I seem to be adding a few more strings to my metaphorical bow lately.
With the signing of the contract with Haynes I suppose I can officially
call myself an author now (I'm holding off, at least until I can
walk into W.H Smiths and see my work on the shelf) and just a few
weeks ago I took on board the mantle of a teacher.
I'm already looking out for a velvet smoking jacket and a fez for
my "author's outfit", I suppose now I'll have to find
a tweed jacket with leather arm-patches...
It all started when a regular client bought a rather beaten-up
vintage soprano sax and brought it along to the workshop for a quote,
with a view to having it properly fixed up. It was, potentially,
quite a nice little soprano - but years of use and a lot more abuse
had taken its toll. The body was a bit bent, the action was wobbly
and practically every key cup had been attacked with a mallet.
I did the traditional 'sucking in of the breath' and quoted £500
to put it back into good shape.
You can always tell when your quote is spot on, there'll be a moment's
quiet contemplation from the client before they say "OK, go
ahead". You know you've got it wrong when they say "Woohoo,
that's way cheaper than I expected!" or "&*%%$^!!
- how much??" In this case it wasn't so much a problem finding
the money, it was more that the cost of the repairs when added to
the purchase price made the whole project a little uneconomic.
The client decided to take the sax away and consider his next move,
which turned out to be to try a cheaper repairer who was advertising
his services on ebay - this chap was offering a complete overhaul
for the incredible sum of £250. The client emailed me about
it to ask whether or not I thought it was worth a try, which might
sound a bit cheeky - but then we have a good business relationship
and we both realised that my quote made things realistically rather
I don't have a problem with clients using other repairers, I know
there are times when I'm fully booked and they need the work done
in a hurry - the only problem is finding one that can do a decent
job. In this particular case I was extremely sceptical that he'd
get a decent job for £250, and what with him being a practising
GP (General Practitioner - a physician or doctor) I suggested that
finding a repairer on ebay was perhaps like looking for a surgeon
to do a nose job on there. Duly cautioned he decided to give it
a punt anyway and sent the sax off to be overhauled.
He brought it round a few weeks later - I was curious to see what
he'd get for £250, and as it turned out it wasn't a lot. In
effect all the chap had done is swapped out the pads and replaced
the corks and felts - plus a few dents had been knocked out here
and there. The action was still as loose as ever, which makes fitting
new pads completely pointless, and it still needed another £250s
worth of work to get it going properly.
Still, he seemed happy enough with it for the time being - though
I knew it was a situation that could only get worse.
And get worse it did, to the point where the client decided he'd
like to have a go at fixing it up himself.
This is something I don't have a problem with - after all, I've
'cheated' many a garage out of a hefty fee by virtue of doing most
of my own vehicle maintenance, though in recent years I have to
admit that the prospect of lying under a car in the freezing cold
while trying to tackle a recalcitrant bolt that you know is only
going to end in your knuckles being ripped open when the spanner
slips seems to have lost its appeal. Even reading about it makes
you wince, doesn't it?
For the most part the average punter is more than capable of tackling
basic maintenance jobs, and I even encourage as much by way of the
assorted articles in the Handy Hints section, but when it comes
to the more advanced techniques things get a bit trickier. It's
not so much that these techniques are difficult, it's more that
they require a certain 'touch' - and more often than not, specialist
tools. The tools are easy enough to come by, if expensive - it's
the 'touch' that's the hard part.
There are a number of manuals available that claim to show you these
advanced repair techniques, and indeed they do, but as with most
things that fall into the craft category they really only show you
'what' to do - and not 'how' to do it. The same principle can be
seen in action on many a gameshow. I'm sure quite a few readers
will remember the halcyon days of Bruce Forsyth's "Generation
Game" - in which a pair of family teams were shown how to do
or make something by a skilled professional (somehow it's always
the pot throwing and the cake icing that spring to mind), and then
had a couple of minutes in which to reproduce the pro's efforts
as best they could. The end result was often a wobbly pile of glutinous
goo, which usually merited a score of 4 out of 10...just for sheer
effort. Bruce would cry "Good game, good game!" and we'd
all have a look at the scoreboard while a team of Mr Shifters in
brown overcoats would do their best to clean up the piles of goo
without breaking into audible laughter.
It's clear then that it requires rather more than a "Here's
what you do" approach to learning such skills, and it's perhaps
a curious fact of life that the information contained within many
such manuals only really makes any sense when you already know how
to do the job.
In this case the client had managed to do quite well with regard
to the basics and had made quite a decent job of tidying up a couple
of his clarinets, but had the good sense to recognise that much
of what was needed was beyond his current technical abilities -
and with this in mind he dropped me a line with an unusual and interesting
proposal. Quite simply, he wanted to hire some time in my workshop
- with access to both the tools and my expertise with a view to
having a go at restoring the soprano himself.
