If you're a beginner flute player, you've no doubt thought "how do I clean my flute?!" at some point in your first few weeks of learning how to play the flute. Here are 7 great tips to help you keep your flute in great condition - both looking good and sounding spectacular!
New flutes will come with a cleaning swab or gauze for cleaning the moisture from the inside of your flute. Any absorbent cloth is good for the job. You will need a cleaning rod too - it has a loop in one end through which to thread the corner of the cleaning cloth. New flutes also come with a cleaning rod, but either this or the cleaning cloth can be bought separately at most music stores.
If moisture drips out the end of your flute or from out of the keys, rest assured it’s only condensation, not saliva. When warm moist air (your breath) comes into contact with a cold surface (the metal of your flute), moisture forms. It’s exactly the same as having a shower and the hot steamy air hitting the cold mirror in the bathroom. You’ll notice that your flute “dribbles” more on colder days (because the difference in temperature between your breath and the colder air is greater).
Rubbing with a plain cloth is good for removing fingerprints and will brighten up the flute. I have known beginner flute students to rub toothpaste on the outside of their flute as it makes it shiny, however, this is not a good idea - toothpaste is an abrasive and will wear through the silver coating on your flute, so avoid this technique.
Tarnish is the name given to the silver when it turns a little black or grey. The natural oils from your skin can tarnish a flute. Tarnish does not alter the sound of the flute. Tarnish can be mostly prevented by placing a “silver protector strip” or “anti-tarnish” strip inside the flute case. These strips are commonly used for instruments made of silver and also are often used for protecting silver jewellery from tarnish. These strips only prevent further tarnish, they don’t remove tarnish that is already there. If your flute is tarnished and you want it to look shiny again, a professional repair person is the best person for the job to remove the tarnish. Interestingly, if you live in a town with geothermal activity (such as Rotorua in New Zealand or parts of Hawaii, your flute will tarnish a lot quicker due to the hydrogen sulphide in the air (recognisable by the rotten egg smell).
The only danger to leaving your flute out of its case for an extended period of time is that someone could knock it off its resting place or sit on it! One of my students had her flute lying on a bed, her sister jumped onto her bed and bent the flute practically in half. Sometimes keeping the flute out of its case and on a flute stand or in a safe spot like the top of a piano is a good idea because it’s tempting to pick up and practice as there's no setting up involved.
You should never use cork grease or vaseline on the joints of the flute. The keys themselves should only be oiled by a professional instrument repairer. The two joins on the flute (between the headjoint, the body and the footjoint) don’t need lubricating per se, but sometimes they can get a bit tight. Read on...
Firstly, when putting together (or taking apart your flute), hold the pieces of the flute where there are no keys - to avoid accidently bending any of the keys while twisting the head joint into the body. This is especially important if your flute’s joints are very tight. To loosen these joints, you’ll need a candle. (You don’t need a lighter or matches.) Rub a few stripes of the candle wax onto the joint on the headjoint then wipe off strongly with a rag. The candle wax picks up any dirt or grime that is on the joint and the
rubbing with the cloth removes the wax and the grime. Now rub a few stripes onto the headjoint joint again and put your flute together. Careful where you hold the flute to still avoid the keys. It might feel very stiff but this is normal. You’re getting the wax to pick up all the dirt on the joints. Pull the head joint out again and rub the cloth strongly over the joints of the headjoint and stick your finger (inside the cloth) into the joint of the body of the flute to completely rub away all the wax. Once you’ve removed all the wax, try putting your flute together again - it should feel much smoother. You can use the same technique for the foot joint.
So there you go! I hope these tips will help you every time you think "how on earth do I clean my flute?!" As you've just discovered, it's pretty easy.