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


How much d'you trust your local music shop?
A lot? Not that much? Or not at all - though you still use them because they're local?
It might seem like an odd question, but perhaps not one that would raise many eyebrows among those who work in the industry.
I suppose any industry might be seen in a less-than-flattering light by those who work within it - every trade has its tricks and traps, to which only the initiated are privvy - but it's always seemed to me that the music business has more angles than a porcupine's pullover.

I was discussing this topic with a client who'd brought in a horn for a check-up, and he made a very good point - which is that musical instrument are very subjective things, and because of that it gives the retailer an awful lot of latitude. If you'd bought, say, a washing machine or a television and found that it didn't work once you'd got it home, the prognoses is very simple; it doesn't do what it's supposed to do, therefore it's broken. When an object requires no user input other than to turn it on, it either works or it doesn't.
But a musical instrument relies on the user to operate it, and in order to do that there's a degree of skill involved.
Sure, this varies depending on the instrument - but when it comes to wind instruments the line between working and not working can often be entirely down to the player.
And it's here where the element of trust comes in. If you have a problem, is it a problem with the instrument...or with you? Whom do you trust to point the finger in the right direction?

The aforementioned client had turned up at the workshop with a new tenor sax he'd bought very recently, and despite being generally pleased with the horn he was nevertheless having a few problems getting a clear G. He'd mentioned that he was an alto player, and that this was his first foray into the world of tenor playing, so my first suspicion was that it might be an embouchure problem. It's very common; while it's true to say that once you can play one sax, you can play them all - it's by no means a straight swap. Each type of sax requires a slightly different approach - perhaps a tighter or a more relaxed embouchure, or even a slightly different angle on the mouthpiece.
The client, however, had tried some other tenors and hadn't found the same problem - so it looked like the horn was at fault...though I tend not to discount the possibility that some players just can't get on with certain makes and models.

A quick examination showed the problem - a leak on the lower side of the top B key.
This brought a sigh of relief from the client - it wasn't his technique that was at fault, it was the horn - but it also brought some annoyance, because he'd been assured that the horn had been checked over when it had come in from the supplier, and checked again prior to sale. How would a fault like this have got through those checks?
Well, it wouldn't. A quick up and down scale on the horn would reveal a problem - but perhaps not to someone who wasn't used to playing a tenor, or who was inclined to press the keys a little harder than was necessary.
I felt it was a pretty safe bet that the horn hadn't been checked over - and a spot of double action on the lower stack and an overly-weak spring on the Aux.F key made my mind up.

It was while I was addressing these issues that the topic of conversation touched upon the 'shady world of music retailing', prompted by the revelation that the client had bought the horn at a knockdown price...fully a third off the already discounted retail price. Apparently this was because the instrument had some cosmetic blemishes.
Well, we looked...and we looked again, but without much luck.
And then I spotted a couple of small scratch marks.
Now, I know these things happen. Sometimes it happens at the factory - goods arrive at the distributors with a few marks or blemishes, perhaps due to careless handling during packing or quality control testing. Sometimes it happens at the distributors for the same reasons, and again at the retailers. There's a universal response to this phenomenon, which is that there's first a certain amount of swearing, followed by some pondering as to whether the marks might be carefully polished out...and lastly, some deliberation over what to do about it, which nearly always results in a bit of a discount being slapped on the instrument. This not good news for the distributor or the retailer (or the manufacturer, if the damage can be traced back to them) - but it's always good news for the punter, who gets to buy an otherwise functional instrument at a good price. And let's face seldom takes very long before you've put a few marks of your own on a new horn.

But here's the odd thing...a third off the price? For a scratch?
It's not gonna happen. You'll get 10% for a tiny mark - the sort of mark that someone will have to point out ("Look, juuust there...see?"). Something a bit more visible will get you 15% - even a small pinprick dent is only worth that much. By the time you get to 20% you can expect to see things like blemishes under the lacquer (which may degrade yet further in time) - and once you're pushing 25% you're practically at 'ex demo' prices.
So why did this horn have a 30% discount applied to it? The client had no idea - and neither, apparently, did the guy in the shop.

We pondered the issue a bit more - and it was at this point that I made my classic reference; that the music business is often shadier than the used car business.
This made the client chuckle somewhat, and sensing that I was on a roll I began to expound further on the notion...complete with a double-helping of anecdotes...all nicely rounded off with the client telling me that his son-in-law was...yep, you guessed the used car business.
No problem though - we both quickly agreed that he was one of the good ones. Phew.

Having sorted out the horn I gave it a bit of a blow. It seemed fine, though I noticed the G was still a bit gritty.
At times like this you sometimes have to make a bit of a judgement call. Every model of horn has a 'character', and within that range an individual horn may its own foibles - and it's quite common to find that some notes on a horn have a slightly different 'presence' than the other notes. There's little that you can do about this, other than use your embouchure to compensate as you see fit...a technique that quickly becomes automatic.
However, I just couldn't help but feel that this grittiness was just a bit too much out of character - so I embarked upon a few closed-keycup checks. This typically involves playing a note with one hand and pressing down on the keys that are held closed with springs...such as the palm keys and the side Bb/C keys. You can set these keys up 'by the book' but they can still give problems due to being forced open (or 'fluttered') by the air pressure in the body tube, and every once in a while you'll find that you have set the key up as it needs to be set up rather than how you think it should be. It might not result in the most optimum feel, but that's down to the keywork - and addressing the issue often means modifying the keywork (which can be costly).

And it was then that I noticed a drop of moisture around the end of the mouthpiece.
How did that get there? I'm not a 'wet' player - it usually takes quite some time before I notice any moisture on the outside of the horn, and even then it's rarely from around the mouthpiece.
It didn't seem to have run down from the reed had just appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.
Or had it? A closer look showed that there were no water marks on the mouthpiece, but there was one on the crook...just after the end of the mouthpiece cork.
I pulled the mouthpiece off, stuck the corked end of the crook in my mouth and sealed off the other end...and sucked.
Lo and behold, a leak - from underneath the cork.
Something had obviously gone wrong when the cork was glued on, and air was getting in through the gap between the end of the ring of the tip of the crook and the edge of the cork - and it was travelling underneath the cork and coming out the other end.
A spot of glue later and all was well - it completely cleared up the slight grittiness on the G.

So, could this be the reason for the 30%? Had someone previously bought this horn and had exactly the same troubles as my client? Had they perhaps taken it back to have the problems addressed, without much luck? Had they given up in despair and taken a refund or a replacement? Is it during this time that the horn got its scratch?
30% off is about the going rate for a horn that seems OK, but that just doesn't quite put out 100% for some reason.
I guess we'll never know...but someone does, and it would have been nice to have been told.

Not that the client is bothered now - he's got a very fine horn at a bargain price, plus the small cost of a few tweaks.
As he left, he waved...from the window of his very fine car, courtesy of his very fine son-in-law.


Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015