Ever fancied being an instrument repairer? Any idea what's required
of you before you can set yourself up with a workshop, have some
cards printed up and open your doors for business?
Not a lot, really. Actually, just the above, frankly.
I suppose you could do the same with almost any service industry,
but I think you'd be more likely to get away with not actually knowing
what you're doing for far longer as an instrument repairer. It's
easy enough to see why - if you take your car into a garage to be
fixed and it doesn't work when it comes out, it'll be pretty obvious.
Likewise, a broken washing machine that hasn't been fixed properly
still won't wash - but when it comes to musical instruments it's
often not easy for the client to know whether an instrument is working
properly or not.
It would help to define 'properly' - and as I see it that means
the instrument is capable of fulfilling the functions it was designed
for to the best of its abilities. In simpler terms it means that
an experienced and competent player could blow it and state that
More often than not though, the players are neither experienced
nor competent (i.e. students and beginners) - and that's where scope
lies for a poorly serviced instrument to be passed off as fully
working. After all, how are they really going to know if their instrument
is working properly - especially if the fault that brought them
in has been fixed whilst leaving others unresolved?
On that basis you wouldn't think it uncommon for clients to ask
what a repairer's credentials might be, and yet in decades of repairing
I think I've been asked barely half a dozen times.
Of course, I get a lot of clients through recommendation (which
serves as a kind of credential) - but there are still very significant
numbers of new clients who, I guess, simply assume I know what I'm
It can actually be quite unsettling to be asked to prove one's
level of skill. If I've just completed a particularly tricky overhaul
on a vintage horn and I'm then asked by an anonymous caller to reassure
them that I'm capable of servicing their instruments, there's a
tendency to want to pick up the newly repaired horn and play it
at them down the phone and shout "Is that good enough for ya??"
(not that that proves anything other than I can play a sax, and
says nothing for my ability to recognise that the caller simply
has no other way of ascertaining whether I'm any good or not).
I think too that people are genuinely concerned about handing over
something that has quite a lot of monetary value (as well as sentimental
value in some cases) - and I well remember a caller who made quite
a big deal of informing me that his oboe was worth a substantial
sum of money, and that I might not be accustomed to working on such
an expensive instrument. In fact it was good but basic Howarth model,
worth about £2000, and completely eclipsed in value by the
period clarinet I was currently working on...which was but one of
four on the bench at the time. I do believe I rather enjoyed pointing
that out, but then I'm only human.
The point is though, what formal qualifications exist for the would-be
repairer to strive for? What award or certificate serves to prove
to prospective clients that you're up to the mark?
As far as I'm aware, none whatsoever.
OK, in the UK at least we have the 'City and Guilds' certificate
(I have one of these). These are usually presented upon completion
of a two or three year repair course - but in terms of a certificate
of expertise I'd say that they carry only very slightly more weight
than the slip of paper you get once you've passed your driving test.
In other words, you're now qualified to really begin to learn what
it's all about. So not much use at all in a practical sense.
There are, no doubt, independent courses that the would-be repairer
can attend - but without any national or trade recognition, such
qualifications won't carry much clout either - and as apprenticeships
are all but unheard of these days it doesn't leave many options
open for the fledgling repairer to gain any sort of accreditation
other than to get on with the job and wait for word-of-mouth to
do its stuff.
There are, however, trade associations.
These sound good in theory, but what really counts is how selective
the membership process is (if at all) and whether there's any process
of peer review (other experts checking the workmanship of applicants)
- otherwise they're little better than social clubs.
One prominent general association (i.e. all trades) says that it
will contact five clients of prospective applicants to ask them
how satisfied they are with the workmanship - but that makes the
assumption that the clients actually know whether or not they had
a decent job done. I would say that the minimum required would be
an examination by another expert in the field of several jobs done,
coupled with further arbitrary testing at least once a year thereafter.
There's certainly no scheme like that in the field of instrument
What prompted these thoughts was the arrival of an old Yamaha YAS61
in the workshop, having been brought in by a client who'd recently
spent the best part of £500 having it overhauled.
It was clearly not working, despite having been returned the repairer
at least once for remedial repairs - and it was astonishingly easy
to see why. Hardly any of the pads were seating, and in many cases
the pads fitted were quite plainly too small for the diameter of
the cup. This is inexcusable - and so bad was the job that it's
been 'awarded' a place in my Black
Museum, where you can see for yourself what a catalogue of errors
I've no doubt that more than a few of you will exclaim "But
it's obvious it's a crap job!" - which just goes to show that
some clients know what a good job is, and some don't.
What's worse is that the repairer who carried out the work is a
member of a trade association - NAMIR - which claims to "encourage
a high standard of workmanship and customer care". Quite.
I suppose it's reasonable to suggest that dissatisfied clients contact
the association and make a complaint - but then that still leaves
the disgruntled client with a non-functional horn...and there's
little point in forcing the repairer to do the job again if they
couldn't get it right the first (or even second) time (though in
such cases there are always consumer watchdogs to fall back on,
such as Trading Standards).
So where does that leave the owner of a broken horn, looking to
find someone qualified and competent to put it right?
On their own, in all reality - and back to relying on word-of-mouth...assuming
they actually know anyone able to give a qualified opinion.
That's why I don't bother with certificates and trade associations,
they simply don't have any integrity as far as I can see.
I suppose I could set up a trade association myself - complete with
expert peer review and arbitrary sample testing...but I'm far too
busy with repairs as it is, which is about as good a qualification
as I can come up with.