Brass Musical Instrument Technician (Apprentice)
When I was a teenager and thinking about what I wanted to do for a career, I knew that I had three loves (other than Jeanie, of course): Jesus, music and working with my hands. I can remember agonizing about what I was going to do for a living the rest of my life. I had just decided that music education was not for me, but what was for me? That was the question. The rest of one’s life at 18 years old seems like an awfully long time. My love for Jesus and my love for music seemed to add up to “minister of music”, but the thought of going down that path was not at all appealing. Even then, I was driven by a sense that being a serious follower of Christ should be able to fit into whatever career path one took. I knew that I could follow Jesus with my whole heart without having to work in a church for a living. Please hear my heart on this, I’m not putting down anyone who works in a church. I am saying that I was not interested in a professional ministry. That’s about me… as is the rest of my blog. My other choice seemed to be to combine my love of music with my desire to work with my hands. I put those two together and decided that more than anything, I wanted to fix musical instruments. That choice was not clear out of the blue however. In high-school, when the repairman from Fox Music, Mr. Maxwell, came to my school to do maintenance and repairs, I watched him as long and as often as I could. I also hung out with Roddy, who was a repairman of sorts at Leonards Music Store. They were both great encouragements to me… although Mr. Maxwell’s most heartfelt advice was to run from this career. He kept telling me that I would never get rich from it. What he really meant to say was that I could very well get poor doing it. He was right.
In 1978, I left Newberry College, married my highschool sweetheart and we headed to App State (ASU) in Boone, NC so I could complete a degree in Music Technology (instrument repair). When I arrived and enrolled, I learned that the program was already being discontinued. I was determined, however, and I approached the leader of the now defunct Music Technology program, known affectionately as “Happy Jack”. Happy Jack had his own music store/repair shop in Boone. So I asked him (actually begged and pleaded with him) for a job in his repair shop. He tried to disuade me too, but I finally convinced him that I was serious about wanting to learn to do instrument repair, so he “hired” me to apprentice with his brass technician, John Dameron. I put “hired” in quotation marks because he paid me $50 a week for which I was expected to put in 40 hours as if I were a regular employee. I considered $50 paid to me to be more favorable than my paying tuition to ASU and I happily accepted the proposition. At that time, Jeanie was a nurse and we could survive comfortably on her income.
John taught me everything there was to know about repairing brass instruments. He was quite a teacher. To say that he cared greatly about attention to detail would be a gross understatement. Let’s just say that he literally would not accept anything less than perfection. I learned everything from basic repair to dent removal to complete refinishing. It was sometimes meticulous, always demanding, frequently dirty work and I loved it! When we refinished horns, we would buff them to a mirror finish. In the final buffing step, we used a compound called red rouge. This was so fine that even wearing a tee-shirt, workshirt and an apron, my skin would be completely red on buffing days. Doing this kind of work, I felt like an old world craftsman. Even though we used modern tools where we could, so much of the work was manual and intricate. We often referred to ourselves as “elves”.
After being there for a year or so, I approached Happy Jack about really getting paid for what I was doing. He was not willing to increase my salary to something reasonable, so I resigned. In years to come, I would return to the world of instrument repair, but I didn’t know that at the time. As much as I wanted to be an “old world craftsman”, I was beginning to feel the tug of responsibility. It was time for me to find a way to earn a living so we could start thinking about a family. Many of the guys in our church worked on a tree planting crew and were making “big bucks”. More about the tree crew next time…
Workin’ for the Man Series