It’s All in the Prep Work

Every post on the body of and musical instrument is soldered on (Not welded. A popular misconception). The parts of keys themselves are brazed together, which is a similar procedure, but it requires much more heat and different supplies. When soldering, which is the method of joining two pieces of metal together by melting a softer tin/lead mixture in between them, the prep work is the most important part of the procedure. For a start both pieces must fit together as close as possible. This will ensure that the solder has a completely touching surface area to bond to. Secondly, the pieces must be as clean as you can make them. If the pieces are dirty the solder won’t hold, no matter how much heat you use. Next you have to use flux. Flux is used to prevent the metals from oxidizing when they are heated, which will also prevent the metals from joining. The rest is timing. You have to get a feel for the amount of heat, the direction of the heat, where to place the torch and when to apply the solder to the pieces you are joining. Without doing these steps, you end up with a burned, unjoined mess of an instrument. Soldering on silver is even more difficult. Silver will show all of your mistakes right away. As I have said in this blog many times before, this has taught me something true about life. It’s all in the prep work.

 When you are undertaking a task (instrument repair or otherwise) if you launch yourself into it without doing any practice or research, you are likely to get very different results than if you read, watch, listen, plan and practice. Make no mistake, I’m not saying to never be spontaneous, I’m just saying think about what it is you are doing and attain as much information as you can ahead of time. For example, if you want to be a success (whatever that means to you) you are unlikely to show up to Home Depot in your pick up truck grab a ton of 2×4’s and start building your dream home. You should maybe consult with a contractor, draw up some plans or at the very least read a book on building houses. When I am playing with bands and I take a solo, of course I am improvising and allowing myself to hear and feel the music and be as spontaneous as I can. But what goes unseen is the hours of personal practice and full band rehearsal that goes into it before hand.

This picture is from my time with The Soul Motivators

          Another example from the world of instrument repair is when I am seating pads on tone holes. Obviously, the goal of a quality repair is to get the pads to seal all the way around a tone hole with a light touch. But the actual seating process is only the last step in the set up. First, I make sure the rod for the key fits snugly in the head of the post, then I make sure the faces of the post are flat. Then I make sure the keys are swedged perfectly between the posts and the rod fits perfectly in the key tube. Then I make sure the key cup is flat and not warped (as they often are). Then I make sure the tone hole in perfectly flat and smooth. Once that is all done, I make sure the key cup is centred over the tone hole, and that the spring tension is at the correct strength. Then I select the pad which not only fits the key cup perfectly but is also as even across its surface as possible. I’ll iron the pad to make sure the skin is tight on top of the felt and then I make sure there is the right amount of shellac in the key to give the pad the right amount of protrusion out of the key to connect with the tone hole. Once you have done all these steps, the pads will almost seat themselves.

          The prep work for whatever you are doing is essential. Again, this is why patience is so important. You crawl before you can walk, you walk before you can run. We often get so consumed by what we want, we don’t always slow down and ask ourselves if we have set up the proper circumstances for success in the first place. It doesn’t matter how much you want that dream job, if you don’t have the experience to warrant the appointment. If you haven’t practiced the tunes for the gig, you won’t put on the best show you can. Take a minute (and a deep breath), slow down and ask yourself if you’ve done the prep work. You might get it fast and dirty, but remember, silver will show all your mistakes.

Brass: Life in the Metal

          Brass is a metal alloy, made from copper and zinc. It has a relatively low melting point, around 900 to 940 degrees Celsius (depending on the composition) which makes it an ideal metal to be used in casting. Many churches are adorned in brass, from crucifixes to door handles, giving them a grandeur that impresses upon anyone entering, the significance of what they contain. Important buildings have brass trimmings and rails, portraying a regal status in an otherwise bland concrete jungle. It can be polished over and over again to a high gloss finish, and undoubtedly its similar appearance to that of gold is part of why the metal is always in common use. Of course, my primary interaction with brass is in saxophones.

          I have been working with saxophones (and therefore brass) for 20 years. To be in contact with a substance for that long you start to notice things about it along many different dimensions, and if you approach it with an imaginative mind, you can draw parallels between it, and life in general. One of the most intimate way I connect with the brass of a saxophone is when I am removing dents. To remove dents technicians, use a variety of tools, mostly all of them steel and in some cases rare earth magnets. I have come to think of brass as less like a metal and more like clay. When I am removing dents from a saxophone, I first have to find the steel tool underneath the brass and position it under the dent. Then, depending on if I am pushing, hammering, burnishing, etc., I can see the brass moving and taking the new shape I am molding it into.

