It goes without saying that almost all the instruments that find
their way into my workshop are in some state of disrepair - and
that my job largely consists of diagnosing the faults and repairing
However, there are times when the matter in hand isn't so much about
what's wrong the instrument but how it got like that in the first
In these cases there's nearly always a common factor - that of
the instrument being out of the care of the owner, whether it be
left in storage somewhere or placed in the trust of someone else...most
typically a shipper or the postal service. The instrument leaves
the care of the owner in good condition, and is returned damaged
in some fashion.
Another common factor is that the instruments are almost all saxes;
flutes and clarinets etc. are small and light enough to cope with
a few knocks, and usually only exhibit damage if severely mistreated.
It then falls to me (perhaps an unfortunate choice of words) to
inspect the instrument and speculate as to how any may have damage
occurred. This can either be an informal process - simply to satisfy
the client's curiosity or bemusement - or a formal one, usually
as part of an insurance claim.
It's a particularly interesting facet of my job, and one that requires
quite a thorough examination of both the instrument and its packaging.
In terms of an insurance claim all that's really needed is an answer
to the 'whodunnit' question. Someone is deemed to be responsible,
it's my job to look at the evidence and present the most likely
cause of damage - from which it can be deduced who gets to pay the
There are times though when it's just as important to establish
how the instrument was damaged, or where, when and why (a howdunnit,
wheredunnit, whendunnit and, well, you get the gist). This is more
likely to be of interest to the client when an instrument gets damaged
in storage - which supposes a deliberate act rather than an accident.
In a very few cases the evidence points to deliberate damage on
the part of the owner - and this is always indicative of either
a client who's dropped the instrument and is too embarrassed to
admit to it (I usually get them to 'fess it up' in the end - it's
good Karma) or a young student who perhaps would prefer to be doing
other things rather than learning to play an instrument.
There are three main types of damage seen on a cased instrument;
Shock damage, impact and crush damage. Each type has a particular
Shock damage result from a cased instrument being dropped. This
doesn't always leave marks on the case, and tends to exhibits itself
on the instrument in the form of gentle bends to the metalwork and
large dents underneath protruding keys and fittings.
Impact damage, where something has hit the case, is more localised,
and often shows evidence of damage to the case. The damage to the
instrument is often confined to one area, and can be quite severe.
Crush damage is nearly always devastating - both case and instrument
are usually severely damaged. Tyre tracks are sometimes in evidence!
Naturally, there's some crossover in the damage type. A case falling
from a height and landing on one of its corners will result in impact
damage, for example - and often shock damage too.
It's usually relatively easy to tell what has happened to an instrument
by the nature of the damage - a skill that comes from seeing countless
similarly damaged instruments where the owner claims full responsibility
and is able to describe how it happened in detail.
Thus, for a sax with a bent bell lip (with no scratches to the bell),
a dent in the bell under the bell stay joint and a slight forward
bend in the body, with perhaps some damage around the G/G# tone
hole would indicate that the sax was dropping in its case with the
bell facing the floor. A vintage horn, with a small, thin bell brace
will usually also have a hefty dent where it meets the body, and
the toneholes either side of it will be badly distorted.
Scratches to the bell around the creased and bent lip would indicate
the horn it a hard surface - so wouldn't have been in its case when
it hit the deck (though it's as well to check the case for anything
that might have caused the scratches).
The client is often present when I make my examination, and this
can lead to some startling revelations for them.
A recent example was a Selmer alto that had severe damage to its
low Eb guard, and only the guard, on its return from a spell in
the company of baggage handlers.
Such was the nature of the damage that it would be extremely unlikely
that the force required to distort the guard so badly wouldn't have
left visible damage elsewhere (this usually occurs when case is
dropped on it its hinges - most case have the rear of the sax facing
The specific damage was unusual too - when a guard cops a whack
it usually folds flat, but this guard had a visible groove in it
along with scratches around the groove. This couldn't have happened
while the horn was in the case - the pattern of damage, the groove,
the scratches and the lack of any other damage point to this horn
having been taken out of its case and then damaged somehow.
Likely scenario? Someone opened the case in transit, got the horn
out of the case and was swinging it about a la 'look at me, I'm
a sax player'. In the course of a backward swing the horn hit a
table, or some other object with a neat edge.
Just a guess, of course - but quite clearly the horn was damaged
outside the case, and in a very specific manner.
There are times though when even I'm beat.
The most recent example concerned a straight soprano sax. This was
brought in by a retailer who'd had the horn returned under warranty
with an accompanying note that told of problem with the low notes.
A second note from a teacher confirmed the problem.
opening the well-wrapped case the retailer discovered all the bell
keys hanging off, and noticed that the bell key upper pillar had
been knocked some considerable distance out of line.
The most obvious conclusion was that it couldn't have been sent
out like this in the first place - the retailer would certainly
have spotted the keys hanging off the horn - so it was transit damage.
However, the sax case was one of the semi-soft variety. These cases
are rather good - they have a dense foam or polystyrene interior
which gives excellent shock protection and a hardboard shell (covered
with a black synthetic material) that gives good impact and crush
resistance. These cases are light and portable, though less resistant
to general wear and tear than a full hard case.
