The truth about dents!

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How do you know the difference between a dent that will affect the playability of an instrument and one that is simply a cosmetic annoyance?  For many years players were told that the closer the dent is to the mouthpiece the more important is it that it be removed.  While this is still a very applicable “rule of thumb” there are other areas that can be affected by dents, distortions, out-of-round tubing and even solder blobs in ferrules and other connections that can’t be seen!

Of course there are dents that make an instrument unplayable – a dent in a valve casing, a crushed mouthpipe, a sax neck that has been dented under the cork and will no longer allow for a proper seal on the mouthpiece.  Others include dents that cause an incorrect shape on the lip plate of a flute, damage that pushes in a post on a saxophone causing a pad to no longer seal or a key to bind.  Those are, well, obvious!  We’re not talking about those here – we’re thinking more subtly!

First off let’s consider how sound travels through an instrument – as the air / sound column travels through the tubing, whether it is a flute, tuba, saxophone or anywhere in between the sound waves are bouncing around inside that tubing.  Instruments are designed specifically to bounce those sound waves a number of times and in a certain shape to create the desired tone and intonation.  Any disruption those sound waves hit – a dent, organic build-up, foreign object, solder, even a waterkey nipple, will change the way the sound waves travel.  Of course if the disruption is close to the end of the instrument (bell flare on a brass instrument, foot joint on a flute, etc.) then very little change in the sound will be noticed.  However if the sound is disrupted closer to where it begins then the player may experience all sorts of issues from poor tone, inconsistent intonation, even strange “slotting” of notes on brass instruments.

Of course this is all subject to the sensitivity and experience of the player!  Is a 6th grade trumpet player going to notice the difference between a trumpet that has a ding in the bell stem and one that has a dent in the mouthpipe next to the mouthpiece receiver?  No, probably not – they’re still learning how to form a correct and steady embouchure, hold the instrument correctly and play with proper hand position!  As the player advances though these issues can affect their playing.  Imagine the same student as a 9th grader playing on their beat-up trumpet, struggling to play in tune and fighting the instrument.  Correcting the dents in the mouthpipe and knuckles can return her beat-up trumpet to it’s original shape and allow the sound waves to travel as they were meant to.

Sometimes dents cause terrible playability issues in places you would never imagine!  A dent in the bottom bow of a saxophone can render lower notes either so out-of-tune to be usable or they just won’t play at all (ever heard the sax “warble”?).  If you have a Yamaha 321 full-size piston tuba you probably have a flattened 1st branch to 2nd branch ferrule.  Imagine how different the sound waves must be after they pass through that!

Unfortunately dent work can sometimes be cost-prohibitive.  Is it ever going to be worth it to get all the little tiny pings and dings out of the slides and knuckles on a double horn?  No, probably not – it is a very difficult, labor-intensive process that often yields marginal results.  Getting the dents out of the bell (even past the finger hook) has many benefits though and is typically quite inexpensive.  Often a seriously banged-up tuba can be corrected for less than $100.

Ultimately it comes down to a compromise – you have to decide what’s best for you, your students, and your budget.  Modern technology and innovation in the repair industry has developed methods of removing dents from areas of instruments once only reachable after disassembly.  Keep in mind – students will often care more about an instrument that looks good!

Ask us about your beat-up instruments next time we’re around – we’ll be happy to give you quote on dent work!