Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

Notes for notes



"Beyond economical repair".
What a dreadful phrase that is - one that has sounded the death-knell for many a previously much-loved instrument.
It's not always easy to define the point at which the cost of repairs outweighs the value of an instrument, especially when you consider that unlike many consumer goods, people tend to get rather attached to their musical instruments.

I suppose in some ways it can feel like abandoning an old school chum - that poor old Boosey Regent clarinet that started you off at school, or that battered Buescher alto that you lugged from pub to club.
It never surprises me to find that many of my clients have a soft spot for their very first instruments, and it comes as no surprise either to find that many of them hang onto these instruments even though they have no intention of ever playing them again.

More often than not these old instruments are dug out from their hiding places when a younger member of the family expresses an interest in taking up an instrument, and it can be quite heartbreaking to have to point up the economic realities. It can also be quite difficult to negotiate the price of a job down to a level that would prove to be more financially viable. I have one or two tricks up my sleeve though, and a thorough knowledge of what can be got away with.
The first thing to go out of the window is any cosmetic work (AKA cleaning/polishing). Beginners tends to place glitz high on their list of desires, but most experienced players aren't at all phased by a bit of tarnish - and when you're footing the bill for an extensive repair job it's amazing how persuasive you're inclined to be when it comes to telling a youngster just how much street cred can be gleaned from owning an instrument that requires you to wash your hands after you've played it. Next up on the list would be springs and corks, on the principle that if something's working you might as well leave it alone until it breaks. This leaves the real meat and potatoes - the pads - and by the time I've whittled away the 'fripperies' the client is looking at a bill that's more viable in terms of economics.

But there are a few clients to whom the whole business of economics is irrelevant, where the emotional attachment makes the issue of cost almost a tawdry subject. It's these clients who furnish me with some of the most interesting and challenging work - and the opportunity for job satisfaction unhindered by fiscal prudency. The summer months seem to be the season for such work - perhaps it's the 'summer effect'...long, hot, lazy days full of the sights, sounds and smells of yesteryear that tug at the heartstrings and turn one's thoughts back to that long-lost friend that now hides under the bed or atop the wardrobe.

The rewards for me are twofold (well, threefold if you count the size of the bill) - there's the job satisfaction, of course, but there's also the joy of sharing in some of the clients glee at being reunited with an old pal. I'm also quite often surprised at just how good some of these old bangers are (the instruments, not the clients). I've been impressed by many an old wooden Regent clarinet, or a knocked-about Emperor flute, and there are yet still other surprises in store, I'm sure.

I have one such job in at the moment, a beaten up Italian sax.
At first glance it's a no-no; the action is so simple that it might have been built by Adolphe Sax himself, and yet it seems that the instrument hails from the 1940's. No articulation on the G#, no Bis Bb key even - just a plain, simple saxophone that's more of a brother to Sax's original instruments than the modern cousins we all blow today. I was all but ready to write the horn off, and resigned myself to giving it a quick blow simply out of curiosity. And then I found its beauty.
I've often remarked to clients how different the original Sax instruments sound to their modern counterparts. Because of their simplicity they're much more open and free in their tone...more lyrical perhaps, wild even. But the design of saxophones very soon drifted away from the original specification, and along the way they perhaps lost a little of their mystery - and yet here was a sax that incorporated a reasonably modern build with an ancient simplicity.
It sang, in short - even with its split pads, wonky keywork and stiff, dry action.

By no stretch of the imagination could this horn be considered to be a viable proposition economically - it'll cost half as much again to restore it as you could buy one of those cheap Chinese horns for, and in terms of functionality the Chinese horn would kick it into touch...but where else would you find that strange, ethereal tone?
I too can share in the client's admiration for this plucky old horn, and perhaps in the not too distant future I'll be able to place it on the bench with a view to giving it whole new lease of life.


Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015