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Why & How to Clean Your Flute

A dirty flute isn't just a cosmetic issue. Any instrument, not properly cared for, will eventually have numerous problems. These might include:

  • A dirty flute won't play in tune as easily or consistently. And, it won't play with the best possible tone.
  • A dirty flute can be a bacterial feeding ground. More on that in a moment.
  • In extreme cases, dirt and build-up can lead to keys not functioning properly.

In today's blog post, let's take a look at each of these issues, and also how to prevent them.

Issue #1 - Playing In Tune

dirty broken fluteHow can dirt and other build-up affect the flute this way? Remember, "tone" is the root word of "intonation." Anything building up on the body of the instrument is going to prevent it from vibrating freely and playing with the best sound possible. Let's imagine a flute with dirt built up around the tone holes (marching band, anyone?). The flute is designed so that air can escape freely from the tone holes. Anything that changes the path or shape of this airflow is going to affect the tuning. It might just be for one or two notes. Or, depending on the location, it can affect EVERY note on the instrument.

Issue #2 - Health Concerns

broken flute partsLet's bring our marching band flutist inside for concert season. The weather is changing, and she develops a terrible cold. During lunch, she drinks a soda and eats a bag of chips. Right after lunch, she has rehearsal. She coughs and sneezes through the entire rehearsal, but makes it through class. In a rush to the next class, she tosses her flute in the case and doesn't open it until the next day.

Remember, anything you eat, drink, or breathe, will find its way into your flute. Sugar and food particles are major attractors for bacteria. The bacteria from our flutist's cold will grow inside the flute. Even if she gets better, the flute will continue to share the germs back with her again.

Issue #3 - Malfunctions

In extreme circumstances, heavy build-up can cause keys to not function easily, if at all.  The sugars and food particles from our flute player in the example above will stick to the pads, causing a gummy, sticky sound every time she plays. In fast passages (even slow, if build-up is severe), the keys may stick to the tone holes and not open fast enough to keep up. Dirt and food particles can even work their way onto the springs and into the spring posts, loosening the springs over time, causing them to fall out. Sounds like it's time for a trip to the Amro Repair Shop. Hope you had M&R to cover that re-pad job. And even if you did, you'd be without your instrument for a few days.

Preventing Issues

Of course, every instrument does pick up dirt, germs, and build-up, but its easy to handle the majority of that yourself, without needing a major cleaning and overhaul. Your best bet is with basic tools found in a Flute Care Kit. Here's what's in it, and how to use it:

care kit components

  • Swabs - Use with the flute cleaning rod found in your case. Pull them through the body and the foot joint of your flute to remove moisture.
  • Polishing Cloth - The easiest part. Simply wipe down the outside of each part of the flute when you're finished playing. This removes moisture and perspiration (which can corrode the keys and rods).
  • Brush - Use the brush to remove any dirt or particles from the rods and springs.
  • Pad Paper - If you hear a gummy sound from your keys, or your keys feel sticky and sluggish, place a sheet of this special paper between the tone hole and the key. Hold the key down gently, and pull the paper out. You might need to repeat this on the same key a couple times to remove all the gunk. Throw away the used sheet of pad paper.

Finishing Up

These simple steps are easy maintenance items you can and should do yourself. Regular basic cleaning of your flute will prolong the life of the pads and the playing condition or your instrument, meaning you can play it longer and trust it will respond better for you. If you find your flute is very dirty when you read this article, you might need to let the professionals at your local music store help restore your flute to its original condition. Then, you can take responsibility for preventative maintenance.

Good luck!

Posted by Ben Fonville at 6:00 AM
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