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

There's always something...

I've decided what inscription I'd like on my gravestone.
Granted, it's something of a morbid thought - but then I'm at the age where I really ought to start thinking about such things, and if I look back at the sequence of events that led to this decision, it's clear to see that there's a pattern...or at least some evidence of the universe dropping a few hints.
The first sign, undoubtedly, is when your doctor stops saying "Take two of these, get some rest and you'll be fine" and starts using words like chronic, age, ongoing and sinister (a word which, I feel, should always be accompanied by a crashing roll of thunder...or at least jazzed up a little with a liberal application of heavy reverb).
The second sign is when you find yourself taking to the internet in a fruitless search for 'alternative' therapies. For someone with a reasonably analytical mind this can often be far more trouble than it's worth, and much of what's out there seems to go along the lines of "I stopped beating my knees with a club hammer, and shoved some rosemary up my nose....and guess what? My knees have stopped hurting!" It's also rather worrying to note how many people say "Wow! I'm going to give that a try!"...and never report back on whether or not it worked. Indeed, they very often completely disappear from sight.
And the third sign is the growing number of specialists you're sent to see - at which point you're likely to find yourself on a sort of conveyer belt of specialism, as you get referred on to consultants with increasingly finer degrees of expertise.

I suppose I shouldn't dwell on it, but when you find yourself sitting in yet another consultant's waiting-room there's little else to do...assuming your interest isn't piqued by last August's edition of "Chalet World" or a tatty copy of a magazine that seems to be composed entirely of gossip about people you've never heard of and care even less about. And there's not much point in trying to think about anything else, because there's always someone in the waiting room who looks like they're on their last legs...and you can't help but wonder if that's where you'll end up one day.
So, naturally, I've been rolling the idea of an inscription around in my mind for some time now.
Perhaps something work-related? "You bended 'em - he mended 'em". Or maybe something to raise a smile, like "Not dead - only sleeping. A lot". How about something pithy - "Don't make my mistakes...make yer own"?
As you can imagine, I went through the whole gamut of musical references. I quite liked the idea of just having the diminuendo sign, or just PPP - but my favourite by far was "Da Capo".
But none of these really captured the essence of of what I wanted to convey, I needed something I'd be happy to lie beneath for all eternity.

It was on a recent visit to a hospital where inspiration finally struck.
You might know how it goes; you're told to get there bright and early, long before anyone with any sense is up and about, and you think this means you'll be in and out in a trice. In fact it means nothing of the sort, because you're then told to go away (just not very far) and find something to do...and you'll get a phone call when required.
Not wishing to sit in yet another waiting room opposite yet another punter who's clearly only got three days left to live, and nothing to distract me but yet another copy of "Chalet World" (April edition - picket fence special) I opted to wander around eerily empty corridors for a while. None of the facilities were open, save for a deserted coffee I settled for a comfy chair and a pint of flat white. I rarely drink coffee, and never in such vast quantities - but I figured that if I ordered a giant-sized beverage, I'd get the call to my appointment before I could even make it to the comfy chair.
Fate, unfortunately, wasn't I sat there for an hour, slowly working my way through my annual intake of coffee while the building came to life. After another half an hour I was so bored that I decided I'd have another walk around the corridors to see what was new (yep, I was that bored), and maybe take in a few loo-breaks along the way.
Ten minutes later and I was completely lost...but wait - what was this?? The faint yet unmistakable aroma....of bacon? I followed my nose and, eventually, stumbled across the hospital canteen.
The place was vast, bright and airy with a long counter down the left-hand side that bore huge bowls of grains, pulses, cereals and fresh fruit. I walked straight past it and over to the counter which positively glistened with slices of bacon, pyramids of sausages, piles of fried eggs and trembling pools of baked beans.
It may have been my hunger, or it may have been a caffiene-induced frenzy, but working on the principle that if, as they say, a little of what you fancy does you good - then a lot of what you fancy ought to make you feel like a superhero, I opted for a large bap filled with an excessive amount of bacon and topped with a pair of unfeasibly large fried eggs - all glued together with a very generous squirt of HP sauce. And a builder's-sized mug of tea. Oh what bliss.

