Got a call from one of my regular clients - she
was in a bit of a panic because her tenor, which I'd recently serviced,
had developed a fault which made it virtually unplayable.
This is always worrying, for both the player and me, but from my
perspective it points the finger at something I'm doing that isn't
holding up 'in the wild'. Maybe a pad has fallen out - and that
might suggest I've not used enough shellac or haven't done sufficient
preparation of the key cup before installation. Perhaps a cork or
a felt has fallen off, which might indicate an issue with the glue
I'm using. And then there's plain old mechanical failure, which
could mean that I'm not paying enough attention to assembly or I'm
failing to spot build quality issues that might lead to the horn
falling apart in the not-too-distant future.
Such things happen from time-to-time, though after so many years
in the trade I'm pretty confident in my ability to get the basics
right - but there's always that nasty little voice in the back of
the head that whispers "You're losing it, mate. First it's
a pad falling out, then it's a key falling off...and two years later
you'll be living in a home for confused gentlefolk, sucking soup
up through a straw while you bore the other residents with tales
of how you taught Stan Getz to play the ukelele..."
In such situations the first thing I ask the client
is to describe the symptoms. By far the most common reason for a
return is down to what I call "excitable assembly'. You know
how it goes - you've just shelled out a pile of cash to have your
horn serviced and you rush home from the repairer to put it through
its paces in the comfort of your own home. You're that keen to get
started that you whip the crook out of the case, whack it on the
horn and shove a mouthpiece on it...and then find that the lower
octave doesn't work. In your haste to assemble the freshly-serviced
instrument you've bent the crook key.
It sounds like the sort of mistake only a beginner would make, but
a lot of experienced players are used to using horns that have very
poorly aligned octave mechs...with lots of play between the ring
of the crook key and the pin that sticks up from the body. A good
service will sort this issue out, but with a smaller distance between
the ring and the pin there's now far less tolerance for heavy handling.
We ruled out this old chestnut, so I had her bring
the horn in immediately - at which point it was with some relief
that I found the problem was indeed a bent key. Specifically, the
A key - and even more specifically, the A key touchpiece which had
been bent upwards.
I say it's a relief for me but it's also something of a relief for
the client. Part of the reason we tend to stick with the same doctor/dentist/car
mechanic is that they have a proven track record down the years.
You go in with a problem, they fix it...and it stays fixed. It engenders
confidence and trust - which brings with it a sense of security
that comes from the feeling that it's an aspect of your busy life
that's well and truly sorted. Which is why having to go back to
have a fix re-fixed has implications that lead to troubling questions,
of which the most pertinent must surely be "If they got this
wrong, what else have they been getting wrong?".
So when the problem turns out to be an entirely new one that's completely
unconnected to the work that had been carried out previously, everyone
can breathe a sigh of relief.
But how on earth did it happen? It's quite a tough key so it would
have taken a fair bit of force to bend it upwards, but you'd be
surprised at how much force you can exert on the keys when you're
handling but not playing the horn (getting it out of and putting
it back into the case, for example).
You'd also be surprised at how careless you can be. It doesn't take
much - a distraction here, a rushed doubling swap there and before
you know it a finger has slipped under a key and the damage is done.
It often happens on those gigs where the band is cooking and the
punters are crammed onto the dancefloor. It's so easy (if not essential)
to get carried away and indulge in a spot of 'showboating' - which
means that the poor old sax gets rather a rough ride as you swing
it this way and that. I'm sure we've all done it - but if you haven't,
maybe you're not doing the right kind of gigs...
And the A is a particularly nasty key to bend.
If you bend, say, a palm or a side key it's pretty much a straightforward
'put it back where it once was' job - because these keys work in
isolation. But the A key has a relationship with the Bis Bb and
the Aux.B. This means you can't just bend the touchpiece down and
leave it at that, you have to make sure the A and Bis Bb close at
exactly the same time, and you have to make sure the Aux.B does
so as well. It means a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, as each adjustment
you make will throw out one of the others. I sorted it out and we
had a bit of a chat as to how such a thing might have happened,
after which the client went along her merry way.
The weeks passed, and I thought no more of the
incident - until she called again. Exactly the same problem.
This was even more worrying than before, and she seemed to think
(quite reasonably) that it might be a problem with the horn - such
as soft keywork. I hear this a lot; it's a term that gets bandied
round whenever there's an ongoing issue with a horn that fails to
stay in regulation - but the actual problem affects very, very few
horns...and mostly none that you're likely to want to play in a
More often than not there's a simpler underlying issue, the most
common of which is that the horn was never really in regulation
in the first place - usually because the pads aren't stable.
With that said, I had a client who suffered from repeating problems
with the regulation on his Yamaha tenor - and I could never figure
out why. The keys were plenty stiff enough, the pads were seated
perfectly - but he'd keep coming in with the same old problem. It
all became terrifyingly clear when I asked him to play the horn.
