INSTRUMENT REPAIR: A FEW MORE THOUGHTS
The four people interviewed by Teaching Music for the April feature “Fixing a Hole” gave extensive responses to our questions about instrument repair—so extensive that we could fit only a small fraction of them into the magazine. Here are a few extra exchanges from each interview.
Richard Petroske, band director at Cambridge-South Dorchester High School, Cambridge, Maryland
Q: What prompted you to work as a summer apprentice in an instrument repair shop?
A: My experience stemmed from trying to find a new hobby. I like to work with my hands but couldn’t find something that suited me. I tried woodworking but didn’t have the space or money. I tried building models but it didn’t keep my interest. One day, while at school, a student’s instrument stopped working (surprise), and as I was looking it over, it hit me. Instrument repair. I had a supply of poorly kept instruments just waiting for me to practice on. I called some friends in local repair shops and asked if they could show me around and help me to get started. Since summer is a fairly slow time for instrument repair, I asked if I could come in regularly. Of course they said they weren’t hiring, so I asked to be paid in knowledge and tips. I spent the summer doing little repairs and being “shown the ropes.” It’s been an invaluable resource for me.
Q: As you know, student instruments are of mixed quality. Some are cheaply made, others are second- or third-hand and well used. What can teachers do about this?
A: If it’s a choice between a dedicated student with a poor instrument and an undedicated student with a top-of-the-line instrument, I’ll take the dedicated one every time. I have seen that students with poor-quality instruments are more apt to quit than someone with a halfway decent instrument. There’s a frustration level there that the student is dealing with. By the end of band camp, I know which members of the band are going to have the most problems with their instruments. I play every instrument that my students do (with my mouthpieces and their permission). I tell them what I think of the instruments and then try to fix them, if I can. There are definitely some alternatives to consider as well. Is the student willing to switch to a new instrument? I find this works a lot. Most of my students with poor-quality instruments are willing to learn something new (especially if a school-owned instrument is available).
Q: Do you believe that basic instrument repair should be a part of the standard undergraduate music curriculum?
A: Absolutely. First, having instrument repair knowledge can get you out of some sticky situations at a concert. (I once fixed an instrument while on stage introducing the next piece.) Second, it will save your school lots of money when you’re not sending every little broken spring, leaky pad, and stuck slide to the repair shop. Don’t get me wrong—I know my limits. I know when not to touch an instrument that needs serious repair.
Susan Bechler, retired orchestra director of Victor Central School in Victor, New York
Q: Where should teachers draw the line on how much repair work they’re willing to put in to bring an instrument up to playable standards?
A: The bottom-line issue is whether instruments such as you describe can be made playable at all. In my region, violins turn up nowadays that were purchased in the 1950s through mid-1970s, either by schools or families. Often these are machine-cut, hand-finished German instruments. Some are a little heavy and logy, but a cleaning, new strings, and maybe a bridge can make them playable. On the other hand, some Oriental imports of about the same vintage were barely playable new. The quality of many more recent imports (from China or various eastern European countries) has gone up dramatically, but “buyer beware” certainly holds true. “Attic” violins probably should be viewed on a case-by-case basis and seen by a qualified luthier. Often they don’t look so bad, but they may not end up having enough value to warrant pegs, bridge, tailpiece, soundpost, chin rest, regluing seams, cracks or blocks, planing the fingerboard, etc.
Q: What are the most common equipment repair and maintenance issues faced by student musicians?
