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

Qualified



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 it works.
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 doing.

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 repair.

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 it is.
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.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015