Spit Valve Etiquette

Brass players get so used to working the spit valve that we tend to empty it willy-nilly without much thought about where and how to do it.  While I do want to point out that it’s really just mostly water and not something to freak out about (get over it, string players!), I’m not insensitive to the fact that we should follow some etiquette regarding how and where to use our “water keys.”

Fortunately, in most rehearsal and performance situations I find myself in this isn’t really an issue.  Auditoriums and rehearsal halls that regularly have brass performers in them are pretty much used to the little pools of spit, I mean, water in the brass sections.  As long as you’re not emptying them right where people will step, it’s not worth worrying about.  Be aware, though, that even just a little moisture can make a patch of floor slippery, so don’t empty your spit valve in areas where people are likely to be walking.

Trombonists, you will want to be aware of where your slide will be while playing and suggest to those woodwind players sitting in front of you that they may not want to put anything underneath.  A little bit of water will drip off of your spit valve as you play and whatever music, purse, case, etc. the players in front of you put down will likely be “christened” by your spit valve during the course of the rehearsal.

There are some halls where emptying your spit valve will be more of an issue.  A lot of the churches I perform at have carpeting down in the area where I sit and they are keen on keeping it looking nice with minimal effort.  The Land of the Sky Symphonic Band keeps a set of small towels that we take to performances so the brass players can throw them down on the ground and empty their spit valve onto them.  I keep a small towel in my trombone case for situations like this.  When I’m rehearsing at someone’s home I will either use my towel or sometimes just empty my spit into my case.  I wouldn’t intentionally spill a glass of water on someone’s floor, so I will go out of my way to avoid emptying my spit valve unless they specifically give me permission.

When performing in a solo situation, either in front of an ensemble or in a recital situation, I think it’s classy to not call too much attention to emptying out your spit.  I will turn slightly to the side and without any fuss empty my spit out behind me.  It’s more subtle and less distracting than unceremoniously blowing all the water out in full view of the audience, many who may not have any idea why you’re doing that.  This also has the benefit that it keeps the spit away from where most people are likely to walk, especially important if you’re sharing the recital with other performers who may slip on your puddle if you’re not careful.  Let alone the conductor, if you’re performing a concerto with an ensemble.

Beyond that, it’s mostly just a matter of being aware of your surroundings and being polite.  While I admit it’s fun to sometimes make fun of the string players and woodwind players aversions to the puddles we leave on the floor, they typically understand it’s part of the price we pay for playing the instrument we chose and will leave us alone about it as long as we keep it confined to our area.  Now can we please just get the woodwind players to start being more careful about where they leave their broken reeds and string players to quit spreading their rosin dust around?  Those are much more serious issues than a little water on the floor!

15 thoughts on “Spit Valve Etiquette

  1. Hello Dave,

    while looking up Google entries for “spit valve”, I came across your interesting article. Where the water lands is the only issue that manually operated spit valves and the JoyKey have in common.
    Here is a JoyKey testimonial from Jay Friedman:

    ??I have been trying a recent product for brass instruments called the JoyKey. It is a replacement for a spit valve and automatically drains saliva from the horn without the player having to empty it manually.

    The JoyKey drains continuously but in a controlled way to have no noticeable effect on the response of the instrument. The device is the work of Andrew Joy and can be found at http://www.thejoykey.com

    I have found this to be an excellent product and am having it installed on my instruments. Also, a friend of mine, Mr. Sun He installs the Joykey at his repair business in Philadelphia. He can be found at http://www.facebook.com/ultimate.brass

    Jay Friedman
    Principal Trombonist, Chicago Symphony Orchestra

    Sincerely and with best wishes from Germany,
    Andrew Joy


    PS Since you are also interested in the embouchure you might find the following interesting:

  2. Good Day, I have stumbled across your article quite by accident, and would like to say that your attitude is barbaric. First, let’s make a clear distinction between water and spit. You are dumping spit on to the floor. Is spit water? No more than urine is water. What concert hall would appreciate me taking a steaming piss on their floor? None, sir. How difficult would it be to empty your spit into a small container? Even the towels that you only deign to use when in carpeted churches are better than the floor, yet you act like other musicians are somehow weak or squeamish for thinking that it’s bad form to dump spit on the floor? You and all your ilk are savages. Take this attitude to rock and roll, you reprobate.

    1. Hi, Bobby.

      I suspect you’re being tongue in cheek. I was a bit in my post above too, but I stand by the gist of what I wrote.

      First, let’s make a clear distinction between water and spit. You are dumping spit on to the floor. Is spit water?

      I fair amount of what comes out the “water key” is, in fact, simply water put inside the horn due to condensation. Frankly, I think there’s more sanitary risk due to the inside of the horn rather than from any spit, so you still may have a point.

      What concert hall would appreciate me taking a steaming piss on their floor? None, sir.

      Have you ever heard the tune, “Buddy’s Habit?” Look up what the title is about.

      How difficult would it be to empty your spit into a small container?

      Well, it does depend on the circumstances. If I was playing the trombone section of an orchestra, it would be possible, but I don’t know how much it is worth the effort, to be honest. I’ve never had a stage hand complain, but then again I’ve never gone out of my way to ask.

      Regardless, it is “industry standard” protocol. Any concert hall stage hand is going to end up having to pick up broken reeds and sweep up string rosin after any given concert, but you’re going to complain about a little moisture that dries up after 20 minutes? My guess is that you’re a string player. If so, you need to go play fiddle with an Old Time band and get corrupted some.

