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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Here are my views on becoming a repair tech.

The best way to learn how to repair horns is to repair horns.That is easy to say but hard to do if you don't have a job.

It is a problem. If you go into a music store or repair and ask for a job without knowing anything you will have no luck.You have to have some experience. There are repair schools that teach you a lot but don't give you experience ,but it is a start.

Some people want to repair saxes only. If you do get a job in a shop you will have to repair all instruments including drums and strings.If a shop does school work, were most of the work is for a new person, you learn to fix everything in a school band. That takes a while. You can't be selective you have to fix everything that comes through the door. As a new person you would have to do all the clean up work and the minor repairs also case repairs.

If you do get your foot in the door it will just be a start.You will have many years of learning and you have to work hard and learn all you can.I am still learning . There is something new every day.I have been doing repairs for fifty years and still at it. You should learn to play all the instruments. You don't have to play all of them at performance level but you should play them all a
little.You should be able to test play all the horns that you repair.

Repairing horns is a business , it is not just for fun. It is not just great fun to be around music and talk about music. You must make money for the people that hire you.Some one has to train you and watch you ,correct your mistakes and this takes time from that person and they can't get their work done. When a customer comes to my shop and see all the horns I have to do they say "You need to hire a helper." I tell them that that would be nice if a qualified helper could be found. Then they say "You need to train someone." That is the last thing I need. I have a lot of work and work very fast. If have to use my time training someone else I would never get work out on time. This is what you will run into when you apply for a job. Nobody is going to train you at a loss off income for them. If you get a job as a trainee you must work hard and fast. Don't stand around. Get the work done.It is not a game. Be on time every day. Stay late if work has to be done. I have visited some shops where the helpers look like they are working in slow motion. I have had people working for me that worked the same way. Did not make me any money. I would sit them down and explain the finances of running a business and they never got it. Seems like a lot of young people don't know what it is to work fast.

A good repair tech knows what to do,how to do it right and does it in a timely manor. Experience is the most important. Can't teach experience. I can unsolder one post in a cluster of other post without any of the other post coming off then put it back on and you would never know it was ever done.I can solder without burning lacquer, I can bend keys without breaking them, I can remove broken springs from post without knocking the post off the horn.All these thing I could not do when I was starting out . Now I have experience. Good experienced techs do thing like that every day.

To get your foot in the door:

Learn about instruments. Know what is going on in the music world. Read and study about how instruments are made. Read trade publications. Go to trade shows. Know what horns are being made and who makes them . Get some old junk horns and take them apart a put them back together,learn how reeds are made, Look at videos on the web about repairing horns, Look at everything on this board, tons of information.Look and listen too all views.You should be able to have conversations about everything going on in the field of band instruments . It will impress people.There are a lot of people on this web site that give a lot of their time helping other people, answering their questions and they do it freely. Read all the post.

Be a hard worker.Nothing impresses owners like a hard working employee.Work Work Work and get the job done.

Being that you will not make much money as a trainee look at repairing as a part time job. Hold a full time job in another field and repair part time.This will mean long hours but is will show people you really want to learn. I worked in a factory during the day and every night and on weekends I did repair work putting in 14 hours a day for ten years! Are you up to something like that?

Go to a repair school it would be a great background and look very good on your resume. You will not get experience but it will open doors for you.

Take lessons on playing the main instruments. One of the first questions you will be asked is "What instruments do you play?" .You should be able to at least play one brass and one reed instruments.

Make a contract and keep your word. One reason owners don't want to train someone is because after spending all that time and money the trainee goes and work for some else.

Work for free? You have to get your foot in the door and if this is the only way give it a try, Most owners will think that is a great offer and I think they would not take it and would pay you something . It lets them know you are serious.

Take some shop classes. You have to know about screws,nuts,and bolts,measuring,tools and things like that. You have to have problem solving abilities.You have to be able to figure things out and make things work.

Visit repair shops and talk to people there. You could will pick up some information that will lead you to a job.

Start getting your own tools. If you have your own tools that means the owner doesn't have to buy them for you. Make some of your own tools.When you are visiting repair shops look around at what tools are there, If you ask "I hear you guys make some of your own tools?" I would bet the tech would be proud to show you what they have made and that would give you some ideas.

Those are some of the things you could. There a lot more and I hope other people on this board will put in their advice .

