Acclimating to Your Horn

Even after 43 years of repairing wind instruments, I continue to be reminded of subtle details of playing these instruments. Today I am addressing woodwind instruments and specifically saxophones because I have had so many sax repad jobs come into my shop in a very short period of time. Plus, I have recently repadded my personal saxes during this onslaught of sax repadding. Time and time again I notice how your, or my, playing changes as our horns age or more precisely as the pads age or maybe as we both age. These changes occur so gradually that you don’t notice anything different from one gig to the other.

First, let’s look more closely at a pad and we’ll dissect it to see what we’re dealing with. This is the part of a pad that you mostly see, the leather.



Here is the pad you saw above simply cut in half.



A pad consists of a cardboard back (R), a felt disk on top of that (C) then those two are covered or wrapped with a layer of leather (L).



The deterioration of the pads starts when you blow into your sax. The warm air you blow into the horn is filled with moisture or water vapor. As the warm air cools it loses the ability to hold the water vapor consequently, the vapor condenses and forms water droplets on the inside of your horn and on your pads. Every time you play your horn this process occurs. After the leather covering of the pads get wet and dries out, repeatedly, it eventually causes the leather to lose its suppleness. When this happens there is no longer a tight seal between the pad and the tone hole on the sax body. This is what we call a leak. The leaks start small…… a little pin hole leak here and there or a crack in the leather. So, you unconsciously blow a little bit harder assuming that the problem is you or your reed or the humidity level that day or whatever. The leaking has begun and progressively worsens over a period of months or years. On top of this, let’s say you leave your horn in your car when it’s really cold or really hot. Well, this just exacerbates the leaking issues causing the pads to deteriorate more quickly.

You don’t realize it but you have gotten used to this “love/hate” relationship with your sax. You like the sound of the horn but you hate the way it now plays. Some notes play well and others don’t. Next you bring your horn to me for repair. It might just need a few choice pads replaced and a bit of adjustment or it might need a complete repad.

Ok, we are going to jump ahead. I won’t bore you with all the minutia involved with pad replacement and all the work involved with a complete repad. Let’s just say that all the pads have been replaced and your sax should play like it did when it was new. So, you show up at my shop to retrieve your horn. Of course you want to play it just to confirm that it plays correctly and I also would like you to play it just in case you have any questions about what was done. Initially it seems ok but then you delve into the areas of your horn where you were compensating the most and it doesn’t play right. Why? Because you’re still compensating and you don’t need to compensate any more. Now, let the acclimating begin! It’s like starting out with a new instrument. You might even suspect that I didn’t do a good job or I missed something. Hey, I’ll be more than glad to look over your horn again. However, I can guarantee you that I have looked at every key, every pad, every tone hole, every post and every spring dozens of times. What this all comes down to is you need to unlearn a bunch of bad habits that you have progressively adopted over a long period of time. This can easily happen to all of us.

Here’s another scenario, let’s say you have just “had it” with your horn and you decide to buy a brand new sax. You are going for top of the line, Selmer Reference 54 or maybe a Yamaha Custom Z, 875EX or whatever. The point is it’s brand new, not a leak anywhere on this horn. So you try out this new AX and you don’t really like it that much. Why? Again, because you’re still playing like you did on your old horn. You wouldn’t think there is a “learning curve” or a “get used to it curve” but there is. This situation is neither good or bad it’s simply just the way it is.

In closing I am reminded of the immortal words of Buckaroo Bonzai, “No matter where you go, there you are”!


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