A: Recurring problems with the basic functioning of the instrument are the issue for the student. These can be: pegs that won’t hold; bridges that move or tilt easily; fine tuners that rattle, won’t turn, or too easily gouge the top; shoulder rests and chin rests that don’t work well with a particular violin/viola. A shoulder rest may fit the player well, but it’s a problem if the edge design doesn’t allow it to attach securely, for instance. Playing on old, false, or rosin-crusted strings is a problem; also playing with a mix of string brands or materials. Many players mix by choice, but a haphazard mix can mean the tone and volume change from string to string, as must bow control. Also problems are cases that won’t close, don’t seal out moisture or dry heat, or don’t hold the bow securely. It seems to me that players of wind instruments are taught better and more persistently to clean their instruments than are many string players. Teaching and reviewing how to clean, store, and transport a stringed instrument could make a big difference in overall condition and instrument life. Teachers should try to make a point of allowing time at the end of rehearsals and lessons for students to wipe down instruments, wipe and loosen bows, tie case tapes or Velcro straps, check locks, and zip zippers. Maybe have on hand a stack of old clean gym socks or squares of flannel.
Q: It’s not legal for music teachers to recommend specific instrument brands or stores. How can teachers who want their students to have the best instrument possible work most effectively within those parameters?
A: What is legal and what folks do sometimes gets pretty fuzzy. I’ve known band directors who recommended a specific brand and model for each instrument they teach; who invite the staff of one particular shop to hold a parent meeting, contracts in hand; or who send group orders to one of the large online/catalog firms, and have not been confronted. I have never been comfortable with the various sorts of incentive programs that some stores or catalogs offer. These go something like, “Your students buy 10 instruments, we give your program x dollars towards something for your school.” It’s one thing for companies to offer better prices or additional items for bulk orders using school funds, but I would rather be sure that families are getting the best prices that can be found than “earn” an item for “free.” I have also never felt I could definitively recommend just one brand or model of stringed instrument. Perceptions of tone and ease of playing are pretty individual, as long as the instrument is well adjusted and made of decent, conventional materials. Luckily, many string programs start students young enough that they need fractionals. It’s not difficult to persuade parents to rent when the child will need two or three size exchanges before reaching full-size. After a couple of years, or when a child can play a full-size instrument, if he or she is making good progress, enjoys, and is committed to the instrument, parents are more willing to pay for something that will sound better and play more easily, rather than be looking for the lowest dollar amount. I have shopped regularly with students looking to buy instruments, and recommend this to teachers, if there are shops/luthiers within a reasonable distance. This requires some tactful
educating about what given dollar amounts will buy. You also need to be prepared to offer input as to how long or to what advancement a particular instrument may serve the student well. Most string shops will send out two or three instruments, given a description and price range, which is always better than just ordering one. The tone and sound production variations between individual instruments of the same brand and model may be very much a string-instrument phenomenon to take into account.
Corey Ames, director of bands at Loyola Academy, Wilmette, Illinois
Q: How can teachers help to guide students (and parents) on the subjects of instrument purchases, maintenance, and repair?
A: Always having a suggested list of instrument brands, mouthpiece models, and reed strengths is a good and reliable guideline for parents. I recommend that students schedule two maintenance repairs throughout the course of a year (every six months) to ensure the longevity of their instrument. It may be necessary to add a couple of repairs for minor leaks and such, but if the students are taking proper care of their instrument, two to three repairs throughout a year are sufficient. If the student needs to get his or her instrument repaired once every other month, every month, or biweekly, it’s important to reassess the situation and probably recommend a new step-up or advanced instrument. While it is not legal to recommend specific brands of instruments to parents and students, it is safe to say that in the past students or professionals have been successful on particular instruments and here’s why. If we describe the process of making an instrument to the parents, they can hear and see the difference in quality. The craftsmanship that goes into making a quality instrument more often than not entices the student to continue playing. If they purchase an instrument from Target, the results are less desirable and tend to turn students away from playing. If you want your student to enjoy this, then choose quality over price. It will pay off in the long run.
Q: How much should music teachers be expected to know about repairing instruments? How much repair should they be expected to do themselves?
A: All teachers should have a broad understanding of how instruments work and the repair that is needed to fix an instrument. Basic maintenance, mouthpiece pulling, pad removal, and drumhead replacement alone can save thousands of dollars a year in repair bills. If you send in an instrument to get one pad replaced, it will cost you $20. If you do it yourself, it will cost maybe $1 after you’ve purchased glue and the appropriate pad. Save the shop for broken instruments, missing screws, bent keys, etc. But if the repair will take over an hour for you to complete, it is much better to send it to a professional than to get frustrated over it.
