Lessons from an Instrument Repair Workshop


The space did not trumpet “welcome”: small, cramped, dimly lit by a standard flex-armed light that swung from the wall and smelling of special glues and polishes. A basement cubbyhole down the back stairs, past the laundry area and a cobwebby fruit cellar that housed home canned treats, beyond the furnace and stacks of storage boxes.

The designated spot where an unobtrusive magic happened was called the workshop. Just one door away from a modest recreation room (where I enjoyed birthday gatherings and impromptu dance fests), it was a favorite haunt of mine.

Dad seemed to reside there part-time. That is, after he played in (as well as being assistant conductor) the symphony, taught music theory and history, after he conducted high school orchestra and a summer city band, tuned pianos, administrated the public schools’ music department and judged music competitions all over the Midwest. And gave private violin and viola lessons in our living room. But other than the work that occurred there, too, it seemed a place to find solitude, step away from demands of a busy career and our active crew of five kids.

And how I loved to steal away with him, unobtrusive as a cat, first approaching the open doorway, then stepping into the room. Finally standing still and alert, waiting for him to acknowledge me, sometimes with only a nod.

One end of our rec room increasingly was overtaken with an abundance of instruments. Musicians and parents of aspiring musicians brought to him their unhappy cellos, basses, violins and violas. But he also worked on woodwind and brass instruments. He adjusted clarinet, bassoon or oboe reeds to improve sound with sand paper, trimmer and nail file. It was exacting work. He replaced pads for the fingering keys and fixed finicky mechanical action. He seemed to know a great deal about all groups of instruments except perhaps percussion (to my disappointment as I adored rhythm). Dad had played many instruments over the decades so his firsthand experience was invaluable.

What exactly he did to instruments was a mystery to me as a child. That is, I paid attention to his methods, tools and fixatives. And rows of jars and drawers stocked with parts like ivory or mother of pearl, metal-wound strings and small cushiony pads, the long horsehair strands hung from hangers for bows. But even if individual actions made sense to my mind and eye, the auditory results did not. How did that squawking saxophone once again become a gleaming, efficient instrument trhough which a serenade escaped as soon as mouthpiece was placed between his lips? How did the cracked violin body recover enough to offer swells of melody that wound through the basement and up the stairwell?

Every piece he touched was handled with care. His hands were large, long-fingered, graceful. I saw them as powerful yet gentle; they never did anything that disrespected or damaged objects or people. Oh, he made mistakes and each time took it personally, causing him distress. But he started again and made it right, the re-hairing of a viola bow, making slick a sticky trombone slide, a new bridge of a cello placed just so between the f-holes (from which all the glorious notes emerged). The bridges looked almost like fanciful people to me; it awed me that they held up all the strings, helped produce so many vibrating sounds. I played cello so cheered on each cello victory.

It was an enchantment to be close, to watch him. When smaller, I stood on a wooden box a foot or so from him, beyond his elbows and hands. Any diversion might cause something to fall, to be affixed to a wrong spot. He would explain key issues as if I would grasp his instruction; he was always teaching. Mostly we were quiet together, the radio emitting soothing strains of classical music. He asked, at times for my help, which pleased me. A pair of needle-nosed pliers, a tiny screwdriver, a dark brown glass bottle labelled in his tidy printing that, when uncapped, unleashed such pungent scent. He seldom looked up but I watched his face, where stillness mixed with frowns and barest smiles. When he was happy with a result, he would show me the part or whole instrument, pronounce it good.

In spring and summer the humidity was cloying, the room dense with warmth. In winter, the damp and cold seeped through the basement walls. He feared for the instruments so there was a dehumidifier kept running most of the year. A space heater hummed by our feet in cold times; a rotating fan atop a file cabinet in summer cleared the air.

There were papers folded on shelves and stuffed in folders. He had forms for orders, forms for payment by the phone in the rec room. When older I would sometimes file them alphabetically. I answered the phone and took messages, or asked him a question for a customer or student. It was satisfying to be good use to him. It was clear he was swamped, both in the workshop and otherwise. When he got home each day he’d collapse in the easy chair by the baby grand piano and fall asleep immediately. His face went slack and the wavy, nearly white hair fell forward onto his forehead as his chin dipped to his chest. He was getting older too fast–this I felt despite being a late baby with parents who were always older than my friends’. I worried about him, even as a child, despite his success.

“What’s so attractive about the workshop?” my mother teased. “It’s smelly and uncomfortable, isn’t it?”

I am sure she thought of it that way but I found it cozy. Secure. Happy.  She intimated she thought he spent too much time working on those instruments. If he wasn’t gone, he was often there.

I ran down the stairs in the evening for a few minutes if he was home, sometimes on week-ends. After watching and hearing him talk instrument repair, I might feel restless but not want to leave. Dad would offer me a block of wood, various jars of nails and a lighter hammer. I’d find glue, some other cast-off like a piece of old leather, a rusty hinge, a tiny chip of mother of pearl from the bow “frogs” he fixed.

“Don’t hit things too hard. Tap, tap. That way we both can work.”

I lined up nails and positioned them just so, making them into teeth that needed pulling or repairing with oil or paste or splinters of cane from old woodwind reeds. Other times I would make designs on the grainy surfaces with tiny and larger nails. Bits of string or discarded horse hair from bows, the pearly shell piece could make textured patterns as they were wound or affixed about the nailheads. He’d indicate his progress, I would share mine. There was always something to make or some small way to assist him, but at some point, I would step off the box.

“Leaving so soon?” he asked without turning.

“Yeah, I’m going outside.”

He would turn and smile at me, his large blue eyes radiant in the shadows.

“Don’t climb the tree too fast, you don’t want to damage those hands!” he called after me.

