Tell us about how you got started, where do you work and how long have you worked there?
Well, I got started really early. I was only 17. I was often in Musicstop, my local music store in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was usually there buying reeds and mouthpieces and saxophones and saxophone related stuff. I was on a first name basis with the band department manager, so one day when I was in she asked me if I wanted a job. Naturally, I said yes and asked what they were looking for. To my surprise, she said they were looking for a repair technician. Surprised, I said: “Whoa! I have no idea how to do any of that!” She replied that it was okay and that the company would train me. So, I was lucky enough to start apprenticing when I was still in high school (which was a way cooler job than what most of my friends were doing at the time!). The senior technician was a gentleman named Marius Kowalski (MK Woodwinds). Marius, who was originally from Poland, had lived in England for a number of years and was one of the senior technicians at Howarth of London. Howarth deals in very high-end woodwinds. Some of the London Symphony Orchestra members make up their clientele. So while I was still in high school I would spend my weekends in the shop and learn as much from Marius as I could. The first thing he had me do was take my own saxophone apart, clean it, and put it back together. That first weekend I left with most of the horn in its case and a bunch of keys in a bag…. Once I knew where everything went on the horn, I did overhaul after overhaul after overhaul. Marius was a great teacher, and I didn’t get away with anything! Eventually, I got to the point where I would finish an overhaul, Marius would look it over and say there was something wrong with it, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. The day he passed me a horn back and said “Okay” was a huge day! But I also learned something. It was only “Okay”. The serious work was only just beginning.
So, for the next five years, I worked and studied under Marius. I worked on weekends while in University (Majoring in a saxophone performance degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax) and full time in the summers. I had moved on to repairing flutes and clarinets in much the same fashion I had learned saxophones. In 2005 I moved to Toronto, Ontario where I was doing an Applied and Contemporary Music Degree at Humber College. For a while, I was repairing horns in my dorm room, which was not really something the college was too keen on. In 2006 I started working for Steve’s Music in downtown Toronto. I was the only woodwind/brass technician the company had (I would by no means consider myself a brass technician. I was just the only guy there who had a vague idea of what wind instruments needed.) I finished my degree at Humber in 2009, and in 2012 I left Steve’s Music and went to another store in Toronto called St. John’s Music (SJM). In my later years at SJM, I designed a saxophone overhaul system that caters to the individual needs of professional saxophone players (naturally the system used Music Medic saxophone pads and resonators!). I also met my wife at St. John’s Music and in 2016 we bought our house. Now that we had our own house with a separate garage on the property, I finally had space where I could start building my own repair shop! I’m still in that process now. While doing that I am currently working for Long & McQuade, the biggest music store in Canada, where I am repairing woodwinds.
What do you specialize in? What do you hope to achieve in the next few years in this specialty?
I specialize in saxophones (although I do repair flutes and clarinets as well). By far my favourite thing to do with saxophones is overhauls and restorations. I like to combine old-style craftsmanship with new technology. New materials that have been developed in recent years such as tech cork and Teflon have practical applications in woodwind repair. I really like experimenting with new materials as well. Something like tech cork is perfect as a regulation material (Such as for key feet and adjustment screws) and Teflon is a must for any keys that have to slide against each other. I’m a big fan of all the little things too. I really like taking the time to make sure that post heads are planed, the key fit is perfectly snug, and that tone holes are not only level but as smooth as glass. I always try to find a calm when I am repairing which is a big part of the reason why my shop is outside the city. For me repairing instruments is not so different from practicing them. Repair is a pursuit. It is a lifetime dedication. You have to always try to repair better than you did the day before. In the next few years, I’d like to start experimenting with key fabrication and modifications to saxophones and I have been considering getting my Straubinger certification for flutes.
What do you want the world to know about your work?
The important thing to know about my work is that when I repair a woodwind instrument, I always repair it for someone. I like to tailor each and every repair to a specific musician, all the way down to their choice of the colour of the felts for their instrument. No two instruments are the same and no two musicians are the same, so I always try to be as specific and detailed as I can in whatever the repair (and the musician) requires.
Which MusicMedic pads do you use and why?
I use all of the MusicMedic pads! They are by far my favourite pad. I’ve never found pads that are so consistent. The leather and felt are top quality, and they are always flat and even. I think out of all the MusicMedic pads my favourite are the Chocolate RooPads. The leather is amazing in those things, they feel fantastic under your fingers and they look beautiful too. I haven’t tried the RooPad Extremes yet, but I can’t wait to give them a shot. Also, the choice of resonators from MusicMedic allows musicians access to a much wider tonal palate. For example, I installed the Gold Plated Airtight Maestro StarBurst resonators in my 1965 Mark VI. I was playing in a funk band at the time so I oversized them, which gave me the brightness and the punch I was looking for. With the variety of resonators, pads, leather choices and materials you can really make an instrument feel and play plus, it can look beautiful too.
If you could pass on some tips or knowledge to other techs, what would that be?
I think the biggest thing I would want to pass on to other technicians is patience. Patience is the best and most important tool you will ever have. Patience both in the repair itself and learning new techniques. Before you do anything on an instrument take a deep breath and get yourself in the right headspace. Be calm and be patient. Sometimes things won’t go exactly as you plan. Some repairs take a long time too. It’s not always easy to sustain that kind of headspace throughout the entire repair. Taking breaks can be very helpful. If I could recommend a book, I think technicians should read “Zen in the Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel. I first read this book from a musician’s point of view. Years later I read it from a technician’s point of view and it was just as profound. One of the lines in the book is the master saying “It is not the goal of the archer to hit the target, but to hit the self”. That particular phrase is something I have tried to keep in my head as I repair. If you are repairing from that place, from that place of calm, your repair isn’t simply fixing something, it is a conversation with the instrument and hitting a goal within yourself. You are putting something of yourself into the instrument, and for the musician who will be playing it, you are setting up the correct circumstances to create a relationship with something that is no longer an inanimate object.