This story originally appeared on KERA News.
Students at an Arlington high school are learning how to repair band instruments. To have an instrument ready for repair, it’s hammer to horn and then, a lesson on fixing it.
This isn’t band class or rehearsal. Instructor Joe Strohl is proving this silver baritone works. We’re in the instrument repair class at Bowie High School in Arlington. The horn, in keeping with the school mascot – the Volunteers – is a volunteer.
“It’s been around a long time,” says Strohl. “And honestly we’ve done quite a bit of repair. This is actually one of our demo horns that we get to do this sort of thing on.”
Strohl hands me a hammer. I whack it. Twice. Then again.
Strohl says brass dents are the most common instrument repairs. They’re done here on purpose so students can learn how to fix them. We’re in the old photography dark room at Bowie. Digital cameras made it extinct.
But instrument repair – there’s no high-tech substitute.
Strohl’s been fixing everything from bassoons to sousaphones for two decades. He works for Music and Arts, the giant band instrument repair and retail business. He’s only been in the classroom for three months in this partnership between the company and the district. Strohl’s seen his share of bashed horns, like a teen’s trombone brought in by a mom.
“She picked it up off the bed, stuck it up in the air and the trombone slide caught in the ceiling fan and just bent it into a 90 degree angle,” Strohl recalls. “That was a new experience.”
This class is a new experience for 17 year-old Noah Patrick, a senior at Lamar High. Every other day he rides a bus to Bowie for the class. For Noah, it hit the right note. He was hard up for options after graduating.
“Honestly, school’s just not really my thing,” Noah says. “I’ve always kind of liked building stuff and putting it together. Since I love music, seems to be no end, I figured why not do this?”
Noah’s learning to machine and shape small instrument parts. He’s learning how to solder with flame. In the wet room across the hall, he’s shown lacquer and buffing techniques, that’ll leave fixed instruments with a high gloss. If he continues, Noah can enroll as a summer intern at Music and Art’s 2,500 square foot Dallas repair shop.
“It’s like blacksmithing and it takes a number of years,” says Jeremy Earnhart. He’s the Fine Arts Director for Arlington Schools. A trumpet player, he’s had this idea for years.
“So after two years, our students will be apprenticeship-ready, and that’s about a $15 an hour job.”
Two years after that, Earnhart says they’ll be ready to make up to $70,000 a year. Vince Chiappone, Texas sales director with Music and Arts, remembers Earnhart’s call a few years back pitching the idea. He was at an airport.
“If Jeremy calls, I pick up the phone,” Chiappone says, smiling. “And my wheels really started turning right away thinking about our team of repair people is aging. And they’re not being replaced as quickly as we are growing. This would give us a platform to be able to create our own repair techs.”
Back in the Bowie repair room, remember that guy who hammered the horn? I’m now the student learning to fix it. Strohl pulls out a smooth steel ball and hands me a powerful magnet.
He says “Put the ball in. Then take your magnet, there we go.”
The magnet outside the horn rolls the ball inside back and forth across the dent until it’s nearly smooth. Seven students signed for this very first band repair class. The goal, Earnhart says, a dozen apprentice-ready techs a year. And for the horn, another life.
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