If you really become a repair tech it con be a rewarding experience. I am seventy years old and still working full time as a repair tech. I hope some of the information here will help people get started in the repair field.There are a couple of stories about my work on the web that you may like to read. Just Google my name Chuck Madere and you will find them.

· Distinguished Technician & SOTW Columnist. RIP, Yo
17,082 Posts
Outstanding statement, Ken.

A few years ago I advertised for a 16-18 year old student, to train to assist with peak period servicing of woodwind instruments while he continued to study through university.

I advertised in two local schools. The careers officer at one school was unhelpful, declaring that my advert was sexist in that it asked for hand strength. At the other school I was told there was little chance of finding somebody because my advert was far too demanding. In reality, the advert screened people very well (as planned) so that I did not waste time with unsuitable people, and I got 2 very appropriate applicants. I chose with difficulty, and enjoyed the working & 'student/mentor' relationship for 4 years. I'm sure we both did. IN spite of him being a good learner/worker, I don't think I broke even with respect to the cost of my time commitment in training and checking, as Ken alluded to. I don't think I would do this again, except for my own children. It also worked very successfully for my nephew next door, some time ago.

I am writing this because perhaps the advertisement may be of interest, and relevant to the picture Ken painted. It went as follows:


The Job:

The work is mainly detailed adjustment of the complicated mechanisms of flutes, clarinets, saxophones etc, replacing or making parts as required, repairing damage, and correcting unsatisfactory manufacture. It would also include some of the office procedures in running a small business, such as GST processing.

It is precision work, challenging, rewarding, and at times frustrating.
It guarantees the satisfaction of acquiring a wide range of practical skills and experience, using a multitude of specialised hand tools but also machine equipment.

The job would be something like a casual apprenticeship, with all necessary teaching provided on site in a pleasant, helpful, understanding manner.​

The Situation

I am a self-employed, woodwind musical instrument repairer specialist, working alone inside my home. It is a pleasant but cramped work environment.

Work arrives in an erratic fashion, from all over New Zealand, usually with work overload during and just after school and university holidays. There is often another influx before school concerts and music exams.

This is why I seek a student assistant during these times, with possible opportunities for work during the term also, probably at rather short notice.

Work hours and days are exceptionally flexible, depending on the availability of myself, the student, and the influx of instruments. It is common to work incomplete days, and for work to become available in an erratic manner.

For this reason it is probably important that the student lives close to the site to reduce travel time. The location is ... [edited].

A significant training period will be needed before useful productivity is reached, so I seek a person who is committed to this holiday work for at least four years. The student should definitely be planning tertiary education, and ideally should be seriously considering a course including engineering mechanics, engineering materials, and engineering design, all of which are subjects pertinent to the job. This four-year commitment means that the applicant will probably be in year 11 or 12. [i.e. 16-18 years old]

Pay starts at a typical student wage, and increases to generously recognise productivity.​

Further Requirements:

It must be emphasised that this is not a 'craft' type job. It could be better described as intricate mechanical engineering, and needs specific aptitudes:

  • Interested in mechanisms and how they work, and how different materials behave.
  • Interested in technology in its broad sense.
  • Analytical, observant of detail - 'detective mentality'. Logical in a practical sense.
  • Persevering, methodical, thorough, not easily flustered.
  • Perfectionist.
  • Good communication skills. Courteous. Complete willingness to communicate about all aspects of the work, especially when difficulties arise.
  • Uncompromising honesty
  • Vibrant mind and personality - interesting to work with, seeing we will be working in close quarters.
  • Complete willingness to learn - in an ongoing fashion.
  • Excellent finger dexterity.
  • Above average arm and finger strength.
  • Note that it is not necessary to be able to play any of the instruments involved. The job is engineering and has little to do with music. However, the job would be more interesting to somebody who did play.
  • Be assured that if this prescription seems intimidating, confidence is not a requirement. That grows along with skill in the job.


Anybody interested please phone .......​

· Distinguished Technician & SOTW Columnist. RIP, Yo
17,082 Posts
I was there to do the play-testing. I play several woodwinds.

However, for student instrument requirements (sax and flute), it is almost never that I have to do any further work after play testing. I think that if a tech relies on play testing to diagnose malfunction of student instruments, then there is something pretty wrong with the tech. Most diagnosis is far better done by other means than by playing.