I was sceptical that the horn could have taken such damage whilst
in its case ; the bell key pillar was a substantial piece of brass,
and a force transmitted through the case sufficient to bend this
pillar would have left a lot of collateral evidence.
My first test then was to check the clearance between the top of
the bell key pillar and the case lid.
I did this by placing a mound of blu-tak on top of the pillar, raising
it and shutting the lid until such times as the lid deformed the
mound. By this method I determined that there was about 18mm clearance.
This would mean that an impact to the lid would first have to deform
it by 18mm before the lining of the case touched the pillar.
Had it done so, the stiff foam would have received a dent. This
is easy enough to test for - simply find a flat spot in the case
and poke a fingernail into the lining. It leaves a dent - and I
would have expected to have found one immediately above the bent
pillar. There was no dent though.
It was increasingly looking like the damage had been sustained
outside of the case - which suggested 'operator error' (a polite
way of saying the player dropped the horn), and in such instances
it's often less hassle for the retailer to have the problem fixed
and return the goods rather than waste time arguing about who's
at fault, and chalking the bill up to expenses.
And so the horn was repaired and returned - but not before I'd tested
the effectiveness of the case by putting the horn in it and knocking
it against a few doors and table legs.
A week or so later I was extremely surprised to have an email forwarded
to me by the retailer from the owner of the horn. Apparently it
still wasn't working - and there was a rather 'frank' note from
the player's teacher that wasn't at all complimentary.
This was getting to be very suspicious indeed.
On collecting the horn I found exactly the same damage as before
- with the bell key pillar knocked out of line and half the bell
keys hanging off. The retailers instructions this time were to 'test
to destruction' - which effectively means do absolutely anything
to replicate the damage. I was being paid to wreck a horn!
The thing was - how? I couldn't just take a hammer to it, I had
to find out exactly what caused the damage. Was it a case of a disgruntled
buyer deliberately sabotaging the instrument, or was there really
something about the design of the horn or the case that led to the
damage? To be honest it was a tough one to call, given that the
retailer had sent out a great many similar horns and not had a single
one back like this one.
So, I once again repaired the damage and prepared to do whatever
it took to break the horn again.
My first test was to give the pillar a good clout. I knew that this
would undoubtedly bend the pillar, but I'd have to hit the pillar
in a particular spot and unless I was particularly careful it would
leave an impact mark. I simply couldn't imagine anyone going to
all the trouble to do this - and in any event, when I did the test
I found that it didn't bend the pillar in quite the same way.
Once again I realigned the pillar and replaced the keys.
I then set about jumping on the case. This didn't have any effect
at all...so I gave it a couple of hefty kicks. Again, no effect.
I threw it around the workshop for a while - no effect.
I then decided to be a bit more methodical by dropping the case
onto each of its sides, one by one - first the top, then the bottom,
then the sides...
Nothing happened...until I dropped the case on its end, specifically
the mouthpiece end.
The results were dramatic. Dropping the case from head height straight
onto the end resulted in the bell key pillar being knocked clean
out of line! I'd found the problem. I repeated the test a few times
and found that the minimum height at which damage was sustained
was at about chest height. A drop from any lower than that didn't
have any effect, neither did swinging the case into a wall - unless
you really, really gave it one hell of a swing (and then you'd rightly
expect some damage - and that effectively comes under the 'operator
error' heading). I also found I had to drop the case dead square
onto its end - a drop at even a slight angle (onto a corner, for
example) didn't result in any damage.
What was causing the damage was 'hammer action'. As the case accelerates
down towards the floor it stores energy. Once it hits the floor
inertia is translated into force, and the combined weight of the
bell keys hurtles forward into the pillar like a hammer, thus deforming
At some point during the horn's journey the case had taken a whack
'end on' - and this had happened on two separate occasions. Clearly
the chief suspect is the courier - but much as we often moan about
the way our parcels are handled I find it hard to believe that a
courier would deliberately drop a package from head height, twice,
in the same fashion. I suppose, at a pinch, you might suppose that
the courier knew the parcel contained a soprano sax, and that they
had some peculiar vendetta against the instrument....perhaps as
a result of living next door to someone who played Kenny G albums
at all hours of the night...
Seems unlikely though.
I rather suspect the answer is more mundane.
The most likely cause of the damage is the horn sliding about in
the back of a van.
In a well-packed van there would be other parcels in the load space
- but at some point or other most of these parcels will have been
delivered...leaving a great deal more space. It's possible then
that the horn was able to move about (perhaps it was even the last
package to be delivered on both occasions). Even the smallest van
has at least five feet of floor space - and I suggest that in the
process of accelerating and braking the horn had slid that five
feet across the van's floor and crashed into a solid wall - and
let's be frank here, courier drivers aren't exactly noted for their
propensity to drive around in a slow and sedate manner. In an empty
van there's a very good chance that the parcel would have ended
up aligned with one of the sides - thus ensuring that when it eventually
slid across the floor it would have hit a well end-on.
That, my friends, is my theory - and I'm sticking to it.
There is, however, one remaining mystery.
Clearly the horn was damaged when it arrived at the buyer's house
- and on both occasions the complaint was that the low notes didn't
work. This point was made quite clear in the teacher's email.
The mystery is - how on earth could anyone not notice that the bell
keys were hanging off?