Now here's a funny thing...
If you've read a few of the articles on this site you'd (hopefully)
have concluded that regular care and maintenance of your instruments
is a jolly good thing. It should come as a surprise then if I suggested
that perhaps the best way to ensure a fully working instrument is
to drop it.
I should explain...and I will.
It's apparent (to me, anyway) that the vast majority of parents
who have children that play instruments simply have no idea as to
what their children's instruments require in terms of maintenance
and servicing - or worst still, that they even require it at all.
This rather unfortunate fact often leaves children struggling with
instruments that can be difficult to play, if not practically impossible.
It's often only when the instrument gives up the ghost entirely
that my services are called for - and that can be quite some years
after it was purchased.
The client who called by the other day brought a saxophone along.
It seemed his son had had a slight accident and the sax had taken
a bit of a tumble. There was a nice crease to the lip of the bell
and the low Eb key guard had been caved in - but aside from that
there wasn't really much damage to the keywork.
What had stopped the horn dead in its tracks was that the octave
key on the crook had taken a knock too and was failing to close
at all. This meant that the horn would only play above top G - perhaps
barely down to middle D with a bit of luck and a lot of puff, but
certainly no lower. The thing was, though, that having removed the
crease in the bell, reshaped the bent guard and realigned the octave
key, the horn was still a terrible blower.
OK, so it was a fairly cheap instrument of a make I'd never heard
of - a common-or-garden Selmer copy out of Taiwan - but it should
still have played quite reasonably enough. I took a closer look,
and found a whole host of problems that would have had a cumulative
effect on the horn's playability as you ran down the scale. They
weren't immediately obvious either. Some keys showed leaks at the
back of the pads, the point screws looked like they'd been hand
filed to shape - and there was so much free play in the octave key
mechanism that even when the key was fully pressed down it barely
moved the pin at the other end. None of these problems were associated
with the recent damage the horn had received.
The real tragedy though was that the client's son had been playing
on this horn for the past four years - so it was clear that there
was both an interest and a desire to play in spite of the difficulties.
It looked to me like the horn would have worked reasonably well
for the first six months or so. New pads would have been soft and
thus able to compensate for dodgy seating, and the action would
have been slightly less worn. After that first six months the horns
response would have begun to drop off quite rapidly, until it reached
the state it was in now. Had the player not dropped the thing he'd
probably still be struggling to play it even to this day.
To some extent even the most proficient players experience this
- any instrument that's been in use for much more than six months
will have a few minor faults, whether it be a slight leak due to
a pad shifting or a key cork compressing, or perhaps a spot of free
play or double-action due to wear and tear. Such players tend to
compensate for these minor faults quite subconsciously; sometimes
even accepting and acknowledging them, and compensating as necessary
for as long as possible. The difference is though that there's a
realisation that something's amiss - which is not something the
average student will have. They'll often carry on regardless, perhaps
thinking that the problem lies with them rather than the instrument.
Naturally, the client was appalled to learn of the faults that
plagued his son's saxophone and quite rightly wondered why the teacher
hadn't mentioned anything. Alas, you can't always rely on the teacher
to keep an eye on the mechanics of an instrument - no more so than
you'd expect a driving instructor to point out a dodgy wheel bearing
or a slipping alternator belt. I'd even go so far as to say that
quite a few teachers are playing on instruments that are even less
well maintained than those of their pupils (I've seen 'em!).
So I fixed the problems as I found them, and ended up with a horn
that blew quite nicely given its limitations.
And then I put in a few good words for the player...
It seemed to me that anyone who'd persevered for four years on a
horn that surely couldn't have been giving its best deserved a break.
It was evident that the interest was there, both from the player
and from supportive parents - so I pitched in with a few recommendations.
The first one was to invest in a better mouthpiece. The student
was still using the one that came with the horn - a typical moulded
jobby. It blew very bright, even for my tastes, and a decent mouthpiece
would allow the student to start working on tone...as opposed to
simply producing notes.
My second recommendation was potentially rather more costly.
Given the build quality of the horn I didn't think it worth the
expense of a major service. It would have cost nigh on £100
to bring the horn up to a decent standard - and I felt that was
money that could be best spent on a better instrument...say around
Christmas time (See? I can even help with your shopping problems!).
I do understand the age-old dilemma of balancing the whims of children
with the corresponding expense of funding such desires, but I reckon
four years is a pretty good indicator that there's a long-term interest.
All in all quite an expensive trip to the repairer for this client
- but I wouldn't mind betting that his son is thinking that dropping
his sax was the best thing he'd done in a very long time.