Key Leaves is an innovative new (ish) US company that is making great accessories for saxophone and other woodwinds. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Rulon Brown, the Founder and President a few times, including when he initially released Key Leaves at the Navy Sax Symposium a couple years ago. I’ve been using, testing, and playing around with them ever since.
You may have have seen their products already, either from a friend or colleague using them or on the internet. The Key Leaves team is quite adept on social media have a strong web presence – even going so far as to have an Artist program of saxophonists that endorse their products.
They make a number of products, but here we’re going to focus on the products that are applicable to the baritone – the Key Leaves “Key Props”, and the “Spit Sponge”. If you play the other horns as well I’d really recommend checking out the other products as well.
A solution for Sticky Keys.
Both the Key Props and the Spit Sponge are intended to help alleviate the constant irritation of ‘sticky’ keys on the saxophone.
What are sticky keys and why do they occur?
The saxophone has keys that are either open or closed in their default or resting state. Most keys are always open until pressed. But some keys like the palm keys (D, Eb, E, F) and some pinky keys (Ab, Eb, Db) are closed by default until activated. The real issues come from the Ab and Db keys because unlike all of the other keys they have two springs, one that is tensioned to keep the key closed, and another spring that is used to open the key through the mechanical connection. These keys are more complicated because they can be closed by other key combinations and aren’t simple levers, but double levered. The low Eb key can sometimes stick as well because its the tone hole towards the bottom-back of the horn so when its sitting in the case, moisture can tend to collect down there. That’s a more common problem on alto and tenor since they don’t have a crook and spit valve.
So because these keys are always closed, and also because they have a spring tensioning them shut they can sometimes fail to open when pressed. We call this a ‘sticky’ key. This can be exacerbated by the two spring tensions being improperly adjusted, or more commonly dirt/oil/crud build up on the pad or on the tonehole. Below we will go over Key Leaves’ two tools for mitigating this problem. Both of these products are to some extent ‘better mousetraps’ in that there have been similar ways of treating sticky keys before, though I think these products do a better job and have some new attributes that haven’t been used before.
Check out a page on Key Leaves’ site with lots of examples of sticky keys and dirty bores: https://keyleaves.com/pages/proof
The Key Props basically hold a key that is closed by default open. Because the key doesn’t sit for long periods in the case with the key pressed against the tone hole it is far less likely to form sticky buildup of yeast, bacteria and fungus at the seal which can create a light bond or kind of glue the key shut. If the key stays open it is very unlikely to begin sticking when you go to play.
Now, it seems like you should be able to use just about anything to wedge a key open. And in fact when I showed my veteran repair man Key Leaves a couple years ago, his first comment was that players used to just wedge the keys open with a match book. And, yes, that will work. But Key Leaves is a much more elegant solution. Also, I like to think saxophonists aren’t all smoking these days.
The Key Leaves are made out of silicon, which is great for a few reasons. They are soft, and won’t scratch a horn. They are also pliable and flexible which again won’t damage a horn but is excellent for wedging a key open gently. And lastly, silicon is a great material because it is inert. In other words it won’t cause tarnish, lacquer removal, or discoloration of any sort even over the long term. I think bright green was also a good choice, as they are easy to spot and a nice visual reminder to remove them before playing.
Check out the instruction images below on the proper way to use them. Key Leaves warns against contacting directly with the pad leather. I assume this is because should the key prop sit in the case pushing on the leather for extended periods it could deform the felt within the pad and cause leaks.
I personally use the double up method a lot as this makes an easy grab tab to remove the key leaves before playing. Each package of Key Leaves comes with two “Leaves” and a strap, also made of silicon. I also use Key Props for horns that are likely to sit in the case for a long time. If they sit in the case with keys pressed against a tone hole (especially a non-rolled tone hole) the pads can dry out and split or rip. So I’ve found Key Leaves Key Props great for daily use as well as long term storage.
The spit sponge is a newer product from Key Leaves. And this is definitely a form of an existing tool. Most saxophonists have a sticky key remedy they swear by. A lot of people use dollar bills to clean the pad and tone hole – close the key semi-firmly on the bill and slide the bill out, thereby wiping both sides clean. Some people even soak the dollar bill in lighter fluid – this seems to do a good job of cleaning the pad, though exposing your saxophone to flammable liquids is not ideal. Some people swear by cigarette paper instead of a dollar bill, some people just use regular paper. Another old trick is to apply talcum or baby powder to the paper before running it through the pad. Yamaha has a product called powder paper which is basically east to rip out sheets of cigarette paper impregnated with talcum powder for easy use. This stuff works wonders, but it also gets which powder all over your pad and tone hole. BG has a tool which is a rounded piece of microfiber that can be used instead of paper to clean the pad. The Spit Sponge is probably closest to BGs but with a few noticeable and important differences.
The Spit Sponge unlike most of the other tools here has two unique sides. One is a plain soft microfiber while the other side is a laser engraved to form a very subtly abrasive texture. This is even better for removing stubborn dirt. The shape of the Spit Sponge is also unique, it has a large circular area great for larger pads and a smaller protrusion that is great for smaller pads and harder to reach areas. Also, because the Spit Sponge is laser cut it should be resistant to fraying. It is microfiber, so once it gets dirty you can simply wash it with water and soap to renew.
Unorthodox / Unapproved / Unsanctioned usages
Key Leaves is very specific about the method and use of their product. So take this next bit with a grain of salt and lets agree not to hold them responsible for any problems arising from using their products in alternate ways. That being said, I’ve been using them quite successful in other ways. I mention in my cases article that if you are going to wheel your baritone around I’d highly recommend gently ‘corking’ or ‘clamping’ your keys shut so that the keys don’t flap or bounce constantly. In the past I’ve used cut wine corks to cork the keys shut, but turns out Key Leaves are perfect for this. Gentle enough not to damage the key, soft enough to wedge between the key and the key guard, and the right size so the pads aren’t smushed or crushed.
Lately I’ve also taken to using Key Leaves to prop open the spit valve, hopefully giving the crook a chance to dry out quicker? This may have little effect, but I’m going to try it out for a while.
I have reached out to Rulon Brown and Key Leaves in the hopes that in the future there may be a baritone specific product. Hopefully their ingenuity and desire to address saxophone specific problems could help baritone players everywhere with one of the challenges of playing baritone.
Summing it up.
Key Leaves makes some great products to address common problems on the saxophone. They are well made, well designed, affordable and made in the USA by a small company. I’ve been using them for a couple years and have been pleased to see their popularity take off. You can find them at your local music store, on Amazon, or directly through their website. I have no problem at all encouraging everyone to give them a try.