This is a true story. Time has diminished details and we may draw different conclusions from the actions. But ultimately The Cat was responsible for committing unspeakable acts against The Flute.
Several years ago I received an unusual call from a flutist. Unusual calls from flutists are not rare: One could argue that a commonplace call from a flutist is the anomaly. But this call will always maintain a special place in my mind’s annals of fielded calls.
The conversation opened with ordinary banter. A lapsed flutist. Undiminished love of music. The desire to resume playing. And a flute that’s not working correctly after laying idly in a case for many years. Yes, I thought, it’s time for a check-up.
But there was more. He asked me: Could a flute melt. Melt? No. I have never heard of a flute melting over time. Surely we were having issues with nomenclature. And then he spoke about his cat; or maybe it was cats. But he mentioned that something unpleasant might have happened between his cat and his flute. He hadn’t touched the flute in years and he’d had the cat for at least the same amount of time. And during that time there had been many instances where they had been left alone behind closed doors. He nervously mentioned that the cat might have done something to the flute. Oh, you know, like urinate on its case.
I was befuddled. There is always a point at which discussion can yield no further information and direct examination must begin. I had reached that moment. Clearly nothing further could be gleaned from the conversation. I must see The Flute. We arranged a time for him to come over with The Flute. And he was to leave The Cat at home.
The Client was a pleasant man. Average size and weight, moustache, dark hair. The Flute was an intermediate, open-hole Armstrong. Silver head and body, plated keys perhaps with a B-foot. I never found out much about The Cat except that it was a male. But I suspected that it had unresolved anger issues.
I took the flute case from him and lay it on top of my work table. When I opened the case, an overwhelming smell filled the room. I’m allergic to cats and have never lived with an indoor cat. However, if I did have an indoor cat I imagined that this smell could be the smell that would emanate from a litter box in a concentrated form. The Flute was an older Armstrong, which meant that it was housed in a wooden case with a furry, cloth lining — the kind of materials that readily absorb liquids.
I lifted The Flute from its case. It was a perfectly nice flute and a good instrument on which to resume music making. I told myself that it wasn’t so bad; there is always a way to make a flute work. As I touched its keys as if to play it, I felt tremendous resistance and almost a crackling, squeaking sound in the left hand mechanism. The metal of the rods and screws that hold the keys in place had corroded and the keys could not move freely. Then The Client pointed out what he had described as melting.
But first, a quick explanation of flute anatomy. Keys are held up — or in a few instances down — by thin wires called springs. Springs are made from different materials. Most student and intermediate flutes come with phosphor bronze springs. Springs run parallel to the flute body. Usually there is nothing much to notice about them: They are simply pieces of wire about an inch long held tensioned between a post and a spring stop behind a key.
The Flute had phosphor bronze springs, and something was wrong with them. The color was off. Instead of light brown they were greenish. And dangling from the springs were what looked like miniature, green stalactites. The springs’ diameters were also diminished, leading me to conclude that the stalactites were constituted from the springs and were not another, clinging material. So, yes, I thought, the springs are melting.
I started to think. When in doubt, rapid thinking always kicks in. Do I take The Flute outside and hose it down? It might help with the smell, but the corrosion would only worsen. And I wouldn’t want to apply anti-rust solvents to it given its current, volatile chemical state. I wish I had put on gloves. Are my hands going to start to smell like The Flute? I don’t think it’s my imagination and the smell is permeating everything.
Nervous tension filled the room. The Client’s suspicions of his cat were confirmed. And for the first time I told a client to throw away a flute. Barring use of a hacksaw, I could not see how I could remove the keys from the body. And once removed, there was probably not much to be salvaged from the keys. And except perhaps in a mixed media collage, there is not much demand for silver pieces of tubing with holes in them that smelled like cat urine. I told The Client to start over with a new flute. In my urine-altered state, I may also have undiplomatically suggested that he start over with a new cat.
But while the aroma diminished, anti-social actions of The Cat were revealed. And after The Client fled with The Flute questioned lingered. I needed answers to the mystery of the melting flute.
I sifted through bits of information from the Internet. Phosphor bronze is an alloy of copper and tin with a phosphorous content. Urine is many things to many organisms. For birds, it is a paste or uric acid. For fish it is dilute ammonia. In mammals, it is largely urea.
Google “urea” and you find many references to agricultural fertilizer. Add “bronze” to the search and you turn up numerous chemistry-related articles and several articles about bronze corrosion caused by fertilizer with nitrates, urea included.
I was getting in over my head and needed professional help. So I contacted another flutist who is also a chemist and French wine aficionado. Sylvain kindly referred me to a number of web sites showing images of molecules and chemical processes, most of which were beyond my comprehension. In much simpler language he also suggested that my theory of cat urine melting flute springs could indeed prove to be true. The ardent researcher that he is, he was not ready to make a definitive conclusion. But he was intrigued and somewhat swayed by the argument.
So how does the story end? Our paths have not crossed again. I do not know if The Client makes music, if The Flute is landfill, or if The Cat has mended its ways. But if someone runs an experiment on phosphor bronze flute spring and its interaction with mammalian urine, please inform me of the results. And in the meantime, flutists, either keep your cats away from your flutes. Or keep the cats very, very happy.
Update, April 28, 2008. No studies yet on the interaction between phosphur bronze springs and cat urine. But another theory regarding Flute Melt.
Bob of Cupertino, a flutist, biotech scientist, and trapper of feral cats, wrote: “I was reading the story about the cat and the flute on your web site. I think the corrosion of the springs might be related to a phenomenon that people who work with metal around salt water experience. To keep metal parts from corroding (like boat propellers, rudders, engine parts, etc), they use pieces of zinc that they put in direct electrical contact–they call it sacrificial zinc or something like that. The two metals and the salt water form what amounts to a low-voltage battery, and the zinc gives up its electrons more readily than the metal that is to be preserved, causing the zinc to eventually dissolve away. I bet the same thing is happening with the nickel-silver of the flute, the bronze of the springs and the cat pee, which is probably similar in its salt content to sea water. The metal of the flute must be more electronegative than the springs (and possibly the steel of the hinges or rods or whatever you call them), causing the springs and the internal mechanism to corrode and melt away. Regardless of whatever gross components are in cat pee, it’s probably just plain old sodium chloride with water that’s doing the damage. That’s my 2 cents, anyway.” Example.
Update, March 26, 2012. A little over a month ago a flute mother called with a sticky flute issue.
I when queried, she confessed that one of her two indoor cats had sprayed her daughter’s flute case. They had wiped the case down without realizing that the urine had gotten into the case. About a month had passed, and now the flute was not playing correctly. She brought it over and I was unable to disassemble the instrument: The metal rods had corroded to the point that I could not remove the G-sharp key and the right hand stack of keys had deteriorated to the point that none of the keys could move independently of one another. And the pads smelled of urine. Unfortunately, it was time for a new flute.
At around the same time, SFGate published this article on a local Cat Whisperer which offers insight into why cats spray. Unfortunately, it appears as though the cat is NOT mistaking your flute case for a litter box: Kitty sprays with intent.