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


A question often asked of me is that of the earliest age at which a child should start an instrument.
Opinion varies as to the most appropriate age and many factors have to be taken into account, such as the child's emotional status and his or her physical size.
Being something of a practical person at heart I tend to favour the physical benchmark, based on the natural rule-of-thumb that states that if a child is big enough to hold a particular instrument comfortably then there's every chance that they'll have the emotional capacity to play the thing.

By emotional capacity I don't mean the ability to leave the listeners in tears at the beauty of their playing (more often than not they get the same effect for entirely opposite reasons), rather they have the wherewithal to realise that the thing they have in their hands probably cost quite a bit of money and requires at least a modicum of dedication to make it work.
Starting a child at an age below this rule-of-thumb carries quite a few risks - not the least of which is the possibility that they won't enjoy the experience and might forever after associate the playing of an instrument with a thoroughly bad time. In other words it could put them off for life, or at least until they're old enough to realise they can do things their own way.
Another risk is that of the dreaded tantrum.
Oh yes, all parents will be familiar with that one. Their 'little angel', normally quiet and placid - or perhaps a tad cheeky and lively, but otherwise quite reasonable on the whole - suddenly turns into an extra from 'The Exorcist' and becomes entirely and utterly implacable.
In itself this is quite an unpleasant experience for any parent, but the whole thing takes on a new and terrifying dimension if there happens to be an object at the heart of the tantrum...say a musical instrument, for example.

I do a fair few 'tantrum-related repairs' each year, and the process seems to run to quite a specific format.
When the call comes in from the parent there's very rarely any mention initially of a tantrum. What usually happens is that the damage to the instrument will be described and I'll suggest that perhaps the instrument 'had a bit of a tumble' - at which point the parent usually confesses that their child had a 'paddy' and took their anger out on said instrument.
When the instrument's brought in there nearly always follows a semi-philosophical discussion about the merits or otherwise of very young children playing musical instruments, and a few kindly words from me with regard to the importance of not making the damage too much of an issue.
Obviously there's a need for every parent to let their child know that trashing a couple of hundred quid's worth of instrument is 'not on', but there's also the need not to come down so hard on them that they'll never touch the thing again.
Unfortunately, the damage done is often quite extensive - and thus expensive - so a certain amount of wincing goes on at this stage.
When the parent arrives to collect the instrument after repair I always get the feeling that there's a sense of resignation - something every parent, again, will recognise I'm sure - inasmuch as every parent wants to give their children every possible chance to progress in the arts, but realises that there may never come a time when those children say "Thanks for starting me on the flute all those years ago - it made such a difference to me in later life".
Still, we can but dream - and I make every effort at this point to reassure the parents that it really is worthwhile, and, occasionally, suggest that they tell their child that is he or she trashes the instrument again then 'Mr.Repairer' might come round and have a stern chat. Sometimes scaring the bejeebers out of the little sods is worth a try!

For one recent visitor to the workshop, however, my post-repair chat resulted in a very unexpected revelation.
The client had brought in a particularly badly damaged flute - so damaged that it was borderline as to whether it was worth repairing or not, given that it's now possible to buy a surprisingly respectable student flute for around £100.
What was made very clear at this point was that the client's child had thrown a wobbly and given the flute a thorough seeing-to, along with comments along the lines of "Ooh, she can be a proper Miss at times, that one".
It was agreed to be just about financially viable, so I undertook the work and called the client in to collect the instrument.
I pointed out the repairs, demonstrated the flute and handed over the bill - at which point I did my usual "Ahh, kids eh? What can ya do?" banter, but was stopped dead in my tracks when the client blurted out that it was she, not the child, who'd thrown a wobbly...and the flute.
To be accurate she'd thrown the child's school bag to the floor in a 'lack of completed homework' related incident (that ol' chestnut) without realising that the flute was enclosed in the bag.
Clearly the guilt had weighed heavily on her conscience, and my post-repair chat was the last straw - the 'Telltale heart" - and she had to 'fess up to her misdeeds.
I suppose I should have given her a stern lecture at this point - but when she described the incident, and how appalled she'd been when her child had shouted "Mum! My flute's in that bag!", plus the resultant hefty bill, I figured that justice had been served and the client had seen the error of her ways.
And just to make doubly sure, I told her she'd be the subject of a Notes article....

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