Technicians turn instrument repair into an art form
Chipper with the Better Than New Repair Crew.
About the Video:
Twylia Baker demonstrates what happens to a trumpet when it isn't cleaned regularly.
Karen helps customers at Better Than New.
Karen inserts a tube light into a saxophone that will allow her to find leaks.
Photos | Videos
by Mario Barraza, Claire Wilkison, Taylor Courtney
(Posted: Dec. 21, 2009)
It's amazing what a little saliva mixed with food particles can do -- especially to a brass band instrument.
Imagine several teenagers sharing the same trumpet, trombone or saxophone. If that isn't enough to make one squeamish, imagine that none of the kids clean the inside of the instrument after they use it. Icky. Now, imagine how that instrument might look after an entire semester or even a school year. It's enough to make you say Euww.
The saliva, which contains acids and food particles, builds up in the horn, turns green with time and muffles the sound. And by the time some instruments make it to the repair shop, the nasty substance has taken on the qualities of a super glue making components almost impossible to separate and clean without special tools, chemicals and some good old fashioned elbow grease.
Recently, Radio Free Liberty Hill caught up with an artistic group of musicians-turned-repair geeks who care for most of the instruments of Liberty Hill school band members. As experts in caring for the forlorn and often forsaken music makers, the duo may have dirty jobs, but the end result is better than new.
Karen and her partner, Twylia Baker, both of Liberty Hill, clean and repair hundreds of band instruments of students from across Texas every year from their shop in Round Rock.
As classic rock-and-roll tunes play in the background, the experts carefully diagnose and treat the ailments of all types of instruments while customers come and go. For onlookers, the Better Than New experience is intriguing, yet almost chaotic, as pieces of instruments are removed, cleaned and replaced to the sounds of clacking tools and the aromas of glue and chemical cleaning agents. Like magic, the delicate pieces somehow find their way back to where they belong -- better than new -- while the magicians discuss politics, current events from Liberty Hill and beyond, and share comedic tales that keep things lively.
Only Chipper the Chiuaua, the Better Than New Welcoming Committee, acts as if he has heard it all before. Soundly sleeping in the chair behind Karen, who says his presence helps her posture, Chipper stirs when he hears a customer and rumbles when Twylia points a finger at him.
"You can't help but wonder how things get this bad," said Twylia, as she uses a cloth to remove hardened saliva from a trumpet. It's far from the worst case she has ever seen, but still disheartening.
"I don't think kids know how to take care of their instruments," she said. "And schools don't have the money to keep them maintained properly."
Karen and Twylia, who are two of an estimated 70 certified instrument repair technicians in the entire state, admit their career choice may seem a little off-beat and even dirty. But they take great satisfaction in knowing that their work helps students make better music.
"In an auditorium, you can certainly hear the difference (between a well-maintained instrument and one in poor condition)," said Twylia. "On the football field, it's harder to tell. Sports comes first in Texas and unfortunately, some schools' only concern about their bands is that they show up at football games."
While some school districts spend thousands of dollars to purchase instruments for students, they do not invest much in their maintenance. The two likened the importance of instrument maintenance to keeping a vehicle in good working order. Keeping the components clean and in good condition improves performance.
When asked to recall the most memorable instrument they have repaired, they agree the trombone that had been urinated on had to be the worst. Quickly adding that it didn't belong to a Liberty Hill student, they say a band director caught someone urinating in the instrument. They didn't ask any more questions.
Karen, a Master Technician with 27 years experience repairing band instruments, said what she does may not be considered art by its literal definition, but it certainly requires talent, patience and commitment.
"You have to have a good eye, and you have to want things to be perfect even though they can't be," she said.
Karen has played the clarinet since the fourth grade and played tenor saxophone in college. In junior college, her music professor told her to change the pads on her instrument keys by herself over winter break. She took the instrument apart and figured out how to change the pads and put it back together. Looking back, she says she isn't sure whether she instinctively knew what to do or whether she just panicked and somehow made it work. Whatever the motivation, she thought it was cool although she doesn't advise others to try it.
She attended a special school to become a certified technician in band instrument repair, then went to work for a music store in Alexandria, LA, for six months before moving to Austin in 1984 and joining the staff at Strait Music where she would spend the next 20 years. After she met Twylia, who was working as a welder building ornate staircases for high-end home builders, and trained her to repair instruments, the two decided to go into business for themselves.
"I told her (Karen) I thought I could do this. So, she handed me a clarinet and told me to take it apart and put it back together," said Twylia, who played alto saxophone in her high school band. "I did it in less than an hour, and when she came back in the room, she asked me when I was going to get started. I told her I had already done it, but she didn't believe it and asked me to do it again."
In 2004, Karen and Twylia opened their shop in Round Rock and most of their loyal customers followed them, including Liberty Hill schools. For the past seven years, they have lived just outside of Liberty Hill where they have a good working relationship with the three band directors. When an instrument needs attention, they pick it up at the school on their way to work and return it the following morning.
And when overnight service isn't fast enough, Karen and Twylia have been known to meet band parents at local convenience stores after work where they make repairs as curious store customers gather round. Unfortunately, the onlookers don't get the full Better Than New experience that way because Chipper the Welcoming Committee has to stay in the car.
"We're all about taking care of our customers," said Karen. "And we'll do whatever it takes." Even if it means Chipper has to wait in the car for a few minutes.