I found a seat, sat myself down, lifted (with some difficulty) the enormous bap up to my dinner manglers and took the biggest bite I could muster. It was while I was wiping the egg from my hands, my shirt and the table that the phone rang. I still haven't got all the egg out of my phone's keypad...and on a warm day it still smells faintly of HP sauce. But it was in that moment, that very egg-laden instant, that the words came to me. My inscription would be "There's always something".

Now I know what you're thinking (apart from "You shoulda hadda bowl of muesli") - that it's just plain old Sod's law, which states that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. But you can mitigate the effects of the law of Sod by adhering to Baden-Powell's maxim, "Be prepared". Thus if I find myself having to climb a ladder to attend to a leaky drainpipe or a loose tile, I take as many tools with me as I can carry - because if it didn't I can be pretty sure that the moment I reached the top of the ladder I'd find that I had to go all the way down again because I didn't have a screwdriver/scraper/hammer/pointy stick/tube of sealant.
Sod's law tends to have a relatively small blast radius inasmuch as it's typically related to the job in hand. "There's always something" is much more universal, and in the instance above I'd find myself having to climb down the ladder not because I'd forgotten a tool - but because a herd of cows had come crashing into the garden
And, most importantly, there's another aspect to it that Sod's law doesn't have - which I can perhaps best illustrate by telling you about a little soprano job that came in recently...

As far as the condition of this horn goes it was (in technical terms) rather a wreck when it came in. At first glance it was a write-off - leaking all over the place, bits falling off it and suffering from previous attention which would have done little, if anything, to improve the playability of the horn. Factor in the age of the instrument and the cost of bringing it back to life, and you find yourself running straight into the law of economics. "It's 'ad it" I announced...and I should have left it right there, but, y'know, I just can't help myself. I spent half an hour prodding and poking it, and managed to get it to the point where it could produce a (broken) scale or two.
It always puts me in mind of a typical action movie plot - about three-quarters of the way in. The 'plan' has failed and everything looks bleak for the hero, and just when it looks like it's all over...the cavalry/backup/ plucky-if-unlikely-band-of-friends comes riding over the hill to save the day. What saved this horn was its tone...and the fact that it was pitched in C...and at A=440 Hz. It now had a reason to live, but boy did it a need a lot of medical attention. And as so often happens in those action movies, at least one of the backup crew cops a packet - and in this instance the packet was the client's budget.
We discussed the options and costs, the pros and cons, the kudos of owning an unusual instrument against the need to devote the necessary time to learn how to get the best out of it...and all the while the horn sat in its case, plaintively whispering "Help meeeeee".
Well what's a guy to do?

I figured that if I pulled enough tricks out of the bag and dug out my old "That'll do" hat (it's around here somewhere), I'd be able to get the horn into presentable shape for a relatively modest fee - and that as and when more funds were available (and assuming the horn warranted it) further work could be carried out. On that basis the go-ahead was given - but a few days later it was decided that even at this price it was going to be a stretch for the client...and could I make it work for even less? By this time the horn was sobbing with gratitude; "Oh thank you kind Sir, you're a proper toff guv'nor an' no mistake. Gawd bless us, one an' all..."
I should have refused, I know I should - but it's jobs like this that remind me of why I got into this trade in the first place (once I'd worked out that it was never going to make me rich). It's that insatiable desire to fix things, to see what makes them almost Frankensteinian need to shout "It lives! It liiiiiiveeessssss!". And, I guess, a need to prove to myself that I can fix it.
In some small way this puts me in mind of Jason Ogg - a character in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. He's a blacksmith by trade - and his claim to be able to shoe anything relies on his having to shoe anything that turns up in the forge. I doubt fixing up a clunky old soprano sax really compares with shoeing Death's horse, or an ant - but hey, it never hurts to get yourself into the right mood. And besides, how d'you know Death doesn't play the sax....?

