Friday, March 29, 2013

The Road to Repair

Rachel working on a Powell Custom Piccolo

We've had a couple of people ask us recently about becoming repair technicians.  What does it take to get started?  Is this something you train to do?  We sat down with Powell's Repair Technician, Rachel Baker, to see how she got started.

Working with your hands is a daily part of the job
Rachel told us that when she was in high school, she was thinking about her career.  She was active in her music program as an instrumentalist and wanted to continue with music.  However, teaching wasn't something that she thought would be a good match, and she felt that the performance world was a bit too competitive for her.  As she contemplated some other possibilities, she thought, "Well, I send my flute out to get repaired, so what can't I do this with instruments, too?"  She told us that she likes working with her hands and solving problems, so this seemed to be a perfect match.

In her junior year of high school, she went to work for her local music store.  She began by cleaning rental instruments and was eventually able to apprentice with one of the repair technicians at the store.  Her training in repair started by repadding alto saxophones.  She said that alto saxophones have "a little bit of everything -- clarinet-type pads, flute-type adjustments, " so it was a good place to start.  After high school, she chose to enroll in a repair school program at Western Iowa Tech and received her Associate's Degree in Applied Sciences in Band Instrument Repair.  Rachel emphasized that attending repair school is very important, especially in current times when apprenticeships are very rare.  She mentioned a few others programs in Minnesota, Washington, and Wisconsin -- and we happened to find a comparison chart of these programs at  Additional information may be found on the NAPBIRT (National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians) website at  Rachel mentioned that it is important to research the repair school programs and find out as much as possible.  She says, "it may not be for everyone..."  In her class of 10, she said that she might be the only one still doing repair -- so it is truly important to investigate before you commit to a program.

During her studies in Iowa, Rachel worked at her hometown's local music store during holiday breaks and vacations.  When she completed her studies, she returned to work at the shop full-time.  There were 3 repair technicians (including Rachel), which she found quite helpful.  She said that as for the repair techs, "everyone did everything, and you could ask people for help."  To be a repair technician, Rachel also mentioned that it is helpful if you can play different instruments.  Rachel played trumpet and sousaphone in her high school marching band, oboe in her high school concert band and orchestra, and flute in private lessons and concert band.  She added that while in college, she also played in a bassoon quartet.  She has played single reed instruments as well but told us that she prefers "double reeds and no reeds."  Sounds fair enough!

Rachel's "to do" area of the shop
In addition to her formal studies and training at the local music shop, she says that when it comes to repair, you also learn over time.  She feels that it is important to listen to your customers, because it makes you more aware of what may need to be adjusted and how the instrument should function properly for each individual.  When it comes to pro models, she says that people have specialized concerns -- which is why the customer is so critical in the process.  As she said so eloquently at the end of our conversation, "you never stop learning..."

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Ultrasonic Cleaner

How do Powell flutes get so shiny?  Well, one thing that certainly helps is the ultrasonic cleaner.  Repair Technician Rachel Baker says she uses the ultrasonic cleaner for C.O.As, overhauls, headjoint cleaning, and tool cleaning.  In addition to flutes in the shop for repair, new flutes are put through the ultrasonic cleaner as well.  The ultrasonic cleaner is used with new flutes after they are polished, to get the polishing dust off.  Rachel says the ultrasonic cleaner is "an absolutely fabulous degreaser" and is very versatile. 

So, just how does it work?  Well, there is a gentle solution inside the cleaner.  Ultrasonic waves are sent through the solution to clean the flutes.  There is also a bit of heat produced inside the cleaner, which helps to disinfect.  Obviously, wooden flute and piccolo headjoints and bodies are not put through the ultrasonic cleaner.  However, at Powell, metal flutes, headjoints, and keys can be cleaned this way.  The keys are placed in a basket, and softer plastic separates the keys so they don't bump up against each other.  Flute bodies are placed on long, cotton-covered rods with a hook on the end that attaches to the side of the machine.  This allows the flutes to be "suspended" in the machine so that nothing touches them.

A huge benefit of the ultrasonic cleaner is that it takes the place of harsh chemicals, which were used long ago to clean flutes.  The ultrasonic cleaner is very safe -- no harsh cleaning agents are used at all.  Also, the ultrasonic cleaner does not weaken the solder of the flute joints, so the flute joints will not come apart.  The key to the ultrasonic cleaner is sound -- sound waves that keep new flutes and older flutes terrifically clean!

It might not look like much, but this ultrasonic cleaner is amazing.
Footjoints at the repair office.  The middle footjoint has been polished and cleaned -- and we can see our reflection in the pinky keys!
A closer look... We still see a reflection.
Polished and cleaned truly to a mirror shine.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Pre-Loved Powells

We recently stopped by the repair shop to check in with Rachel, our Repair Tech, who was busy working on a few overhauls.  It was interesting to see some examples of the "before and after" of overhauling "pre-owned" Powell flutes -- or what she fondly refers to as "pre-loved Powells."  Rachel holds the pre-loved Powells in the highest regard.  She has seen so many come through the shop, and even in the most trying states of condition, she is able not only to restore them but also to appreciate that there is much more to the overhaul than just mechanics...

2100 awaiting an overhaul
After Rachel notified one of the customers that his flute had arrived safely, she received the following e-mail:

Hello Rachel,

Thank you for the update. I'm looking forward to having the Powell fully restored. Take good care of it. Life has asked little from it, but given it lots of abuse.

Rachel receives many communications from people looking to buy and sell older flutes.  Of course, we are always very happy to help our customers pinpoint the exact new Powell of their choice, build it, and then ship it to them -- completely untouched.  So, why would one consider a pre-loved Powell? There could be a couple of reasons. Rachel mentioned that a pre-loved instrument could make a good, quality back-up flute. She says, "People may be hesitant to look at an older instrument because they think it may have problems.  Plus, everyone likes new, shiny things...  But, everything can be fixed and repaired on a flute -- and made shiny again!" She added that you can also try these pre-loved Powells to see if you like them.

Looking beyond the outside of an older Powell, Rachel shared with us a few more reasons that you might consider these pre-loved flutes. Recalling the exact words of the e-mail above, she expanded on the sentiment: "They each have a different character about them.  Plus, if you think about it, you realize that you are giving them a chance to have a new life, and that's what they were meant to do.  They were meant to be played, not left in a closet all alone.  If you choose one, you can help it fulfill its purpose in life."

So, if you discover an older instrument that looks a bit faded and worn, rest assured that it can begin a new life with a little help from your repair technician...

Might not look very shiny -- yet.
Certainly different looking than something brand new.
Has seen some wear, but...
It can begin a new life after an overhaul!
The overhauled 2100 on the left, a Conservatory in for a COA on the right.
Looks pretty shiny now!
Very shiny!