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Clean Your Horn!

Dr. Gary Wurtz
Associate Professor of Music
Stephen F. Austin State University

A few years ago a student of mine was struggling uncharacteristically during a lesson. After some discussion, I decided he might need to clean his instrument out. The discussion went like this:

Teacher: “Your sound is real stuffy. When’s the last time you cleaned your horn?”
Student: “Clean my horn? You’re supposed to clean your horn?”

When I attempted to look through the mouthpipe, I couldn’t see any light. He was a high school senior and had gotten the horn as a sixth grader.

You should have heard his sound ten minutes later…or better yet, his volume. He sounded like a foghorn. I’m surprised he had not given himself an aneurysm trying to blow through that horn. It turns out that blowing against all that resistance had really developed his ability to blow. From that time on the band director was constantly yelling at him to quit playing so loudly. The above story really happened. The names have not been used, and there was no one innocent to protect.

One of my former professors told me that twice in his life he has seen worms crawl out of a student’s instrument. Neither of those times was I the student, by the way.

Clean your horn! Nobody hates to clean a trumpet more than I do. Since I have a room full of them, it is truly an all day affair. I don’t do it often enough, but when I do, here is how I do it.

  1. Fill a bathtub with luke warm water. Don’t make it too hot. Add a little grease-cutting dish washing liquid. While the tub is filling, remove the valves from the instrument and lay them on a soft cloth somewhere. Except for the valves, everything else can go in the tub. Fill it enough that you can submerge the entire instrument.
  2. Take all of your slides out and lay them in the tub. Remove the bottom valve caps and put them in as well. For good measure, stick your mouthpiece(s) in there and wash them while you are at it. Let everything soak for a good thirty or forty-five minutes.
  3. Use a wire “snake” to scrub out the inside of all of your slides and the inside of the main instrument. I never push the snake through the valve casings, however. I consider them too fragile to mess with. I’ll address cleaning them a little later. When I have a slide that is especially cruddy on the inside, I either clean it out with a soap that contains pumice (Lava, for example,) or I stop one end with a cork and pour vinegar in it and let it sit there for about fifteen minutes. It might be safe to leave the vinegar in longer, but I’m afraid to try it. If you’re not certain of the safety of using vinegar, don’t use it. Use a mouthpiece brush to clean out the inside of the mouthpieces.
  4. Drain the tub, rinse all of the pieces of the horn with clean water (inside and out,) and lay them on a clean dry towel. Clean the tub with a good tub cleaner. By the time you’re done with it it’s going to be pretty nasty, and there will be a dark ring of oil and grease. I don’t know who in your life it will be, but someone is going to be upset with you if you leave the tub in that condition.
  5. Clean all of the slides with Brasso®. It only takes a small amount of it, but Brasso® can make all of your slides as clean as the day it was made. They are actually still brass colored under all of that muck. Wipe all of theBrasso residue off before proceeding.
  6. Use a valve cleaning tool to push a clean, dry, lint-free cloth through the valve casings until that are shiny and smooth. Be careful not to let the metal tool come in contact with the valve casings. You do not want to scratch them. If one of these tools is not available, I use an unsharpened pencil to guide my cleaning rag through the casings. I also use the pencil rig to clean out the inside of the bottom valve caps.
  7. Use a clean, dry, lint-free cloth to clean the valves. I use the eraser end of a pencil to push the cloth into all of the valve ports. It’s often stunning how much gunk comes out of them (especially the third valve ports, which are the ones closest to the mouthpipe.) Most of the stuff you get out of your horn is moldy food that has escaped your mouth, stuck to the inside of the horn, and sat there in a damp environment. That’s why it’s gray, and that’s why it stinks.
  8. Now that the inside of the instrument, the brass slides and the valves and valve casings are clean, it is time to lubricate and reassemble everything. I use a lot of valve oil when I first insert the valves. This is not the time to be cheap…pour it on. Watch out that a bunch of it doesn’t leak out on your clothes, although the oil-stained shirt and pants are almost my trademark at this point in my career. I rub the slides that need a lot of mobility (first and third) with an even, thin coat of Vaseline Petroleum Jelly® followed by a squirt of WD-40®. I first started doing this upon the recommendation of a horn repairmen for whom I have a great deal of respect. It truly makes the slides slick. You can use valve oil instead of the WD-40®, but it is not quite as effective. For the other slides (those I don’t want to slip out too easily…second valve, tuning slide, third valve water slide,) I use a thick slide grease like the Selmer® pink grease, or a similar product.
  9. For those of us with silver-plated instruments, the final step is to polish the silver plating with a commercial silver polish. For lacquer coated instruments it is possible to shine them up with a good furniture polish, believe it or not. Keep all cleaners and polishes, and their residues, away from the valves.

This is one way to get your trumpet back to “like new” condition. I’m sure others out there have their own way, and that’s fine. This is the way I do it, and it makes my horns play better without damaging them in the process. Realistically, this should probably happen about once a month, although I only do it about twice a year. So far, no worms!

Gary Wurtz has been the trumpet professor at SFA since the fall of 1992, and began his duties as Jazz Band director one year later. His other duties at SFA include directing the Trumpet Ensemble and performing in the Pineywoods Brass Quintet.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Texas School Music Project web site ( This site is sponsored and produced by the music faculty at Stephen F. Austin State University with the purpose of providing practical information for public school educators, students, and all interested musicians.