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

Third time lucky


Got a call from one of my regular clients - she was in a bit of a panic because her tenor, which I'd recently serviced, had developed a fault which made it virtually unplayable.
This is always worrying, for both the player and me, but from my perspective it points the finger at something I'm doing that isn't holding up 'in the wild'. Maybe a pad has fallen out - and that might suggest I've not used enough shellac or haven't done sufficient preparation of the key cup before installation. Perhaps a cork or a felt has fallen off, which might indicate an issue with the glue I'm using. And then there's plain old mechanical failure, which could mean that I'm not paying enough attention to assembly or I'm failing to spot build quality issues that might lead to the horn falling apart in the not-too-distant future.
Such things happen from time-to-time, though after so many years in the trade I'm pretty confident in my ability to get the basics right - but there's always that nasty little voice in the back of the head that whispers "You're losing it, mate. First it's a pad falling out, then it's a key falling off...and two years later you'll be living in a home for confused gentlefolk, sucking soup up through a straw while you bore the other residents with tales of how you taught Stan Getz to play the ukelele..."

In such situations the first thing I ask the client is to describe the symptoms. By far the most common reason for a return is down to what I call "excitable assembly'. You know how it goes - you've just shelled out a pile of cash to have your horn serviced and you rush home from the repairer to put it through its paces in the comfort of your own home. You're that keen to get started that you whip the crook out of the case, whack it on the horn and shove a mouthpiece on it...and then find that the lower octave doesn't work. In your haste to assemble the freshly-serviced instrument you've bent the crook key.
It sounds like the sort of mistake only a beginner would make, but a lot of experienced players are used to using horns that have very poorly aligned octave mechs...with lots of play between the ring of the crook key and the pin that sticks up from the body. A good service will sort this issue out, but with a smaller distance between the ring and the pin there's now far less tolerance for heavy handling.

We ruled out this old chestnut, so I had her bring the horn in immediately - at which point it was with some relief that I found the problem was indeed a bent key. Specifically, the A key - and even more specifically, the A key touchpiece which had been bent upwards.
I say it's a relief for me but it's also something of a relief for the client. Part of the reason we tend to stick with the same doctor/dentist/car mechanic is that they have a proven track record down the years. You go in with a problem, they fix it...and it stays fixed. It engenders confidence and trust - which brings with it a sense of security that comes from the feeling that it's an aspect of your busy life that's well and truly sorted. Which is why having to go back to have a fix re-fixed has implications that lead to troubling questions, of which the most pertinent must surely be "If they got this wrong, what else have they been getting wrong?".
So when the problem turns out to be an entirely new one that's completely unconnected to the work that had been carried out previously, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief.
But how on earth did it happen? It's quite a tough key so it would have taken a fair bit of force to bend it upwards, but you'd be surprised at how much force you can exert on the keys when you're handling but not playing the horn (getting it out of and putting it back into the case, for example).
You'd also be surprised at how careless you can be. It doesn't take much - a distraction here, a rushed doubling swap there and before you know it a finger has slipped under a key and the damage is done. It often happens on those gigs where the band is cooking and the punters are crammed onto the dancefloor. It's so easy (if not essential) to get carried away and indulge in a spot of 'showboating' - which means that the poor old sax gets rather a rough ride as you swing it this way and that. I'm sure we've all done it - but if you haven't, maybe you're not doing the right kind of gigs...

And the A is a particularly nasty key to bend. If you bend, say, a palm or a side key it's pretty much a straightforward 'put it back where it once was' job - because these keys work in isolation. But the A key has a relationship with the Bis Bb and the Aux.B. This means you can't just bend the touchpiece down and leave it at that, you have to make sure the A and Bis Bb close at exactly the same time, and you have to make sure the Aux.B does so as well. It means a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, as each adjustment you make will throw out one of the others. I sorted it out and we had a bit of a chat as to how such a thing might have happened, after which the client went along her merry way.

The weeks passed, and I thought no more of the incident - until she called again. Exactly the same problem.
This was even more worrying than before, and she seemed to think (quite reasonably) that it might be a problem with the horn - such as soft keywork. I hear this a lot; it's a term that gets bandied round whenever there's an ongoing issue with a horn that fails to stay in regulation - but the actual problem affects very, very few horns...and mostly none that you're likely to want to play in a hurry.
More often than not there's a simpler underlying issue, the most common of which is that the horn was never really in regulation in the first place - usually because the pads aren't stable.
With that said, I had a client who suffered from repeating problems with the regulation on his Yamaha tenor - and I could never figure out why. The keys were plenty stiff enough, the pads were seated perfectly - but he'd keep coming in with the same old problem. It all became terrifyingly clear when I asked him to play the horn.
You've heard of the term 'vice-like grip', yeah? I swear you could almost see the body tube flexing under the pressure from his fingers - and to make matters worse he was lifting his fingers clean off the keys and bringing them smashing down again with all the force he could muster. I've never seen anything like it, before or since.

