SOUTHINGTON — Tucked at the end of the Rochambeau Mall is The Music Lab, where musicians and students can take their saxophones, clarinets and other woodwind and brass instruments to be repaired.
The Record-Journal recently stopped by to chat with owner and musician Jonathan Ball to talk about how he repairs instruments back to playing condition.
Q: What exactly do you do here at The Music Lab?
Ball: We are strictly a band shop, in other words, woodwinds and brass. We fix them, we service them, we rent a lot of instruments as well, which also includes strings. We also have a lot of accessories, professional accessories and student accessories.
Q: How long have you been doing this type of work?
Ball: This place has been here for a year. I’ve been doing this for about 20 years.
Q: How did you get into this field?
Ball: I was playing a wedding and someone at the wedding owned an old business called Apple Music, which was around since the mid-90s, and he wanted someone to help him with woodwind repairs so he asked me if I would apprentice with him.
Q: What instruments do you play?
Ball: I play all the woodwinds (professionally), although I’m not a professional double reed player so I don’t play oboe, bassoon or English horn professionally. I’ve been fortunate, I’ve been able to do a lot of cool things. I played with Aretha Franklin a couple times, Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka, a lot of artists like that and I did some Broadway tours.
Q: What are some skills that go into repairing instruments?
Ball: The first thing you really need to know is how to play the instrument, because if you don’t know how to play it, how are you going to know if it’s working correctly? A lot of it is really just like anything else, the more you do it the better you get. You have to be somewhat mechanically inclined because they are little machines.
Q: What are the most common repairs?
Ball: Everyday it seems like there’s something different. Probably with the brass instruments, it’s really just cleaning things. That’s probably the biggest thing, they just need to be cleaned out. They’re not as complicated as woodwind. Things come in because they’re not working correctly, so we just have to figure out what’s wrong with it.
Q: Are damaged instruments common?
Ball: All the time. Things fall, I mean that’s probably the biggest thing is when they fall.
Q: What kind of customers do you usually get?
Ball: It varies from beginners to 90-year-olds and professionals. It’s really everyone who plays. There are more students around who play instruments, so that would probably be the biggest group.
Q: Have you had any unique experiences repairing instruments?
Ball: I mean, I’ve worked on some beautiful instruments, some very valuable instruments. Bassoons worth $30,000. Platinum flutes, very expensive instruments. We’ve really done everything.
Q: How many repairs do you get a day?
Ball: It depends on the season. During the summer it’s very busy, that’s when we do a majority of the school repairs, we take in 50 a day. It’s often not the number of instruments, it’s what has to be done to them that takes time.
Q: How much time does it take to repair and give back an instrument?
Ball: We try to do five business days. That's the goal.
Q: What kind of tools do you use for these repairs?
Ball: A lot of the tools are really specialized and they’re made for the trade. Some of them are just pliers and screwdrivers but even the screwdrivers have to accommodate the particular screws on the instruments.
Q: Is there any difference between fixing a newer instrument and an older one?
Ball: An older instrument usually just has wear on the metal. The keys wear out, especially if they haven’t been oiled and metal is rubbing on metal. A lot of the newer instruments are not as well made as the older instruments are. So either the metal is too heavy or it’s too soft. Some companies, the quality control isn’t the way it was before.
Q: What makes you really enjoy what you do?
Ball: It’s cool because I’m a musician, so even though I’m not playing all day long, I’m still doing music things. It’s really very rewarding when someone comes in and their horn is not working, and when they pick it up they’re so happy.