In one of the classic bits from “Animal House,” one of the Delta Tau Chi fraternity brothers misdirects the Faber College marching band down a blind alley where the trombone section eventually plows into a brick wall as their slides buckle, bend and crunch on impact.
The scene has probably made band directors and brass players cringe over the years. But for the skilled instrument-repair technicians who work tirelessly to mend twisted brass tubing or adjust delicate metal keys on woodwinds, that moment is a poignant reminder of their unique service to reunite musicians with their ailing instruments.
When a saxophone crashes to the floor, a chinrest cracks on a violin or wild birds nest in a sousaphone, the Greater Lehigh Valley has music stores that employ skilled repair technicians, part of a small, niche profession that is always in demand when the music falls silent.
Nazareth Music Center, a family owned business in downtown Nazareth, has been repairing brass, woodwind and string instruments since 1960, when Ralph Brodt Jr. bought the business from Zellner’s Music Store. Besides repairs, the store sells and rents instruments and leases space for music lessons in the store’s 11 studios.
There’s no shortage of work for the repair crew, three full time and three part time, that maintains the store’s inventory of rental instruments and fixes banged-up instruments sent in by schools across Northampton and Lehigh counties.
Like elves in Santa’s workshop, the apron-clad staff of repair technicians works quietly in the basement to make repairs. Technicians sit at long wooden benches with small, intricate mandrels and hammers, lubricants and solder and glue guns to remove dents and dings, repair valves or repad a woodwind instrument.
“At one time, instrument repair work accounted for about 50 percent of the business,” said Ralph Brodt III, property manager and brass, string and percussion repairer at Nazareth Music Center. “Now it’s about 25 to 30 percent because of an increase in instrument rentals to fourth-graders.”
Still a family affair at Nazareth Music Center, Brodt is joined by his brother Scott, CEO of the store and a professional clarinetist, who works on clarinets and double reed instruments and woodwinds. He took over the business from their dad in 1983.
Ralph, a professional trombonist, joined the business in 1992 after 12 years teaching music at Central Catholic High School in Allentown. Their sister, Nora McGuiness, handles the books.
The other full-time repair technician, Matt Truscott, works on saxophones five days a week.
Ralph Brodt III calls the sax “the instrument from hell,” with its complicated labyrinth of keys, pads and brass linkages. A pad needs to sit perfectly over each of the 20-some tone holes to avoid leaks and allow the player to create a sound.
“As a repairer of percussion, brass and strings, I need to be a mechanic, plumber and woodworker,” said Brodt, who, like his brother, learned repair skills from their dad, who also was a musician. “But you have to be a sax player to repair a sax because of all that’s involved in making sure there are no leaks.”
In addition to the saxophone, Brodt said, another repair challenge has surfaced recently from the increase in cheaply made brass instruments from China.
“We’re seeing a lot of brass instruments coming from China, which are made from recycled metal that’s prone to corrosion,” Brodt said. “They look nice and play well at first, but they break down quickly. The metal is not refined; virgin brass and the valves soon begin to seize up and the instrument begins to corrode.”
Disappointed customers often hear that their instrument is not worth fixing, he said.
Nazareth Music Center sells and rents mostly (90 percent) American-made brass instruments, which is one area of domestic manufacturing that has remained of a consistently high quality, Brodt said.
“America still makes the best, most durable student brass instruments in the world that will last for decades if properly maintained,” he said.
Like Nazareth Music Center, instrument rentals make up the majority of the business at Zeswitz Music in Exeter Township. Still, instrument repairs alone will generate about a quarter-million dollars in revenue this year, according to owner and CEO Randy Shayler.
Zeswitz Music has an 11-member repair team, including much-in-demand alumni from some of the nation’s leading repair schools, including Minnesota State College Southeast in Red Wing and the Badger State Repair School in Elkhorn, Wis.
The repair team services about 10,000 instruments a year, including some from Zeswitz’s own 17,000-instrument rental inventory and from more than 40 school systems in eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland.
Zeswitz, founded 90 years ago to serve the Reading Symphony Orchestra and area musicians, also does maintenance and repairs for collegiate marching bands, including Lehigh University’s Marching 97.
Shayler, previously an operations consultant for Fortune 500 companies who bought Zeswitz in 2013, said his company has a highly experienced team and places a big focus on quality and timeliness.
“For example, for the 2015-16 school year, 99.8 percent of ordinary repairs were completed in two weeks or less — 81.5 percent were done in one week or less, and our defect rate on instrument repairs for schools was 8.7 instruments per thousand,” he noted.
When one of its clients, North Penn High School in Montgomery County, lost its band room full of instruments in a fire in 2016, Zeswitz had loaner instruments on site by the weekend so the marching band could perform without skipping a beat – so to speak – in its schedule.
“We then completed repairs for the school district over the summer so they could start this year like any other year,” Shayler said. “We were able to fix every single instrument that was affected by the fire. Not a single instrument was lost.”
At Twin Rivers Music in Wilson borough, which traces its roots to the early 1930s, the four-member staff repairs all instruments except pianos and fretted instruments, serving about 12 area school districts and the store’s rental instruments. Instrument repairs account for about 20 percent of the business, said Tom Bougher, one of the owners.
Bougher recently coaxed Bruce Kleppinger, one of the area’s most well-known instrument repairers, out of retirement.
Known as “the horn doctor,” Kleppinger learned the trade in the Navy, repairing instruments for service band members, and later from expert repairmen who had been trained at leading instrument manufacturers in Elkhart, Ind., the capital of instrument making in the United States.
“He’s the best in the [Lehigh] Valley, period,” Bougher said. “He’s been doing this since the 1950s and can do a trombone slide like no one else can. No matter how smashed or banged up the instrument is, Bruce can handle it.”
Like Nazareth Music Center, Twin Rivers is seeing an influx in inferior instruments purchased on the internet that don’t last and are rarely worth fixing.
“Most instruments bought on the internet, they’re basically throwaways,” Bougher said. “It’s a shame that kids start on them. If you have child starting to play basketball, you wouldn’t give them two left sneakers and a flat ball. How would they succeed?
“It certainly impacts on the repair business because they’re too much trouble to work on,” he added. “But there are still quality instruments out there, and I wish more people would take up interest to learn the repair trade.
“The music industry is really desperate for new blood. There’s great opportunity out there.”
Not to mention experiences you won’t get in just any job.
Ralph Brodt III recently received a call about a sousaphone that was stuffy and didn’t play anymore. And, on top of that, it smelled awful.
“I figured it needed a good cleaning, so I hooked a garden hose to the mouthpiece pipe and began flushing,” he recalled. “Suddenly small black feathers started coming out the bell, and pretty soon out came a dead crow.”
It’s those kinds of challenges that drive and motivate him.
“I like to make something work that doesn’t work,” Brodt said. “When a customer says it looks like you didn’t do anything to the instrument and everything is working smoothly again, that’s the best compliment you can receive in this business.”