A fascinating primer on taking care of your woodwind or horn from Mike Jacobsen, the owner of Grey Door Music in Australia. He began his career in 1992, and while being a great technician and artisan, he continues to learn from his industry peers and instrument manufacturers. Advice, tips and how to keep loving on your horn.
When and why did you start doing instrument repairs?
That’s kind of a complicated question. I was born in New Zealand in 72. By the time I was getting near the end of schooling NZ was still a relatively poor country for most of us. I was also NOT a great pupil and school was a very hard, generally unpleasant place for me. My one saving grace was an extremely kind and understanding music teacher.
At the time I was an undiagnosed Autism Spectrum kid. I played music, not sports, in a school whose principal was an ex-All Black (NZ’s top sports team) and unless you played sports you where nothing basically, so High School was hell for me.
One day my Music Teacher came to me and asked what I planned to do after school? (I didn’t want to go to uni, and the only other real options in my home town where to become a mechanic or a builder… neither appealed to me.) I had no idea, and he told me that he could get me an apprenticeship in repairing Brass & Woodwind musical instruments if I was interested. Id never even heard of this before and it sounded brilliant. I went for a week-long trial, loved it, and several months later at the age of 16 Id left school, moved to the big city (Auckland) and started my apprenticeship. I still talk almost every week with my old boss as well, who’s still going strong, and still repairing. So I in a way I fell into it, and in another it was meant to be.
I’ve was also invited by Yamaha to study with their repairers in Hamamatsu where they make all the pro-level instruments. I spent a month there, which was incredible.
What are the most common issues with woodwinds and brass?
That really depends on a lot of different factors. I think one of the most common issues with both is a general lack of basic maintenance by players. Yes, that sounds harsh, but a lot of what I see could be avoided with regular servicing by a trained/qualified repairer and proper maintenance at home.
Proper cleaning at home for brass, with lubrication of slides and valves.
Basic cleaning of woodwinds after each use, using the pull-throughs, not just putting it away after playing. That would save players so much money in the long run. The number of times I’ve seen a rotten low D# on a sax because of this.
Where you are in the world you live also greatly affects the instrument. Here in Sydney, mold is a serious issue for woodwinds. At the moment I have at least five repads on the go because mold got into the pads.
Where do you source your parts?
That is make-dependent. I have contacts in factories, shops etc. all over the world, from America, France, UK, Italy, Germany, etc. I also know a lot of repairers around the world, and most of us are happy to help each other out.
What are some of the ways weather and saliva can affect an instrument?
As mentioned before, mold is a serious health issue where I am for both the player and the instrument. We also get rapid changes in moisture/temp here which can make wooden instruments crack. Weather can make instruments like clarinets bind together or warp their shape.
A person’s own body chemistry is a big one. I’ve known players who can turn a high-end solid silver flute black before my eyes after I’ve serviced it. Some have saliva that will ruin the leather of a pad within months (it also doesn’t help if the player has a habit of eating/drinking while playing). I’ve known one brass player who has to replace his instrument every few years because of his personal chemistry.
What are some of the most delicate mechanical parts of an instrument?
The player…just kidding.
Definitely valves on brass instruments, then slides.
For woodwinds, it’s a multitude of different parts, really. But a common one for all would be the keys. They’re the parts that generally are moving and are the most vulnerable to damage.
Name some of the tools of your trade.
A lot of our tools are very trade-specific and hideously expensive, and each shop, depending on its focus, is likely to have different tools. But that being said, most shops will have a lathe, bench motor, vices, and various dent tools from balls, rods and mandrels; plus your universals such as screw drivers, alcohol lamps or small gas torches.
What was the most obscure repair you’ve ever done?
Actually, that wasn’t an instrument, it was a very, very old brass diving bell that the customer wanted the dents removed and brought back to life as much as possible so he could have it as a showpiece.
One of the jobs I have at the moment is a 1936 Selmer Balanced Action Tenor. It’s a love job for one of my fav clients. It was her dad’s. It is a very difficult job, with worn out parts, home repairs, making new replacement parts. It’s a real head-scratcher but I’m loving it.
What are the top things that musicians need to know about taking care of their instruments?
Don’t watch a YouTube video and expect to be able to repair your instrument.
The biggest thing though, is to get into daily habits of general maintenance. Use your pull-through, remove excess moisture as much as possible.
CLEAN YOUR MOUTHPIECES…
Don’t leave your reeds on your mouthpieces. Reeds are expensive these days, and you should learn how to take proper care of them. And never just buy single reeds, always buy by the box.
Don’t lend your instrument, and don’t let others play with your mouthpiece.
Learn to understand what happens when you press a key, what moves when you do it? By doing this you can often work out what’s gone wrong yourself, like a pivot screw or rod backing out. Small things like that you should be able to deal with yourself. That being said, don’t hesitate to go to a qualified repairer either. Putting off repairs is something everyone does for various reasons, but as soon as possible get repairs done. The longer you wait, the more expensive repairs become.
Talk to your repairer and make an effort to get to know them. I spend a lot of time and effort getting to know my customers, their instruments and how they play them. The more I know about them and their individual style the better I can help them.
our instrument is an extension of you. Treat it with respect. You’ve most likely paid a lot of money for it.
Like all the repairers I know around the world, I take a great deal of pride in my job. I love it because no two jobs are ever the same. There is a lot of lateral thinking involved.
I’ve met and worked for some incredibly talented musicians like Jim Horn and Steven Mead, and seen some truly beautiful instruments, so I think I’ve got the best job in the world. Musicians are, I think, some of the most interesting, colourful and wonderful people ever, and I get to help them from beginner to professional, which I feel is an absolute privilege.
My industry, like all, is going through massive change at the moment. From difficulties getting parts, the cost of parts and couriers going through the roof. The advent of the internet. But all this just makes it more interesting in the end!
For more information, contact Mike Jacobsen at Grey Door Music, www.greydoormusic.com, (+61) – 412616571.
Photo courtesy of and with permission of Mike Jacobsen.
(c) 2021 Debbie Burke