So I agreed to do the work - and having made a start on the job I think it must have taken me all of about, ooooh, 15 minutes before I was damning and blasting all over the workshop - mostly because it quickly became evident during the dismantling process that someone else had 'done some work' to this horn in the past...and it appeared that they were less of an instrument repairer and more of a blacksmith.
It's at times like these that you learn the important difference between a bodge and a botch. A bodge is a technique that bends the rules to get the job done, but which leaves nothing that can't be easily undone or improved upon at a later date - whereas a botch tends to damage the underlying structure, thus adding another layer of necessary repairs at a later date. And most of the botching on this horn appeared to have been applied with a hammer.

Once the body was in reasonable shape, my attention turned to the action. I knew I'd be taking a gamble with it; the pads were pretty old and looked rather too thick, and years of gunge in the action had been disguising quite a bit of wear (and/or built-in sloppiness). My intention was to try to work with what I had, with perhaps a few well-placed tweaks in critical areas to shore it up. Like I said, it was a gamble...and I lost.
Well, OK, I didn't so much lose as give all my money away because, well, I simply couldn't do it. You can summarise the mechanical efficiency of a horn's action with the phrase 'Rubbish in - rubbish out', though a more accurate summary would be 'Rubbish in - even more rubbish out'. This is because there's an accumulative effect going on. A bit of play in the top B key means you have to make an allowance for it on the keys immediately above and below it. And having adjusted them to accommodate this discrepancy, you then have to do the same for the keys adjacent to the ones you just tweaked...and so on, right down the horn.
After you've been at it for a couple of hours it soon becomes apparent that it would have been easier just to have done the job properly in the first place.
But here's the rub. Once you fix that first key, it makes all the others look even worse...and if you don't fix them too, well, it just make it pointless to have fixed the first one.

And it gets worse, because I knew the pads were way too thick for this horn and the only reason they vaguely worked was because of all the slop in the keywork.
No big deal, right? Just whip 'em out and pop some new ones in. Trouble was, the pads needed to be half the thickness of the thinnest pads I keep in stock - and, I suspect, that anyone keeps in stock. Almost all of them would have to be custom-made - and, just as with the action, once you start you aren't going to be able to stop.
I'd long ago stopped the clock on this job, so what the hell - and I'd long since passed the point of no return. To cut any corners now would simply diminish the job as a whole - there's no way I'd want to have done all this work and then have to tell the client that "I got it working down to low D!"

On paper, then, the job's a complete disaster - a dead loss in financial terms. It turned out to be one thing after another, a cascading succession of problems. An 'always something' job.
But here's the thing about "There's always something" - it works both ways. As much as it relates to a state of exasperation or despair, it also points towards hope...and hidden rewards. When you're faced with a dead-loss job you can either choose to rush through it with as much bad grace as you can muster...or you can change the way you look at it and turn it into something much more positive.
The thing about this trade (and perhaps any other) is that you never stop learning. Everything you do adds to your portfolio of experience. When you're forced to cut corners, and then cut them again, you quickly learn how far the limits can be stretched - and it's at this point where you find yourself contemplating the use of new materials, different techniques and bespoke tools. Trying things that don't work is as much use as trying things that do, and techniques that you might never use on a 'proper' job can often be adapted to become part of your usual arsenal.
If that was all I got out of this job I'd be happy enough, but there was the added bonus that the horn turned out to be quite a nice blow. I got a review out of it, and it served as the focal point for an article which I was struggling to put into some kind of trade-related context. And then there's the satisfaction of signing the job off and closing the lid on the case, knowing that the client is going to be over the moon with how things have turned out.

And this is why my epitaph will be "There's always something". It nicely sums up my perspective on life, and there's an ambiguity about it that means its precise message is as much about the person who wrote it as it is about the one reading it. I like that - I like that not everyone will get it, but some will...and it might raise a smile.
But if, one day, it turns out not to be true...well, that'll be Sod's Law.

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