Not too many saxophonists live in the rain forest. You can imagine why: sticky pads and nowhere to buy reeds. Even if Long & McQuade were to set up shop, the moisture in the air would still be a problem. For your pads, of course. Your complexion, on the other hand, would rejoice in all its dewy plumpness.
When it comes to pads, moisture does more bad than good. But there are solutions. It is easy to keep the pads on your saxophone in good shape.
Disappointed Student: “I thought we were going to work on ‘The Pink Panther’ today.”
Reassuring Teacher: “Oh we will. AFTER we discuss pad maintenance.”
Candid Student: “Honestly—I just don’t care about the pads. I would rather play.”
Resolved Teacher: “Yup. You, me and the bumblebee, amigo. I prefer playing too. But the sound of sticky pads is close to dripping water torture for both player and listener. Plus, if the problem gets really bad, you won’t be playing at all. Your saxophone will be forced to take an unscheduled vacation at the repair shop. And that costs money.”
Blunt Student: “I have an account with the Bank of Dad.”
Amused Teacher: “I see. Would you be interested in some ancient wisdom?”
Sour Student: “Not really.”
Persistent Teacher: “Too-bad-so-sad, because I am going to give it to you anyway.”
“Don’t spend other people’s money.”
Resigned Student: “Yeah. OK.”
Grinning Teacher: “I love it when you see things my way! But your acquiescence is hardly a surprise, given that your are so smart and open-minded.”
Placated Student: “You are trying to placate me.”
Honest Teacher: “Yes. Is it working?”
Smiling Student: “Do I really have a choice in this answer?”
Impressed Teacher: “Your mental reasoning is first-class. And you are absolutely right. I am fishing for a willing attitude. Please say yes!”
Laughing Student: “YES!”
When you push a pearl down with your finger, you are closing a key. The pearl is attached to a brass circle which is attached to a brass arm. This arm is attached to a central rod that swivels, allowing the key to open and close. The part we are discussing today is the material underneath the brass circle known as the pad. It is soft and squishy and feels like skin. Rub your finger over the surface; it should feel smooth—like your flawless complexion. If your instrument is out-of-the-box (translation: new) or fresh from a cleaning, the pads
will should be in optimal condition.
Here are three ways to keep the pads clean.
Before you begin playing, lift the G-sharp, D-sharp and low C-sharp keys, in that order.
While in the case, your saxophone’s G-sharp, D-sharp and C-sharp keys lie shut.
(That is A-flat, E-flat and D-flat for all the flat people out there. Pop or soda? Sofa or couch? Sharps or flats? Unofficial statistics in my studio suggest a 50:50 split. Half of us prefer flats to sharps, with the obvious exceptions of F-sharp and B-flat.)
Before playing, gently pry or lift each pad up with your fingers, loosening or releasing it from its position. G-sharp, D-sharp and C-sharp key pads easily stick or adhere to the perimeter of the tone hole. This happens if the pad was even the tiniest bit wet or moist when the saxophone was put back into the case.
If you do not do this, the first time you use the G-sharp, D-sharp or C-sharp keys, you may accidentally rip off one of the pads. Your fingers, sensing resistance—it often feels as though the key is glued shut—push too hard. The force of this motion pulls the pad off of its mount. The pad will have to be re-adhered or replaced.
You may notice that when you lift up the C-sharp key, the G-sharp key opens up at the same time. Releasing the sensitive G-sharp pad first (with your fingers, at the source) avoids the possibility of ripping this pad off when the C-sharp key is released.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to avoid moisture around the pad in the first place? Bien sûr! Which brings me to point number two…
Pull the cleaning swab through the body of the instrument before you put your saxophone back in the case.
After playing, you may notice that the inside of your instrument is wet. Eww. Gross. How did that happen? There is moisture in the breath and repeatedly blowing into your horn causes condensation. Put it this way: At least it is yours. That should lessen the yuck factor. Still, as we know, moisture, any moisture, is bad for the pads. Moisture joined to dust and dirt particles can leave a gooey, sticky residue. Avoid build-up; use a pull-through swab.
Unhook the saxophone from your neck strap. Set the mouthpiece and neck aside. Sit or stand. You need both hands to do this safely.
If you sense there is an abundance of liquid sloshing around the base of your instrument (at the bottom of the J) you may want to tip this out first. Faites attention! You can flip the instrument upside down, but do not turn the bell away from your body. The saxophone is a parabolic cone, and this shape ensures that all that lovely, lovely liquid will spiral back onto your clothes. As you flip the saxophone upside down, curl the bell toward your body. Marvellously, the contents will pour away from you, protecting your pants and your dignity.
The pull-through swab is the small rectangle of cloth with a long string attached. The cloth can be made of felt, chamois, silk or micro-fibre. There is a weight at the end of the string. At the point where the string is attached to the cloth, there is a circle. This can be made of foam or synthetic bristles. Sometimes there is a bead in the centre of the circle. Together, these parts looks like a flower. This is an important component. When you pull the swab through the body of your instrument, the flower-like circle will force the material to fan out so that it brushes or pushes against the interior of the bore. In this way, the absorbent material is able to capture as much moisture as possible.
Gather or wrap the material around the flower, holding this package tight in one hand. With the other hand, drop the weight into the top of the body. Gently stuff the swab into the top of the saxophone. Reach into the bell and take hold of the weight. SLOWLY pull the cleaning swab through the body. Do this TWICE if not THRICE! Check the interior to ensure it feels dry to the touch.
It is very possible to use your pull-through swab to no effect. Whipping it through at warp speed is useless. Be a smart turtle: Slow and steady wins the race.
Clean sticky pads with paper money.
Even when you are a judicious user of the pull-through swab, the fight against moisture is an ongoing concern. The easiest way to clean the inevitable tackiness off the pads is with paper money. And, as Canadians, we are lucky. We have the perfect product for the job.
Yes, it is true, paper money is less common since polymer banknotes have come into circulation. The new bills are too smooth. Initially, I was concerned. I kept a stash of old-school Canadian money to ensure I could keep cleaning pads as need be. The strong, abrasive and tactile surface of paper money was ideal.
Quite pleasantly I realized that hoarding old paper money is totally unnecessary as long as you occasionally shop at Canadian Tire. Run your fingers over one of their multi-coloured bills—it’s practically sandpaper! Just the right amount of grittiness to clean the pads on your saxophone.
Fold your CT money in half, at least twice. Slip this rectangle of paper underneath the pad. Depress the key on top of the paper. Hold the brass circle down with some force. Gently wiggle the paper out from under the pad to dislodge any built-up gunk. Do this several times, at different angles to ensure the entire surface of the pad gets tidied up.
Realistic Student: “Look, I don’t shop at Canadian Tire. Ever.”
Understanding Teacher: “Of course you don’t. But there might be someone in your family that does. He might show up there on weekends, just to prowl the aisles. I heard he is also the CEO of a very important bank.”
Grinning Student: “The Bank of Dad!”
Smiling Teacher: “I am sure he would be happy to provide you with all the CDN Tire money your heart desires!”