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

The pied piper

I don't like spiders.

OK I admit that this makes me something of a wimp - especially when you consider the comparative wee size and harmless nature of our indigenous species here in the UK. Yes, I know they're harmless. Yes, I know they fulfil a vital role in pest predation. Yes, I know they're more afraid of me than I am of them - but I still don't like them.
However, I'm entirely fascinated by them.

I've watched garden spiders construct elaborate and beautiful webs in my garden, and paused in contemplation at the sight of a web crusted with frost as Autumn gives way to Winter. I've watched silvery jumping spiders hopping around a sun-scorched brick wall in the height of summer.
I've even fed spiders. I think most people do this at some point in their lives. An unlucky fly and a handy spider's web makes for a somewhat gruesome few minutes of 'entertainment'. There's also perhaps the sense that, as you place an insect on the web, you're never entirely quite sure just what's going to come out and grab it. If it's big (OK, OK, big-ISH), black and fast it always makes you take a quick step back.
Well, maybe just me then.

So why then is my workshop full of cobwebs?
Three reasons really. The first is the most obvious - I'm too idle to clean 'em up. Besides, a workshop's for working in - not for cleaning. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.
Secondly, I hate flies. I don't hate them for the same reason as I hate spiders - but what's guaranteed to tee me off more than most things is the sound of a large bluebottle buzzing around the workshop, interrupting the otherwise blissful silence. Plus, they also have a habit of landing on my tea mug - thus ruining a perfectly good cuppa. It's not uncommon for clients to arrive and find me running round the workshop wielding an old badminton racket, chasing after an annoying fly.

The last reason is something of a contradiction to my opening statement - I almost consider them to be my 'pets'.
Of the two species that I find in my workshop, the Daddy Long Legs, or Pholcus phalangioides is the dancer. These spindly creatures respond to a disturbance by throwing themselves into a series of jerks and spasms whilst dangling from their threads.
Find five or six in a line and make a sudden loud noise and it makes for quite an amusing spectacle - a bit like watching a puppeteer with the DTs . Every time I make a cup of tea I'm accompanied by a little team of dancing spiders that bounce and gyrate in time to the various clangs and bangs associated with brewing a cuppa (I'm not dainty when it comes to the tea ceremony).
There's quite a few in the outside loo, and I can only hint as to what makes them jump and jive...

The other species, the common house spider, is the music lover.
These hairy beasties weave a carpet web. I feel I have some affinity with them, as their webs start out clean and pristine but very rapidly collect a thick layer of dust and detritus - none of which seems to bother them at all. When the web gets so dusty or tatty that's it's no longer of any use they just lay a fresh one right over the top. Clearly a creature after my own heart.
These guys hang out on the window that overlooks my workbench, and about the only time I see them is when I'm play-testing an instrument.
It appears that the sound waves given off by the instrument cause the web to vibrate, and this in turn leads the spider to believe that lunch has arrives. It then dashes out, has a quick look round, presumably mutters a few oaths then returns to its lair.

Now, when you're faced with a sunny day, a newly restored flute, an obliging spider and no real hurry to move onto the next job it seems entirely logical, sensible even, to spend a bit of time engaged in a little impromptu research.
For example; it's clear that the sound of a flute will cause the spider to come rushing out onto its web - but would a single note be enough, and if so, what note? A high one or a low one?
Through a process of rigorous testing (i.e. feet up on the bench whilst blowing a few notes on a flute) I soon established that they prefer a range of notes. I'm guessing here that the changes in frequency appears to them much like the vibrations a fly would make when caught in the web.
I then discovered that certain scientific combinations of variable frequencies (that's tunes to you and I) had differing effects.
A spot of Handel's 'Queen of Sheba' made the spider dash out then dash straight back in again...then out again etc.
Something slow by Mozart resulted only in a cautious peep from the lair.

By far and away the most interesting result was with a jazz standard - 'Bluesette', by Toots Theilmans.
This not only drew the spider out onto the web, but caused it to stop and (presumably) listen.

I was rather chuffed with my findings, and took every opportunity to demonstrate it to some of the younger clients that popped into the workshop. I guess plenty of kids these days, particularly teenagers, are inclined to be somewhat 'worldly-wise'...or cynical...but even they seemed to be impressed by my seemingly magical ability to 'charm' spiders.
My reputation as a sorcerer grew daily - until one day, after having given the client my usual pre-show spiel (layyydeees an' gennelmen...the 150th wonder of the worldeeeee..) the spider refused to show.

A bit of judicious poking around (using a VERY long stick) proved that my performing spider had done a runner.
I won't say that I was heartbroken, just a bit disappointed that I no longer had a co-star.
My disappointment was short-lived though, for a few weeks later the web was taken up by a new inhabitant.
If the last spider could be compared to a cultured artiste then this one was an uncivilised brute. By far and away much larger, and much less inclined to perform to something as twee as a flute.
I tried to train it - but I had the distinct impression that as I sat there playing the flute for it, it sat in its lair sulking. I half imagined it saying (in a Bronx accent, of course) "Enough flute already! Whaddya take me for - a schmooz?"

Clearly it needed something rather more impressive, and so it was that I found that this spider only came out for the sound of a saxophone.
However, it wouldn't do so with any degree of reliability - and consistently failed to perform for expectant clients.
I was all for getting rid of it, but it was almost bigger than me and I'm pretty sure that had I poked it with a stick it would have grabbed said stick and beaten the crap out of me.

The last time I saw it was the last time I had a bass sax in the workshop.
I'd finished the repairs and was playing the sax when I noticed a few legs poking out of the spider's lair. Naturally I wondered what would happen if I let loose with a few low notes - so I did.
That big ol' spider went absolutely berserk! It shot out onto the web like the place was on fire, and with each booming note it hopped and jumped around like it had fleas.
I think I overdid it though, because once it had returned to its lair I never saw it again. It probably didn't help matters when I stopped playing to shout "Dance! Dance for me...muaaahahaaaahahaa" at it.

And so, dear reader, the moral of this tale is that every time you pick up your instrument and play it, you can be pretty sure that something has its eye on you. And the other one...and the other...and the other.....


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