I’d laugh but knew what he meant. He hoped for me a lifetime of cello playing along with other creative pursuits.

My father was not like many others in the mid-twentieth century. He pushed and rooted for me and my siblings. Strict regarding our behavior, given to frequent criticism to encourage excellence and then keep us humble, he also never discouraged me from pursuing what I cared about. Rarely if ever did he tell me I should be in the kitchen or doing housework rather than addressing my education or creative and athletic passions. He desired that his children appreciate culture, learning, the natural world. It seemed there was nothing that didn’t evoke fascination for him; he was powered by a devout love of family, knowledge and God.

But his time for just being with his children seemed limited. I had figured out how to infiltrate his world, whether he sat hunched at the dining room table, fingertips to forehead as he studied a musical score or tuning up his beloved, cranky foreign cars or rattling, rumbling motorbike with greasy, often-nicked hands. Whatever he was doing, I would check it out, too, and he never forbade my presence unless I was shirking my own work.

There were other repairs that happened in the workshop. He loved games and made a few, like the large ring toss with painted plywood bulls-eye, hooks with various points noted and old Mason jar rubber rings. He repaired most of what malfunctioned in our house (though my mother was quite handy as well), from toasters and radios to toys and shoes. His hands had to be busy much of the time.

As I grew up I didn’t fill my father’s ears with my worries or crises. Perhaps I should have, but I knew he had lots on his daily agenda and that the demands of caring for the family were plenty. I saw creative work as a musician and conductor required much concentration and practice. My mother supported his dreams and accomplishments as she ran the household and taught elementary children at times. He lived in that unique world shaped by classical music from morning until night. A man of study and meditation yet someone who thrived on action as well–let’s face it, he was not always easy to reach. I confess I felt the public had him more than did we, as his warm aura drew people to him everywhere.

That presence was a enlivening glow that I could enter into, as well. Dad and I shared music; we all did. I loved to sing old-fashioned big band standards as he accompanied me on the piano, play cello and violin duets. I would help him sort music for the summer city band concerts and set up the stage. I’d work on the yard with him. But I liked best to hang out with him as he tinkered and worked. To read on the couch as he was reading; to sit at the dining room table as we listened to music, my naming the composer as he named piece and its movements. I enjoyed thrilling motorbike rides with him and stretched out on the driveway near him as he changed the oil in the car. He loved word games and many crossword puzzles and Scrabble games were played. Croquet and other yard games–well, he made it tough to beat him, but it was good fun. And, too, there were the stars. He knew about the celestial world, and pointed out constellations in the ebony dark of our fragrant back yard. My list could go on. My parents didn’t just talk about doing things, we did them (sometimes like it or not, but that was rare).

That workshop, though. That is a central room in the architecture of my childhood and youth. There I had him to myself alittle while, outside the frantic pace of life, the fray and din of people coming and going and the music that claimed us all.

I took my minor and major worries there and they slipped away in a short time. Unbeknownst to him, perhaps, I even took my broken heart and laid it at the side of the workbench as he assessed and repaired each cracked and ornery instrument. My aching or sadness or confusion felt as temporal matters. The precision he gave to his goal, the urgent need to do the right thing, restorative acts–these imbued the space. And me. I experienced, too, the delight as one thing was repaired, another gave way to more probing and problem solving. It was full of experiences where the equations of his industriousness seemed alchemical and sensible all at once. And I was blessed to be privy to this meaningful way of doing things.

I believed he could fix anything, even me, but didn’t quite know what to tell him so simply stood within the cast of his spirit. The human light that is magnified by unshakeable faith in God was his. He would not let me down, because he loved me. Even though there were important parts about my life that he understood too late, he still held powerful sway over my daily living. He contributed to my survival of disastrous events and to my success as a human, even as a counselor. Just by welcoming me, showing me how to get things done, being steadfast and kind.

Things can be fixed and made better: this is what I saw to be true in my father’s workshop. They can be thought irreparably damaged. Yet with time, anything can happen. The right resources and optimistic plans and steady action: with a careful hand these can make right what has been skewed, marred and turned upside down. It takes faith and some well planned risks to make strong what has been undermined. There are always unseen factors. Clues uncovered along the way to reveal the whole story.

He improvised, create his own parts when nothing else worked. He believed there was a way to improve anything. It just took more thoughtfulness, more persistence. Muteness of an instrument did not mean its end. And even when it at long last sang once more, its voice could be coaxed into a richer, truer, finer thing. It is easy to see how I was taught that no matter what sort of problem occurred, we have both free will and creative minds, an ability to adapt to or improve what turns up in life.

My father’s workshop was home to many things, to instruments and broken goods and children who basked in his quiet love. he worked there long after his official retirement age, well into his late seventies. It is all part of my own living and doing, this story about trust. Years later I remembered all this, that I could take my life into my hands, make it whole again, encourage it to sing its own good song. Devotion to what matters most develops a powerhouse of hopeful energy.

Look within and discover that restorative impulse, unearth the legends that carry you forward. Then I hope you will allow others into your circle to reap the rewards.


6 thoughts on “Lessons from an Instrument Repair Workshop

  1. Cynthia, this is a wonderful warm remembrance. My father also was a musician, teacher, and instrument repairman, and I treasure all of my childhood memories of making music and helping him in the repair shop. Thank you for sharing such a great memory.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments; you are so welcome. I’m gratified that you happily identified with such experiences. It is wonderful growing up in a musical family, isn’t it? And if such fathers were also good and kind men, then so much more the gifts we received. I would love to read something of your experiences; I tend to play as he worked whereas perhaps you actually gained skills! Glad to have you as a reader. Regards.

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