      On the other hand, as a soloist you don’t want this distraction of having a small container up there. If I don’t want to have to stoop over too much to aim my spit valve it would need to be a fairly large bowl. In my blog post above I discussed some ways to make emptying the spit valve less of a distraction to the audience, and the key (no pun intended) is to do it as unobtrusively as possible. It seems to me that bending over a lot on stage (particularly if I positioned the container behind me) or putting a large bowl on the floor in front of me to solo creates a pretty obvious distraction when you want the audiences attention on the music. I’ll continue to do as I have been. We all must suffer for our art.


  3. Okay, for the record, the water isn’t pure spit. It’s condensation from the players breath, and it builds up as you play. It’s not like the brass players are just spitting into their instrument and emptying it out. It is definitely not the same as peeing on the concert hall floor. It’s a couple of drops of water, not human waste.

  4. I am a career stage hand of 20+ years and have worked mostly in the fine arts, also a classically trained musician that played horn for a few years. While I can’t speak from a real horn planers perspective, I can say a few things about the other side of the industry. I think if you are regularly playing in concert halls most of the spit goes on the floor, which isn’t that big of a deal. What isn’t cool is when you do it on our platforming. We are usually handling the platforms to tear them down before the spit is dry. This is nasty. We have to handle these platforms every day and don’t have time to clean them regularly. You can claim it’s mostly water, but in reality what is coming out of your horn is the buildup of bacteria over time, which originated from your mouth. Maybe it’s only a very tiny amount coming out of your horn? Ok, but there are 10 of you. If you are doing it all day, that’s a large amount of bacteria that being introduced to the environment, usually in a concentrated spot. If you are more of a jazz player you are usually playing around mics, which means cables. Even if you didn’t spit on the cables, it’s going to get on them, and every inch of every cable gets touched in teardown. So now I have spit on my hands cause no one asked if a stage hand cared in the first place. I get the inconvenience and that a spit cup on stage looks bad for fine arts, but that isn’t an excuse to brush aside the conversation. Yes we have to sweep up the stage, but that doesn’t make it ok for you to track your muddy boots across it. Don’t treat stage hands like the “help”

  5. Thanks for bringing your point of view up, Anthony. I hadn’t considered spit on the risers for the stage hands until you brought it up. Spit on cables that need wrapping at the end of the night is something that I’ve had to personally deal with too.

    While we’re on the subject, if you’re playing in a club (or any gig that you have a drink with you), clean up your empty glasses/bottles off the stage at the end of the night. While you’re at it, pick up and throw away your set lists or any other trash that you leave on the stage.

    1. It’s all good. I was also taught to just empty wherever is convenient for the performance, but I feel this goes a little too far with “whatever is good for the performer” mentality. I am just glad there is a place for this conversation. Also, +1 on pick up your trash. There are a lot of stage hands that are just as educated in their art as the performers are. We didn’t go thru all that effort to be a janitor.

  6. I stumbled on this topic of spit valve use and here are my thoughts. I’m a brass player started with trumpet and worked my way up (or down depending on your view) to the euphonium and tuba. My biggest problem playing is that I have to use my spit valves often because I have over-active salivary glands so for me it’s probably more spit than condensation. In the last few years I have started to carry a small dark coloured towel and hold to over the valve so the spittle is caught in the towel. If emptying the tube slides after performing I dump into the towel. The towel also is effective in wiping the instrument as is the case with the tuba where the valves are positioned awkwardly. Now as to pulling tube slides to empty the spittle/
    water there is a danger of hitting the slide against the bell of a trumpet when you pull the third valve tube. When you pull the tube from the euphonium or tuba the slides are much longer which when handled poorly can strike the instrument accidentally. If you ding the open end of the tube you can deform it which can cause a possible stuck slide in the future or worst case, sound issues while playing your instrument. So that’s my thoughts on this subject.

  7. I started playing trumpet in elementary school in 1975. My band teacher DIDNOT allow any student to drain SPIT out of their instruments. You had to bring a towel. Maybe the so-called musicians do not consider others when they drain their instruments I have been a stagehand for 30 years and have had to deal with the inconsiderate, disrespectful behavior of some musicians. Fortunately , I have no problem with expressing my thoughts on them being inconsiderate. My grandchildren both play in their school band, they do not drain spit not the floor, they have been taught and are respectful of others.
    At the end of the day , a CD could replace all of them , with no spit on the floor.

  8. YES YES YES! Stagehand of 40+ years, and everything you said…and more. My first priority after a performance is to police all “spillables” before anyone can start knocking them over and pulling cables through them. I have also noted, the more prestigious the orchestra, the neater they are, in general. But spit is spit as far as I’m concerned. I am not sure a musician’s somewhat reassuring scientific jargon explanation makes me feel better when I grab a platform with a puddle of unidentifiable goo on it.

  9. I am a bass trombone player, and after one too many incidents of sheet music being bumped or floating off a music stand directly into what I thought was a discreetly placed puddle, I have decided enough is enough. I stumbled across this article while searching for information about industry standards, and have come to the conclusion that a small black towel would be a considerate and unobtrusive addition to the equipment I already carry with me to performances, and practice sessions away from home.

    1. Yup, that’s becoming more the standard at a lot of the places where I play (prior to the pandemic). It might be a bit of a challenge to be discrete in the situations where you’re performing as a soloist in front of an ensemble, but there are probably ways around it.

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