I play test really only to check that I have not done something silly like leave off a spring, not to identify further faults. Slightly different with pro instruments, but not a lot.

However I do sometimes make venting adjustments after play testing student clarinets. The fuzziness of tone resulting from slight under-venting cannot be determined by other means.

I have worked on many oboes and bassoons, including a fair dose of pro ones. I can barely play them, so I am not using playing to diagnose any faults. I get the customer to play test if they wish, and almost never get anything needing further attention. Very high degree of customer satisfaction, and I do not call myself a player.

The job is 98% mechanical stuff, not music, or playing. That other 2% rears its head only sometimes, and mostly with pro instruments, where the player has particular preferences.

So I'd say that most good techs do some playing, but if they are good, most of them, most of the time, do not NEED to do any playing, even though they may go through the routine of play testing.

· Distinguished SOTW member, musician, technician &
5,208 Posts
Thanks for this post Ken. It is always interesting how others who are doing what you do started and get advice from them.

Some things that are different here than they seem to be near where you live:

There are no repair schools here so no way to learn this way. You can't really find a job for a store because there are very few and those already have repairers. I was lucky and total coincidence a store very close was looking for a repairer (I did have some experience when I started working for them).

No woodwind & brass repairer working for a store repairs any string or percussion instruments. If they do, it is very little and are not advertised to do it. No string player would go to anyone other than the very good string instruments repairers/builders. Pretty much the same for cases, they usualy go to one of the several case/bag repairer/makers.

I only know of one case where a repairer in the country had an apprentice. Not really an apprentice, but just someone who wanted to be a repairer came and watched him work. Didn't do anything and didn't make money.

As someone who just started working for a store not that many years ago I went through a lot of what you describe, and most of it was very different than what you wrote! I guess that is just individual and possibly different for every person. I have to agree that especially this forum, and interenet in general is great for learning. Several people really helped and made everything much easier (one of them is Gordon from this forum).

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592 Posts
Discussion Starter · #12 ·
I always test play every horn I repair. I just can't let it out of the shop unless I play it. I do know it is going to play.Play testing is the final check. Some times I try to play it before I work on it. In the past every time I work on a horn,any horn, I would try to play it . Just a few minutes trying to play it . If you add up all those minutes over decades you should be able to play the horn.You should be able to pay the range of the horn,a chromatic scale and all the alternate fingerings. I also took lessons and at night after we were closed I would sit down with a fingering chart and practice . I think it is important to make sure the horn plays.

When I use to work at a repair shop with other techs we had a game we would play. One of us would repad a horn and make it perfect and then give it to another tech and he would look it over and if everything was perfect he would buy the tech a coke.If something was not right the repair would have to buy him a coke. Taught you to do it right.

As for getting a job repairing you can work for yourself. I say always work on commission. You can go to a music store pick up their horns ,take them home and repair them in your garage. That is what I did. The split is 70% for the tech and 30% to the store. That way the store has no investment and make 30% on each horn. Owners like that. Can be a way to get started. Just make sure you do the work right. I was living in a apartment and I would work on horns on the kitchen table.

One other thing. I think you have to be a self starter. If you wait for someone to give you a job you will have a long wait. You have to want to learn and study and really work at it. A lot of professions require years of college . This work requires years of work and study on your own.

If you know what to do, can do it right ,and do it quick ,and the horn plays and it looks good you can be a tech and should have plenty of work.

· Distinguished SOTW Member/Technician
3,215 Posts
As for getting a job repairing you can work for yourself.
That is one of the reasons I repair for a livin.
I have been lucky to have my own business at home and be there while my kids were growin.

Another reason is, cause I can go anywhere in the world and get a good job.

Combine Playing music and repairing and you have a good life.

· Registered
592 Posts
Discussion Starter · #14 ·
When I quit my job at the factory and became self employed is was pretty scary and also the best thing I ever did. I was able to be around my kids and it helped them to grow up right.I could go to all the school events and take time off any time I wanted to. It was such a feeling of freedom . I did not have a boss.I was thirty three years old and I felt like I retired.

· Distinguished SOTW Technician
1,415 Posts
This is an interesting thread. Just to add my 2 cents:

I started out fixing saxophones and I only overhaul saxophones at a very high level. My clients are strictly pro players and occasionally players that do not play professionally but have the money and desire to have this sort of work done. Our shop does only pro-overhauls offering repair work only on instruments that we have previously overhauled. I believe we are the only shop like this.