David Bailey, principal repair technician for the Nashua, New Hampshire, public schools, and proprietor of the David Bailey Music Studio
Q: You’ve done a lot of work with music teachers. What questions do they ask you most frequently? What do they generally know already? What don’t they know? And does any of this surprise you?
A: What teachers already know varies widely. Some have done a lot of minor repairs themselves, replacing pads and corks in emergencies and doing a good job of it but don’t have the time or the desire to do a lot of that. Others have no clue. A lot of this has to do with the varying personality types and how some people are more mechanically inclined than others. I find that the teachers who teach the widest variety of instruments generally know more than people who specialize on one instrument. Surprisingly, teachers who specialize on one instrument often are not very knowledgeable about even their own instrument. What surprises me the most these days is how many teachers will give their students a very firm, definite diagnosis about what is wrong, which turns out to be incorrect. That presents a problem when a parent, who knows nothing about the instrument, brings in the instrument and has only the teacher’s diagnosis to go by. When I give a different diagnosis, especially one that is more expensive than the teacher had thought, the parent frequently doesn’t know whom to believe. Is the repairman just trying to get paid for a more expensive but unnecessary repair, or is the teacher not so smart after all? Case in point: A music teacher may send in a woodwind instrument with the diagnosis that one key needs a new spring, because that key isn’t responding as it should. The real problem isn’t the spring at all, but rather the instrument fell and struck the music stand such that a small nick was put in that key, which is causing it to bind on the hinge rod inside. In situations like these, I work hard to show the parent exactly what the cause of the problem is so it’s clear. Then I explain that it doesn’t reflect badly on the teacher at all, that the teacher has a classroom full of students and can’t be expected to be a mechanic in addition to keeping the class in order and keeping the band sounding good.
Q: What happens when a parent “fixes” an instrument?
A: This is a problem, especially with fathers. They call asking how much a flute repad costs (I currently charge $120 for a full repad—replacing all the pads, all the corks, any necessary springs, and washing out the body and head joint) and then see they can buy a set of flute pads online for $30 and try to do it themselves, but then the instrument doesn’t work. For a teacher, the only thing to do is to ask the parent to take it to a repair shop and get it working. One good method is to use the power of the grade-book. Start each band year by handing out a paper, which the students take home and have parents sign and return, where the teacher says that the student will receive a zero for any days they don’t have a working instrument in band class.
Q: What have been the most extreme instances of instrument disrepair you’ve had to deal with in your career, and how did you deal with them?
A: The worst are the larger brass instruments or bari saxes where, when one brace breaks, it’s just left as it is, which leads to another brace breaking, and then another, until the only thing holding the instrument together is duct tape. Gradually that lets go and the teacher finally has to bring it in for repair, which is always on Wednesday when there’s a concert on Friday! Most of the time, there isn’t so much neglect as there is very careful budget manipulation by the band director. When a director has a limited budget for instrument repairs, it’s important to spend that wisely and on the very worst cases. So a single brace isn’t worth a trip to the repair shop, since most repair shops have a minimum charge per instrument, which often is equal to the cost of repairing several braces. And then, in the hands of a careful student, an instrument with a brace or two broken can be used for quite a while, and the teacher forgets about it until the instrument gets into the hands of a clumsy student, at which time it falls apart completely. The most severe case I ever encountered actually occurred when I was in college. My band director had been a student at that college 10 years earlier and had just taken over. There was an old metal sousaphone that hadn’t worked right even when he had been a student there. The valves all worked fine, it just never sounded right. He convinced the department chair to get the money to get it fixed and took it to a local repair shop. The problem was that someone had hidden a bottle of scotch in the instrument at some point way in the past, and it had gotten stuck there! The repairman kept the
scotch! I’ve never been that lucky. © 2009, MENC: The National Association for Music Education