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 always a pleasure to do business with regular clients. For one thing it's reassuring that people choose to come back time and time again, and it's nice to have the chance to get to know people and make new friends and acquaintances.

Many of my regular clients are professional players who teach, so I get to see them more often than the clients who only need the annual service. My usual 'modus operandi' when taking in new instruments is to examine them on the spot, make notes, point out problems and discuss solutions. But with regular clients this often becomes unnecessary - they know what I do, I know what they want - which leaves more time for putting the feet up and chewing the fat about who's playing where, with whom and on what.

So I was none too worried when a regular dropped in a couple of saxes from his pupils for a checkover, I simply tucked the cases into a corner with the intention of checking them over later on.

A day or so later I popped the first of the horns on the bench. The client had told me that the pupil was getting a slightly buzzy sound from the lower octave. I suspected a small leak, though possibly a loose point screw, or maybe even a badly lubricated roller.
No sooner had I popped the horn on the bench than the phone rang, and as seems to be the case these days once you get on the phone it's hard to get off it again. Modern telecommunications technology has armed the punter with an impressive number of techniques for getting in touch - including the dreaded 'ringback'.
If you dial a number and find it's engaged you can dial in a single digit and put the phone down. The system will constantly re-check the number you dialled and when it's free it will ring your phone. What this means to me is that no sooner have I put the phone down from one call than it rings again! On a bad Saturday I can spend three hours on the phone answering one call after another. Luckily for me, technology allows me to fight back by means of an automatic answering service that cuts in if I'm on the phone - if nothing else it at least allows me to grab a cuppa between calls.

So when I returned to the horn on the bench I was not a little surprised to find that it was buzzing - all by itself! This came as quite a shock - I'm not accustomed to horns playing by themselves, let alone buzzing.
It was an odd buzz - if I had to describe it (and I suppose I do really) I'd say that it was low, intermittent and rather disturbingly 'determined'.

Evolution kicked in. There are a few buzzy sounds that seem to be hardwired into the human psyche - the most common of which is the dreaded whine of the mosquito in a darkened bedroom. The second most common is that of the stinging insects....or more accurately, the aggressive stinging insects. Nothing sets off the fight or fright mechanism more effectively than the sound of a wasp some two inches from your ear.

But this didn't sound like a wasp - it was far too ponderous and low a buzz.
It was with growing dread that a small, worried thought popped into my head that, on the whole, lower sounds mean bigger things.
Whatever it was that was buzzing inside the horn - it was big, very big, possibly enormous.

What to do?? I didn't much fancy lifting the horn off the bench - if whatever it was inside chose that moment to make an appearance I might have found it necessary to drop the horn...or even toss it across the workshop and be off outside the door before the horn hit the deck!
I didn't much fancy peering down the bore either...things always look bigger in a confined space...

My dilemma was solved when the creature crawled slowly out of the was a hornet, and a big one at that, fully two or more inches in length.
Although I grew up in the country, and I live and work in the country, I've never seen that many hornets, and never up close - this one was my fourth, two of which I have seen in the last couple of months (so maybe it's going to be a bumper year for them).
My only real experience of them comes from childhood comics and cartoons - where the hornet's nest is always depicted as something man and beast avoids at all costs, but which always ends up dropping on someone's head...thus giving the cartoonist the opportunity to use such exclamations as 'Yaroo', 'Eeek' and my personal favourite 'Yoiks'.
Fortunately I caught the tail end of a radio documentary some time ago in which the myths were debunked about hornets, and they were described as relatively peaceful insects. And I'm sure they are, but you can't deny that from a couple of feet away they can only be described as 'bloody scary'.

And when faced with such a sight we humans have a natural tendency to want to peek - which is why traffic jams always build up on the opposite side of the road to accidents, and people watch horror films from behind the sofa. Thus it was that I endeavoured to get a closer look at this, admittedly magnificent, not-so-wee beastie.
It was then that the bugger lifted off!

I'd like to have been able to describe the wonder of nature at seeing such a huge insect lift off, or comment on the grace and beauty of its flight....but I was a long way outside the workshop before the thing had gotten much higher than an inch or so off the bench, having decided that discretion was the better part of valour. I didn't even stop to grab my tobacco, which will tell any dedicated smoker just how quickly I exited the place.

Luckily for my work schedule the hornet decided that it hadn't got what it took to be a repairer and made its exit a moment or so later...with much dodging around on my part lest it make a beeline (hornetline?) for yours truly.

I'm certain it didn't come in with the instrument, it must have snuck in through the eaves whilst I was on the phone - leaving me with the predicament as to whether to put on the invoice ' remove hornet from bell, make good'.


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