I can't claim to know what a repair shop swamped with instruments and incredible time and financial constraints has to deal with but I do know pro-overhauls. So here are few thoughts.

Play testing is absolutely essential. Further, to do an exceptional job, you must be able to play nearly as well as the person you are working for. This may not be practical but it is true. I play professionally in both classical and Jazz settings. When a player comes to me with a set up I'm not that familiar with, say a Claude Lakey Mouthpiece on a King Super 20, I get a little nervous. I've tuned and toned enough horns to know that not being able to play a guys set-up very well can be a disaster. I mean, the guy may pick up the horn and say, "this thing plays great!" But, as a tech, I know that I could have done a better job on Jazz horn like a 12M with a Lawton (my personal set-up) or a Buescher Alto with a Buescher Mouthpiece for classical.

There are different levels of satisfaction. I have not had an unsatisfied customer in my repair business that I know of. I have also seen sub standard jobs shown to me by players where the player himself was satisfied. Had the work been better he would be more satisfied. Had it been exceptional work, the player would no longer be satisfied with the work he once was.

If I hand the player a horn and he finds a problem that I could have found myself, I consider that I have made a mistake. A pro horn overhaul should address problems that the player identifies as well as many more that the player is not aware of. This is what the player is paying for. If I only fixing problems the player can identify then I am wasting his/her time and limiting my work to the players ability. A pro-overhauler, should be much more adept than a player at finding and fixing things like: Intonation problem, response issues, slight tonal characteristic differences between notes, variations in feel between notes, etc... than any player.

That said, if money is a factor and it is to many, everything changes.

Also, there seem to be more and more jobs in the industry for specialists. It may now be possible to not learn to repair all the instruments and focus only on one type. This is what I did from the beginning. For 2 years, my apprentice has only done saxophone key work on pro-overhauls. Hows that for specialized!

Even in some of the larger shops, that do many instruments, technicians are specialized. It is the smaller one or two tech shops that need fix-everything techs as far as I can tell.

· Distinguished SOTW Member, Forum Contributor 2014
Super Action 80 Tenor, Buescher 156 Tenor, Yamaha Vito YAS-21 , Kessler Soprano, Superba II Bari
5,151 Posts
WOW! This thread should be a sticky. I've considered making this a career several times and you guys really added some food for thought. Thank you Ken, Gordon, Music Medic, and everyone else.

· Banned
5,297 Posts
Thanks Curt for that well written response. It sounds to me as if you are "re-manufacturing" the saxophone making it better than when it came out of the factory. Many repair techs like myself who work in shops that repair store rentals, student horns, and school instruments don't often get the opportunity to practice the craft at the level that you do. When a pro overhaul comes into the shop it is like Christmas for me. :)

Have you ever used electronic instruments (other than tuners) such as spectrum analyzers or instruments to measure acoustic impedance to help fine tune your "toning and tuning" or do you do it entirely by ear and feel?

One of the hardest things for me to do when play testing an instrument I have worked on is to play every note with a "flat" response---not lipping notes in tune or pushing more air to compensate for the stuffy notes etc. After years of performing, these things come so naturally to me that it takes an enormous amount of concentration and control to turn them off. Do you have any tips or suggestions on how you do your "impartial" play testing? Thanks.


· Distinguished SOTW member, musician, technician &
5,208 Posts
John -

I'm not familiar with Curt's repair skills or playing skills. I have a good impression from what he writes on the forums and the nice Music Medic online store. I also have no idea what equipment they use for their overhauls, but if I was bringing my saxophone to Curt for repair I would prefer he use his ears to check everything and not any computer or other machine (except a tuner for intonation). A spectrum analyzer or any device might give very accurate facts, but it doesn't have a clue whether it sounds good.

I thought if I would prefer to only do overhauls on professional instruments, or general repair on many different levels of instruments. Although working on some instruments can be annoying, I decided I prefer it this way. You mentioned how it is like christmas when a pro sax comes in (since I'm not celebrating christmas I'm just going to assume that's a good thing, ho ho ho :D). This wouldn't happen if that was all you did all the time!

I think it is great that Curt (or anyone) is happy doing only overhauls on professional saxophones. That's his (their) choice! But this is not better or worse than doing different things. Like some players are very happy to play in a symphony orchestra their entire life, something that I and many others would never want to do!
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