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

It's an ill wind...

Now here's a funny thing...
If you've read a few of the articles on this site you'd (hopefully) have concluded that regular care and maintenance of your instruments is a jolly good thing. It should come as a surprise then if I suggested that perhaps the best way to ensure a fully working instrument is to drop it.

I should explain...and I will.
It's apparent (to me, anyway) that the vast majority of parents who have children that play instruments simply have no idea as to what their children's instruments require in terms of maintenance and servicing - or worst still, that they even require it at all.
This rather unfortunate fact often leaves children struggling with instruments that can be difficult to play, if not practically impossible. It's often only when the instrument gives up the ghost entirely that my services are called for - and that can be quite some years after it was purchased.

The client who called by the other day brought a saxophone along. It seemed his son had had a slight accident and the sax had taken a bit of a tumble. There was a nice crease to the lip of the bell and the low Eb key guard had been caved in - but aside from that there wasn't really much damage to the keywork.
What had stopped the horn dead in its tracks was that the octave key on the crook had taken a knock too and was failing to close at all. This meant that the horn would only play above top G - perhaps barely down to middle D with a bit of luck and a lot of puff, but certainly no lower. The thing was, though, that having removed the crease in the bell, reshaped the bent guard and realigned the octave key, the horn was still a terrible blower.

OK, so it was a fairly cheap instrument of a make I'd never heard of - a common-or-garden Selmer copy out of Taiwan - but it should still have played quite reasonably enough. I took a closer look, and found a whole host of problems that would have had a cumulative effect on the horn's playability as you ran down the scale. They weren't immediately obvious either. Some keys showed leaks at the back of the pads, the point screws looked like they'd been hand filed to shape - and there was so much free play in the octave key mechanism that even when the key was fully pressed down it barely moved the pin at the other end. None of these problems were associated with the recent damage the horn had received.

The real tragedy though was that the client's son had been playing on this horn for the past four years - so it was clear that there was both an interest and a desire to play in spite of the difficulties.
It looked to me like the horn would have worked reasonably well for the first six months or so. New pads would have been soft and thus able to compensate for dodgy seating, and the action would have been slightly less worn. After that first six months the horns response would have begun to drop off quite rapidly, until it reached the state it was in now. Had the player not dropped the thing he'd probably still be struggling to play it even to this day.
To some extent even the most proficient players experience this - any instrument that's been in use for much more than six months will have a few minor faults, whether it be a slight leak due to a pad shifting or a key cork compressing, or perhaps a spot of free play or double-action due to wear and tear. Such players tend to compensate for these minor faults quite subconsciously; sometimes even accepting and acknowledging them, and compensating as necessary for as long as possible. The difference is though that there's a realisation that something's amiss - which is not something the average student will have. They'll often carry on regardless, perhaps thinking that the problem lies with them rather than the instrument.

Naturally, the client was appalled to learn of the faults that plagued his son's saxophone and quite rightly wondered why the teacher hadn't mentioned anything. Alas, you can't always rely on the teacher to keep an eye on the mechanics of an instrument - no more so than you'd expect a driving instructor to point out a dodgy wheel bearing or a slipping alternator belt. I'd even go so far as to say that quite a few teachers are playing on instruments that are even less well maintained than those of their pupils (I've seen 'em!).

So I fixed the problems as I found them, and ended up with a horn that blew quite nicely given its limitations.
And then I put in a few good words for the player...
It seemed to me that anyone who'd persevered for four years on a horn that surely couldn't have been giving its best deserved a break. It was evident that the interest was there, both from the player and from supportive parents - so I pitched in with a few recommendations.
The first one was to invest in a better mouthpiece. The student was still using the one that came with the horn - a typical moulded jobby. It blew very bright, even for my tastes, and a decent mouthpiece would allow the student to start working on opposed to simply producing notes.
My second recommendation was potentially rather more costly.
Given the build quality of the horn I didn't think it worth the expense of a major service. It would have cost nigh on £100 to bring the horn up to a decent standard - and I felt that was money that could be best spent on a better instrument...say around Christmas time (See? I can even help with your shopping problems!).
I do understand the age-old dilemma of balancing the whims of children with the corresponding expense of funding such desires, but I reckon four years is a pretty good indicator that there's a long-term interest.

All in all quite an expensive trip to the repairer for this client - but I wouldn't mind betting that his son is thinking that dropping his sax was the best thing he'd done in a very long time.


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