          Sometimes brass even seems to have a life of its own, for example: sometimes a saxophone can be warped. It isn’t uncommon for the upper section to be leaning forward, which bends keys, rods and damages tone holes. Once the bend is taken out, in a procedure violent enough the owner likely couldn’t watch, the brass can bend back into its damaged position (only slightly of course) which will require further corrections after the instrument sits for 24 hours. This is what is called metal memory. Another characteristic of brass is “work hardening”. A dent will stretch the metal, and once that happens it can never go back in its original place (although you can get very close). As you work a dent out of brass the metal compresses, which makes it harder. I have worked on instruments which have had such poor dent work done to it, it was almost impossible to correct.

           So here we have a metal, something that we usually think of as hard, solid, ridged and permanent, which can be shaped into virtually anything we like. It can be reshaped after it has been damaged, although the scars can be still be seen. The metal becomes harder with every impact. It has a beauty to it, that once polished resembles gold, a substance which has captured the worlds collective imagination for thousands of years. It is here that I can’t help but notice between brass and life itself.

           When we are born, an alloy of our mother and father so to speak, we have the potential to be anything with the right forging and craftsmanship. Each person, has within us the ability to be the doctor who creates the cure for cancer or to be the first person to walk on the surface or Mars, or if forged improperly, the chance to turn into a monster. Again, like brass, if we are damaged, we can reshape ourselves. The scars may be visible, and we are hardened, we may never return to our original shape, but with the proper skill and craftsmanship we can get very close. Again, like brass, if we polish ourselves up, work on our blemishes, until we shine like gold, we can impress out into the world our significance and grandeur and even capture the worlds imagination.

Beginnings & Principles

Hello and welcome to my first blog post. I thought a good place to start my blog, would be to tell you a bit about how I got started in woodwind repair and what some of my personal philosophies and principles are behind it. I started 18 years ago, and like playing musical instruments, repairing is a life long process…

I am originally from Waverley, Nova Scotia (a small town outside of Halifax). Like most kids in public school, I got the opportunity to play in the school band when I was in grade six. I was very enthusiastic about music and the saxophone in particular. I continued all through high school and picked up clarinet and flute along the way as well. I was playing in provincial bands and even playing professional gigs before I graduated from high school. During on of my many visits to “MusicStop” (The largest music store in the region, which has since been bought by Long & McQuade) I was approached by the store manager, and to my surprise, was offered a job. I was asked if I would be interested in working in the band repair department. I jumped at the chance, although telling them I had no experience whatsoever. “That’s okay.” the manager told me, “We will train you.”

And train me they did. I was incredibly lucky to apprentice with the senior woodwind technician at the time, Mr. Marius Kowalski. Marius (originally from Poland) worked as a woodwind technician at “Howarth of London” in London, England where he worked on the high end instruments of the London Symphony Orchestra, before he came to Canada. Needless to say, I had the best possible teacher. Marius is an incredible technician, craftsman and teacher, and as such, passed on the concepts to me.

The first thing I had to do under my apprenticeship with Marius, was to take apart my own saxophone. A little reluctantly, I took my saxophone apart key by key, rod by rod, until I was left with a tube of brass, full of holes and very sharp needle springs, which I’m sure I found the end of each and every one. I then had to clean everything and put it all back together, within the workday and make sure it all still functioned. I left that day with my instrument in its case, and several keys in a bag. I put the rest of the keys back on at my grandmother’s kitchen table, and by class the next day, my saxophone was playing fine, and was squeaky clean.

