For some preliminary definitions please see this Introduction.

The Main Cause of Problems – Leaks!!!

When playing any woodwind instrument, the primary cause of problems are air leaks. The size and location of a leak can have anything from a minor to a catastrophic effect on the playability of the instrument. Multiple leaks compound the potential problems. A clarinet has 46 possible leak sites, a flute has 52 and a saxophone has 76 !

A new instrument is not necessarily perfect! Student instruments are designed to be affordable for the beginner and consequently use cheaper and less robust materials, cheaper production methods, with wider tolerances and lower quality control. Even professional instruments have to be produced to a budget and can have problems..

When an instrument has had all leaks eliminated and has been properly adjusted it is in peak condition and will ‘sing’ when played! However, from that point on there is a gradual deterioration which may not be noticed by the player because, subconsciously, they adjust their technique to compensate for minor problems. Over time, tiny leaks start to appear which gradually increase in size and quantity until the player can no longer compensate. They will begin to find it difficult to play certain notes and this leads them to think that the problem is confined to the area of the problem note(s). Unfortunately, this is not usually a localised problem but a symptom of an instrument in need of adjustment and/or repair. A thorough service will restore it once again to the point of peak performance at which stage the deterioration cycle will begin all over again.

Whilst the repairer could spend a short time on a ‘quick fix’ to address the symptoms, this would only reverse the deterioration process by a very limited degree and it would not be long before the instrument required further attention. Therefore …

Maintenance Plan

… to maintain an instrument in good playing condition the following plan is advisable.

Much the same as with a car, the lynchpin of maintaining a reliable, responsive instrument is regular servicing. The recommended service period is, of course, related to the annual ‘mileage’ of the instrument. How frequently is it played? For how long? In what sort of environment?

The other factor is how important is it to the player that the instrument is always working at its peak performance? A professional musician who relies on their instrument for a living will have very different criteria to a student!

A student quality instrument may not be played very frequently but also will not hold adjustments so well and may therefore require more frequent servicing. Conversely, a professional quality instrument may hold adjustments for longer but may be played more frequently, thereby imposing more wear and tear.


Consequently there are no hard and fast rules about the frequency of services, what follows are general ‘rules of thumb’.

  • SHORT SERVICE – recommended every 1-2 years. Its primary purpose is to rectify leaking pads and to adjust the timing of interrelated keys (the ‘regulation’). It is only necessary to partially disassemble the instrument for this.
  • FULL SERVICE – recommended every 3-4 years. Its primary purpose is the same as the short service but also to fully disassemble the instrument and to (functionally) clean and lubricate all moving/sealing parts.

In addition to regular (preventative) services (above), it is sometimes necessary for minor servicing work to be carried out, as follows. This may be because the instrument has been subjected to a knock and consequently has either been put out of adjustment; or new adjustment materials applied at the last service have undergone a degree of settling.

  • CHECK & ADJUST – this should be done between regular services if the instrument begins to exhibit minor problems. Its purpose is to bring the instrument back in to correct adjustment in order to restore it to playing order. This is also recommended for instruments less than one year old.


Occasionally, if an instrument has been neglected, then more serious repairs may be required.

  • RE-PAD – if an instrument has been regularly serviced then this should not be necessary. However, if it has been neglected, then it may be necessary to replace a large proportion of the pads and a full re-pad may be the most cost-effective option in the long term. It may be that the instrument has been fitted with a mixture of different pads over a number of services and this option may be selected for cosmetic improvement, particularly for re-sale. Some more discerning players like to re-fit their instrument using a specific type of pad/resonator. A RE-PAD is a good alternative to an overhaul on a lower quality instrument providing that it is otherwise mechanically sound.
  • OVERHAUL – this should be done very infrequently to older, professional quality instruments, to bring them back to optimal playing condition. Its purpose is to rectify all causes of leaks, some of which only begin to occur after many years of mechanical wear and tear. The procedure is not usually carried out on lower quality instruments as a better choice for the student or intermediate player is usually to trade up to a better quality instrument.

In addition to regular (preventative) services (above), it is sometimes necessary for minor repair work to be carried out, as follows. This is most likely because the instrument has been subjected to a knock and specific damage has been incurred.

  • PLAY CONDITION – this is simply to rectify any specific problems if the instrument becomes damaged and won’t play. Its purpose is to do the minimum necessary to make the instrument play satisfactorily again.

More detail

For more details of what gets done at each level of service/repair please see Servicing & Repairs.