piston valves are easier to maintain than rotary valves, so unless you're very handy and know exactly what you’re doing, rotary valve instruments should probably be sent to your local technician when needed. You certainly don't want to break your instrument only to have to pay someone else to fix and clean it. Speaking from experience, it is much easier to take apart a rotary valve than it is to put one back together and have it still spin freely.
You should be cleaning your horn at home every few months, but you should also have your horn professionally cleaned by a qualified technician every year or two because the quality of the cleaning will greatly differ between what you can do at home and what a qualified technician will do. At home, you use soapy warm water for piston instruments and just warm water for rotary valve instruments. A qualified technician will most likely either give the horn a chem-clean, which uses chemicals to break down anything built up throughout the horn, or a sonic clean that uses less harsh water-based chemicals and sonic vibration to break apart debris. They might throw in some polishing and dent removal too! If you want to stay out of the news for contracting lung disease from playing a dirty instrument, clean and have your horn cleaned every now and then.
Apart from full cleanings, there is some regular maintenance that needs to happen for your horn to operate properly as well, and can be done on your own for the most part. Basically, all the moving parts need to be wiped off and re-oil or greased regularly. Piston valves should be oiled every few days or when you feel that they aren’t moving as quickly or smoothly as you think they should, and rotary valves should be oiled once a week or so, again when they aren’t moving quickly or smoothly. Valve slides should be wiped off and re-greased once a month, and should be moved every time you pick up the horn to prevent them from getting “stuck.” If a slide does get stuck, you have a choice to make: how hard do you pull on it to try and get it to move without twisting or breaking some metal and then have to pay a technician a lot of money to fix or replace the part. My suggestion is to always err on the side of caution. I’d much rather pay a technician a couple bucks to use a small torch and/or liquid wrench to get the slide un-stuck in a couple minutes than pay a lot more for a part and have to wait for it to get delivered.
All of this sure sounds like a lot of work, but it’s something you have to do so that you can keep playing your horn well. My advice is to make a maintenance schedule and space it all out so you don’t have to do it all at once. And once again, err on the side of caution. If you are unsure of how to do something, let a qualified technician do it or show you how for in the future, because it’s always easier to do something right the first time instead of having to go through fixing what should have been easy to deal with in the first place.
Do the maintenance so you can keep playing!