You've heard of the term 'vice-like grip', yeah? I swear you could
almost see the body tube flexing under the pressure from his fingers
- and to make matters worse he was lifting his fingers clean off
the keys and bringing them smashing down again with all the force
he could muster. I've never seen anything like it, before or since.
Anyway, I had the client bring the horn in again
and we popped it up on the bench for a look-see. Sure enough the
A key touchpiece was bent up.
She was sure it was a problem with the horn - but it was a TJ Signature
Custom, which is not a horn I'd describe as having soft keywork.
There had to be another explanation. But she hadn't had the same
problem with her other horn, and as far as she was aware she wasn't
handling it any differently to the tenor. So why does the key keep
I took the opportunity to show her just how hard it was to bend
the key. I set the horn up with wedges under the keys and asked
her to press down hard on the touchpiece - and then showed her just
how little the key had moved for quite some considerable force applied.
I set about fixing the horn, and we again discussed possible handling
issues. I asked her to put the horn in the case and take it out
again, but couldn't see anything that might result in bent keys.
It was a complete mystery. We even discussed the possibility that
someone 'had it in for her' and was sabotaging the horn while her
back was turned. But no, she didn't think she knew anyone who hated
her playing that much.
And so she left again, perhaps slightly less merry than the last
time - but at least the horn was working again.
Until last week.
Yep, same thing. Panicked call, key bent, please expedite.
This was getting silly. Maybe there really was something wrong with
the key? Maybe there was some weird property of the brass that meant
it bent readily in one direction but not the other. Maybe there
was a crack in it. It all sounds feasible, but disappears in a puff
of smoke when you consider that part of the process of bending a
key back into alignment means having to bend it both ways. Brass
is quite elastic - which means that once you've bent it one way,
you need to bend it the other way (just a little) to relieve the
stress you've just put into it. If you don't do this it will self-relieve
over a period of time...which can lead to all sort of problems with
the regulation. If there's a problem with the integrity of the key,
it'll show up during this process.
So the horn came in again - but because she was busy she had her
hubby bring it in. He was just as puzzled as I was. "I dunno
what she does with her horns, but she swears she takes good care
I did the usual fix, and even gave the key a good scrute under a
loupe, just to see if there was anything I was missing. But no,
it all looked to be in fine fettle. I did my usual play-test, I
rattled my fingers over the action, I tapped here and there, I passed
the horn from hand to hand...but I got nothing.
At this point I'd hand the horn back the client and have them play
it, but as her hubby wasn't a player there didn't seem much point
in the exercise - so I popped the crook off and put the horn back
in its case.
"Look at this" I cried! And we both huddled over the case
and peered down at the culprit. It was a Hiscox case - a perfectly
good and sturdy case, the mainstay of gigging musicians all over
the world. It's not quite what you'd call a shaped case, rather
it's a little more coffin-like on the side where the bell lies -
and this affords some space for a small accessory compartment.
This compartment is made from two bits of padded hardboard, glued
together and attached to the side of the case to form a vaguely
The bits of hardboard had become detached from each other, and the
side of the case - and all that was holding them (roughly) in place
was the remains of the padding which covered them. But they could
now move - and this is exactly what they did.
I went to place the horn in the case, and just before I did so I
placed the crook into its bag and laid it in the compartment. Because
it had a few bits and bobs in it already I gave the bag a bit of
a wiggle to make some space...at which point the hardwood sides
were pushed out into where the body of the horn would lie. And the
apex of the two bits of hardwood lay (you guessed it) exactly at
the point where the A touchpiece would come down.
But merely putting the horn in the case with the hardboard beneath
the A touchpiece wasn't the problem. It looked like the horn was
sat snugly in the case - so unless you were looking out for the
problem or just happened to spot it by luck, you'd have gone right
ahead and closed the lid. And that's when the damage is done. With
each latch you closed you'd be increasing the downward force on
the body, and thus the poor old A key.
And as is so often typical of such problems, it doesn't happen every
time. A very specific set of circumstances have to align ...which
makes it that most dreaded of all problems - an intermittent one.
It could so easily have happened again had I not spotted the issue
- and yes, I got lucky the third time. It won't happen again - because
the next time someone rings up about a catastrophic problem that's
stopped their horn dead in its tracks, my first question won't be
"Can you get the top notes but not the lower?" - it'll
be "Are you using a Hiscox case?".
It just so happened that I had another horn in
with a Hiscox case, an alto this time, and sure enough it exhibited
exactly the same problem...though not to the extent where it would
cause any problems. For now. So the home for confused gentlefolk
can wait a little longer - which gives me time to hone and perfect
my Stan Getz story - and all you Hiscox case owners out there can
go give your accessory compartments a wiggle.