At my next repair lesson with Marius, he pulled an old Czechoslovakian tenor saxophone out of the back room and said “Okay, you are going to overhaul this“. Naturally I asked “What’s an overhaul?” Over the next several days, I completely took the instrument apart. The keys came off, the key corks and felts came out, the pads came out of the key cups, dents were removed, tone holes were made level, all of it was replaced, and all of it was set back up again. After I took the key clamps off, I dropped in the leak light to see how my first overhaul had held the work. The saxophone lit up like a Christmas tree. My first overhaul, was not so good. Marius showed me each and every little detail, everything I had missed, and showed me how to make it better next time. This process was repeated over and over again. I would complete an overhaul and submit if for inspection, each and every little thing would be scrutinized and pointed out. Then more overhauls. Eventually I got to the point where Marius would tell me “Something is wrong, but I’m not going to tell you what it is.” I would have to search through the instrument and find whatever small problem was left. A small leak, a tiny gap of double action, a key height that was too low. One day I completed an overhaul and passed it in for inspection. The leak light went in, the action was inspected, it was play tested. The horn was passed back to me with a nod and “Okay“. That “Okay” was like fireworks and Pom Poms to me. I could not have been more excited.

I thought I had done it! I thought I had figured it out. But I realized the instrument was “Okay”. Since then my understanding and definition of what an overhaul is has drastically changed.  That “Okay” was perhaps one of the greatest lessons I have ever had. My view of repairing musical instruments is that they are never to be just “Okay”, they must be as close to “Perfect” as possible. Perfect is a pursuit that every technician should be striving for.

15232110_1455256804501747_4566211047236340573_n

After five years of apprenticing, my life took a change. I left Nova Scotia to move to Toronto. I was accepted to Humber College, where I studied woodwind performance. I got to study with great Canadian musicians like: Don Palmer, Pat Labarbera and Kirk MacDonald. I was also repairing. I continued to repair in a mini shop I had set up in my dorm room. Not exactly something the school residence would have been okay with, but I had clients, what is a guy to do? From my second to fourth year of Humber I worked as the only woodwind technician at “Steve’s Music” in Toronto. Where as “Steve’s” is primarily a guitar store, the support needed for a functional woodwind shop was somewhat lacking. I moved shops to “St. John’s Music“. There, I was able to promote myself and I had the opportunity to start building my own brand. “St. John’s Music” was special for another reason as well. It’s where I met my wife, Nadia. After working for “St. John’s Music” for four years I found myself moving onto another shop. I now work for “Long & McQuade” and I have been there for the past two years. I am also now in the process of building my own shop at home in Brighton, Ontario. The past eighteen years went by quickly, and were filled with thousands of instruments.

I have furthered my education in Woodwind repair through various NABIRT sponsored clinics, The Yamaha Service Advantage Course and continued study with Marius when I had the opportunity. Like playing, the key to all of this, is practice. I spend eight to ten hours on my work bench, five to six days a week. Each and everyday my goal is to be a better technician than I was the day before.

Life long learning is one of the principles I always bring to my repair bench (among other places). There will always be new and better ways of doing things, new materials and better parts to use, and new tools to utilized. If as a technician you have stopped learning (or think you have), you simply aren’t doing your job anymore.

13307347_1296613890366040_409694706705081656_n

Principles and philosophies behind instrument repair is something that I think about quite a bit. It is as important to think about these concepts, as it is to know how to use a bench motor. Let me give you an example of what I mean: In my opinion, one of the essentials of doing quality repairs, is to do so from a completely relaxed state of mind and to be very patient. If you are not relaxed in whatever procedure you happen to be performing, you can’t execute it with precision. Patience is simply a must for precision. If you are trying to beat the clock, you may get everything back together in one piece in record time, but does the instrument make you want to play it? Do the keys fall onto the tone holes with a satisfying touch, or do they squish? Does the tone ring out as soon as the airstream hits the reed or is there an uncomfortable delay?  I have always said to my fellow technicians how much I enjoy a “Meaty” repair.

13631461_1325171314176964_7162469168730403874_n

Another principle I always bring to my repair bench is the understanding that every instrument and every musician is different. What will be exactly what one musician wants is not what another will want. The venting on one instrument won’t allow another to speak the same way. This is why I really enjoy talking with musicians, building a relationship and helping them figure out how they want their instrument to feel and play. Even the esthetics are something I enjoy discussing with musicians. Do they want the bare brass to be polished of leave the patina? Do they have a preference as to which colour the felts are? and certainly the choice of pads and resonators they want installed in their instrument. We are all individuals, and in this instance we are expressing ourselves through music. I see no reason why the tools we use to do this, shouldn’t be as individual as we are.

Repairing and restoring woodwind instruments is what I am passionate about. I love what I do, and I love sharing it. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this blog. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know, I would be happy to speak with you.

Dominique J. Morier