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Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

Yer rubbish!



The inspiration for this article came about during a visit by a client who'd taken advantage of my offer to inspect and evaluate any Keilwerth SX90R horns.
For those of you who aren't aware of the kerfuffle - this particular saxophone consistently shows up with problems relating to the tone holes, and as part of my rolling review of this model I encourage owners to drop by the workshop and let me give their horns the once over...for which they get a free setup and lube job in return.

This particular client turned up with a rather nice looking alto, with a brushed nickel body - and as it was a fairly recent model I was particularly keen to see whether the manufacturer had taken any steps to improve the accuracy of build...or at least the quality control.
Sadly it was not to be, and the inspection revealed a couple of less than flat tone holes.

As I pottered about, taking photographs and measuring anomalies, we chatted about how the client had come to choose this particular horn. It was the classic scenario - a punter finds him or herself 'holding folding' (a rather poetic colloquialism that means having a lot of cash...folding referring to paper banknotes) and hankers after a pro-level instrument. A trip to a music shop follows, wherein several different instruments are tried out and a suitably expensive one selected - in this case the aforementioned Keilwerth alto.
Now, I have always maintained that the defects found on the SX90R horns I've seen are serious enough to affect the instrument's performance.
I take this stance from two perspectives; one from the theoretical side...a warped tone hole is liable to leak, and any leak will affect how well the horn plays; and two, from a practical perspective...when I play affected horns I feel the problem manifest itself in a dropoff in tone quality and a corresponding lack of precision in note production.
And yet people swear blind that they try these horns out in music shops and find that they beat other horns hands down.
How can this be?

The client and I chewed over a few possible reasons.
One was down to the psychology of expectation. These horns look distinctive, and if you read the manufacturer's blurb and take note of the comments of other owners there's a sense that these horn are very individual. They are too, and in a straight comparison with, say, a Yamaha or a Selmer, you might be surprised at how different the Keilwerth is - both in terms of feel and tone.
So, if you expect an individual response, that's what you'll get - but the danger is that this can lead to a player overlooking a flaw by virtue of putting any difficulties down to the difference in response when compared to other horns.
There's also the 'thrill of the new'. Any horn different to the one you're used to, or any other that you've played, will force you to change your technique immediately. The action might be harder, or softer...or higher, or lower. The keys might be in slightly different positions, the horn may hang differently around your neck. The response might be entirely different to anything else. In other words there are a lot of differences flying about, and unless you're used to assessing the difference between what's better and what's merely different, you could be persuaded on the strength of the latter rather than the former. If there were no manufacturing issues in play then such a decision wouldn't really be a problem - but, unfortunately, that's not always the case.

And then comes the question of ability.
This is a very tricky one. Most of us at some point in our lives will have taken up some kind of interest or hobby, or even a job, that requires us to learn new skills. The learning process nearly always involves interacting with others who already have the skills you hanker after, and in general the business of passing or receiving those skills down the line is a relatively painless and enjoyable experience.
At some point though we all run up against a failure which will be entirely down to a lack of skill or understanding - and it's at this point that we look to our mentors to help us out. Such help usually comes in the form of comforting words and patient explanations - but sometimes it's necessary, in order to save someone a great deal of money or time perhaps, to be rather more blunt. It's a technique I find myself having to use quite often - and I can do so because there exists a very special, personal, intimate even, relationship between a client and their repairer.
Yes, sometimes what people want and need to know is that the problems they're having are because they're rubbish at whatever it is they're trying to do. There's a world of difference though in simply telling someone they're rubbish and leaving them to lick their wounds, and telling them they're rubbish and then taking the time to reassure them that the problems lie with them rather than their kit...or vice versa.
It cuts to the chase, establishes a very firm and honest baseline, and gives everyone a solid platform from which to embark on a new journey with renewed and robust vigour - but it was without the benefit of this knowledge that the client bought the SX90R alto.

Now, to be fair, there were two choices to be made when he walked into the shop. The first was to select the new horn that most appealed to him - and the second was to select a model of that horn that beat all the other examples.
He did pretty well on the first choice, and not so well on the second.
How? Well, having examined the horn I found two problems - warped tone holes on the low C and Eb keys.
Not only were these warps detectable by means of the cigarette paper test, they were clearly visible. It was also possible to demonstrate precisely how they affected the horn's playability.
It was while I was demonstrating this (by using a cork to wedge the low Eb pad closed, and showing the resultant lift in volume and tone of the bell notes - and subsequently having the client press the pad cup down whilst I blew the sax, and noting the corresponding change in tone) that the client admitted he hadn't detected the problem because his technique wasn't good enough to show up the difference.

I wasn't at all surprised. A very great deal of my work revolves around the business of putting horns right - but a significant portion of it is about pointing out to clients the flaws in their kit or technique that will hinder them, and making appropriate recommendations as to how to improve matters...whether it be the dreaded long note practice, a better mouthpiece or even a better instrument.
It doesn't pay me or the client to be wishy-washy when it comes to the hard facts - no-one wants their doctor to tell them they have a cold when, in fact, they're suffering from the closing stages of the black plague. In fact, that's precisely why the client was here. The shop he'd purchased the horn from had their own in-store workshop...they'd even made a decent job of setting up and balancing the action - but he felt he needed some reassurance from someone who didn't have a vested interest (the prospect of a refund, for example).

As it happened I was able to rectify the problems, which turned the horn from one I wouldn't have bought if you'd paid me into one that I could stamp my own seal of approval on - and the client was able to leave the workshop knowing that although he might be rubbish...his horn wasn't - and he can, and will, get better.
How much can you charge for peace of mind like that?
You can't...it's priceless.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015