Anyway, I had the client bring the horn in again and we popped it up on the bench for a look-see. Sure enough the A key touchpiece was bent up.
She was sure it was a problem with the horn - but it was a TJ Signature Custom, which is not a horn I'd describe as having soft keywork. There had to be another explanation. But she hadn't had the same problem with her other horn, and as far as she was aware she wasn't handling it any differently to the tenor. So why does the key keep bending?
I took the opportunity to show her just how hard it was to bend the key. I set the horn up with wedges under the keys and asked her to press down hard on the touchpiece - and then showed her just how little the key had moved for quite some considerable force applied.
I set about fixing the horn, and we again discussed possible handling issues. I asked her to put the horn in the case and take it out again, but couldn't see anything that might result in bent keys. It was a complete mystery. We even discussed the possibility that someone 'had it in for her' and was sabotaging the horn while her back was turned. But no, she didn't think she knew anyone who hated her playing that much.
And so she left again, perhaps slightly less merry than the last time - but at least the horn was working again.

Until last week.
Yep, same thing. Panicked call, key bent, please expedite.
This was getting silly. Maybe there really was something wrong with the key? Maybe there was some weird property of the brass that meant it bent readily in one direction but not the other. Maybe there was a crack in it. It all sounds feasible, but disappears in a puff of smoke when you consider that part of the process of bending a key back into alignment means having to bend it both ways. Brass is quite elastic - which means that once you've bent it one way, you need to bend it the other way (just a little) to relieve the stress you've just put into it. If you don't do this it will self-relieve over a period of time...which can lead to all sort of problems with the regulation. If there's a problem with the integrity of the key, it'll show up during this process.
So the horn came in again - but because she was busy she had her hubby bring it in. He was just as puzzled as I was. "I dunno what she does with her horns, but she swears she takes good care of them".
I did the usual fix, and even gave the key a good scrute under a loupe, just to see if there was anything I was missing. But no, it all looked to be in fine fettle. I did my usual play-test, I rattled my fingers over the action, I tapped here and there, I passed the horn from hand to hand...but I got nothing.
At this point I'd hand the horn back the client and have them play it, but as her hubby wasn't a player there didn't seem much point in the exercise - so I popped the crook off and put the horn back in its case.

And bingo!
"Look at this" I cried! And we both huddled over the case and peered down at the culprit. It was a Hiscox case - a perfectly good and sturdy case, the mainstay of gigging musicians all over the world. It's not quite what you'd call a shaped case, rather it's a little more coffin-like on the side where the bell lies - and this affords some space for a small accessory compartment.
This compartment is made from two bits of padded hardboard, glued together and attached to the side of the case to form a vaguely triangular compartment.
The bits of hardboard had become detached from each other, and the side of the case - and all that was holding them (roughly) in place was the remains of the padding which covered them. But they could now move - and this is exactly what they did.
I went to place the horn in the case, and just before I did so I placed the crook into its bag and laid it in the compartment. Because it had a few bits and bobs in it already I gave the bag a bit of a wiggle to make some which point the hardwood sides were pushed out into where the body of the horn would lie. And the apex of the two bits of hardwood lay (you guessed it) exactly at the point where the A touchpiece would come down.
But merely putting the horn in the case with the hardboard beneath the A touchpiece wasn't the problem. It looked like the horn was sat snugly in the case - so unless you were looking out for the problem or just happened to spot it by luck, you'd have gone right ahead and closed the lid. And that's when the damage is done. With each latch you closed you'd be increasing the downward force on the body, and thus the poor old A key.
And as is so often typical of such problems, it doesn't happen every time. A very specific set of circumstances have to align ...which makes it that most dreaded of all problems - an intermittent one. It could so easily have happened again had I not spotted the issue - and yes, I got lucky the third time. It won't happen again - because the next time someone rings up about a catastrophic problem that's stopped their horn dead in its tracks, my first question won't be "Can you get the top notes but not the lower?" - it'll be "Are you using a Hiscox case?".

It just so happened that I had another horn in with a Hiscox case, an alto this time, and sure enough it exhibited exactly the same problem...though not to the extent where it would cause any problems. For now. So the home for confused gentlefolk can wait a little longer - which gives me time to hone and perfect my Stan Getz story - and all you Hiscox case owners out there can go give your accessory compartments a wiggle.


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