Ordinarily I'd have dismissed the idea out of hand - for no other
reason than I've never felt I had the patience to teach, and the
fact that it was likely to be quite an expensive exercise - but
with the Haynes saxophone maintenance manual in the pipeline I felt
this might be a good opportunity to re-examine the ways in which
I might explain some of the techniques that I use, and so I agreed.
It also helped that the client was an affable chap, and quite agreeable
company (I can think of a few clients, bless 'em, with whom the
prospect of spending a whole day in the workshop would make me break
out in hives and reach for the liver salts).
I had concerns, I'll be honest - it wasn't so much that I was dreading
it or that I felt it would be a waste of time, rather it was more
that I had a few reservations about my abilities as a teacher. If
you were to ask me how to remove a small dent from a sax body I
could quite happily go through the details (first catch your dentball,
etc.) and I could even more easily demonstrate the technique - but
would that be enough? What happens when the client/student says
"But I don't understand!"?
Teaching is about far more than reeling off facts and figures, it's
about ensuring the information has been fully understood by the
pupil to the best of their abilities.
As it turned out I think I quite surprised myself.
It wasn't perhaps down to any ability to explain myself precisely,
nor any kind of systematic approach - it was more a case of being
able to pick up a piece of the sax and say "Right, this is
what we need to check; this is what we're looking for and this is
how we're going to fix it". I guess that's the very big difference
between a manual or a dvd and one-to-one tuition, the lesson can
be tailored from moment to moment and all that's required is that
rather than working in silence you simply say exactly what it is
you're trying to do at any given moment (now I come to write it
all down, it sounds so simple).
I'm always telling clients that repairing is as much about what
you don't do as what you do do - knowing what not to do is just
as vital as knowing what to do - so a fair amount of time was spent
in showing the client what could go wrong during the execution of
the various techniques, and that's something you simply can't get
unless you have someone right beside you to point such things out.
I noticed how much emphasis I placed on getting the 'foundations'
right, such as the notion that it's a waste of time trying to seat
a pad on a key that wobbles on its pivot screw. This built up into
a series of reference points - if you know the tonehole is level,
the cup is flat and there's no play in the action then the business
of setting the pad becomes a great deal easier. Likewise, setting
the action up is made easier by determining which key you're going
to fit first and fitting the other keys around it.
I also managed to keep the number of specialist tools required to
a minimum. For example, one of the stack rods was bent and required
straightening. Usually I'd pop it on the lathe, spin the rod at
high speed and use a piece of wood with an oval hole in it to straighten
the rod. It's a simple procedure that always impresses onlookers
if only because the technique looks like it can only end in disaster
until right at the last moment when the tool slips off the rod and
leaves it spinning straight and true in the lathe chuck. Not many
punters have a lathe at home, so I improvised with a cordless drill.
Worked a treat, if a little less rapidly than doing it on the lathe.
To be fair, the client deserves some of the credit - a good pupil
is a blessing for any teacher, and I was both pleased and relieved
that I didn't have to labour any points. Credit is also due for
his undertaking a positively Herculean task - the renovation of
a quite badly beaten-up soprano sax. Even I wouldn't tackle such
a job without quite a bit of forethought.
It took us both the best part of two days to cover the basics, and
although we didn't finish the job we at least had a straight horn
with a tight action, level toneholes and cups and both main stacks
fitted, set and balanced - with only the peripheral keys left to
do, and they could easily be finished off at home. That's really
not bad going for a complete beginner, and although it undoubtedly
ended up costing him rather more than simply having me do the job
he at least now has the skills to tackle some quite substantial
maintenance work on his own. Better than that, he now also had a
far better idea of what it was possible to get away with and what
it was not.
I did point out the fact that he'd have to invest quite a few pounds
in specialist tools, and that some of my more useful tools had been
made by myself - but then if you know how to correctly swedge a
key barrel to take up free play you only need do it half a dozen
or so times before the money you've saved on having a pro do it
will have paid for the special tools required. I can't honestly
say that it would an economic proposition for someone with just
a couple of horns, but if they had a 'fleet' of them it might well
work out to be a practical proposition in the long term.
I suppose, in theory, I ought to be concerned that having imparted
the 'secrets of the trade' there'll be little to prevent him kitting
himself up with a workshop and setting up in competition with me
- but although the techniques I taught can be applied to just about
any woodwind instrument, there are always variations...and that's
something that only the years can teach you how to deal with.
In any case, he's a GP - and I have a feeling that the drop in income
would be more than considerable! Mind you, the clients are more
interesting and tend to cough rather less and not look quite so
I really enjoyed my time as a teacher, and the client clearly felt
it was worth the effort. At the end of one of the sessions he commented
favourably on my teaching style - and given that this was very much
an experiment, and knowing the client as I do, I was really very
genuinely touched by the remark.