Farewell to my teacher Ed Coles Jr.

The man who taught me instrument repair was murdered yesterday by his own son.

Edward Coles Jr. was a world class repairman. I feel that the meticulousness and artistry of his work was unparalleled. I’ve seen lots and lots of repair work on all types and levels of horns, and if you’re lucky enough to have had Ed work on your horn, you’ll know that I’m not being hyperbolic. Ed’s passing is an enormous blow to myself, and I’m sure to his friends, surviving family, and to the Delaware Valley musical community at large.

Ed’s repair work really embodied his spirit in general. He was always open to new ways of making repairs and learning from anyone that had a good idea. A lot of big time repair people think they’re the end all, they know everything, any way but theirs is wrong. Ed wasn’t like that. I remember lots of occasions where he wanted my opinion on a repair he was making even though he taught me everything I know. When he asked me, he wasn’t just trying to make me feel good (though it did), he genuinely wanted another perspective, to get another set of eyes to see if he’d missed something. Sure, Ed knew he was talented; but he didn’t lord his abilities over anyone.

In fact, Ed was also a great educator. Besides mentoring myself, Ed has taught many other repair technicians over the years. Recently he had gotten a gig at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia teaching repair part time to music students. Ed was also an annual feature for music ed. majors at Rowan University in Glassboro where he held clinics for aspiring band teachers as well as ran a free repair both at the Jazz Festival.  If Ed had the opportunity, he would have been teaching repair full time. It’s really a shame more people didn’t get to train under him.

He was a musician and a band director as well. He directed the Bonsal blues concert and dance bands off and on for decades. I had the pleasure of playing in both bands and let me tell you, Ed really knew his stuff as a director and as a musician. He dedicated a ton of time to these bands, he truly loved being involved in music.

Ed was funny and he was generous. He always let me work on my own instruments in the shop after hours, never charged me for any parts, even did free repairs for my fiance before I had learned how to do them myself. And it wasn’t just me, he did so many favors for so many people and he never asked for anything. Lot’s of people asked for favors, believe me, lot’s of people who had no right to be asking for favors, but Ed did them anyway. Ed never burned bridges, even with people who treated him like crap.

And Ed loved his family more than anyone I think I’ve met. By all accounts he should have hated some of them for things they did to him…but he didn’t. It’s strange that I know so much about his family life, normally I don’t think bosses tell their employees as much personal stuff as he told me, but because I was privy to a lot of the comings and goings in his life when I worked with him and I knew his family pretty well, I think I really got a good sense of who he was.

The circumstances of Ed’s death are tragic for so many reasons, maybe the most tragic is that the man who killed him, his son, doesn’t understand or appreciate that his father loved him dearly. If he did he would never have done the evil that’s he’s done.  Edward Coles Jr. was a great man. I doubt I will ever meet anyone like him again. Ed was the most generous man I’ve ever know and one of the kindest. I will not forget him.

-David Horowitz

 

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The Beast

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Here’s a tuba I just finished removing all the dents from. This tuba was a mess as you can see in the pictures. Apparently the kids at the school have named this tuba, ‘The Beast’. I understand the name: This thing was a full size tuba and it had been beat up very badly over the years. I had to take the beast completely apart to get at all the dents. It was a pretty tedious job but it turned out all right in the end.

The trumpet mouthpiece gap

When you put a mouthpiece into your trumpet, there is a space between the end of the mouthpiece and the lead pipe inside of the mouthpiece receiver. This space is know as the “gap” or by the more fancy name “annulus”. You can see the space below:

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The theory is that if you can find the right amount of gap, the instrument will perform optimally: Notes will slot better, the scale will be more in tune, and the horn will be more resonant.

Since every trumpet, mouthpiece, and player is different, there is no gap that will work best for everyone. The only way to find that sweet spot is by trial and error, adjusting the gap and seeing what works for you.

A simple way to test different gap settings is to wrap a strip of paper around the shank of the mouthpiece and insert it into the receiver. By adding more paper or taking paper away, you can adjust the gap. If you have too much gap, you’ll have to have metal removed from the shank. Once you do find the optimal gap, you can make the change permanent by having the mouthpiece altered.

 

Manufacturers failures continued

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Pictured above is an all too common sight on modern horns: Brown discoloration beneath the lacquer that shows up after a while. I see this on low quality horns as well as the name brand pro level horns. My own Bach Stradivarius trumpet had this issue around the bell wire. This is what happens when you speed up production and don’t properly prep a horn before lacquering. Soldering flux is very acidic and if you don’t completely wash it off and neutralize it after soldering, you get discoloration of the metal and the finish. This can happen with repairs and it happens at the factory when the instrument is built. In this case, after the neck was soldered together with the neck tenon it wasn’t properly cleaned and they lacquered over the metal while there was still soldering acid on the joint. At first, the horn looked fine but after a while the acid reacted with the lacquer and produced this gross brown stuff. You can see how it’s spread out from the joint where the acid was concentrated at. This is easily preventable with proper cleaning and neutralization of the part before it is lacquered. Unfortunately, you can’t repair this issue without removing the original lacquer from the area and re-lacquering it, which in most cases isn’t worth doing. So you’re stuck with this ugly mess.

Quality of instruments getting worse and worse

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There’s a disturbing trend in musical instrument manufacture: Companies are producing lower quality instruments with a higher price tag.

I’ve worked on thousands of instruments. As I’ve repaired, cleaned, and tested, and sold these horns, I’ve gotten to see all sorts of levels of quality in their manufacture. I’ve worked on $89.99 purple clarinets made in Chinese sweat shops to $10k bass saxophones made in the 1920s. Anyone who’s done a decent amount of repair work can tell you there’s a wide spectrum of quality in instruments. It’s from getting my hands dirty tearing these horns apart and building back up again that I can give you my opinion regarding the general state of the musical instrument manufacturing business: It ain’t what it used to be…mostly.

The good ol’ days!

A hundred years ago, there were no student level or pro instruments. All the instruments  were generally offered in one standard. There were different models available; a trumpet suited for jazz vs a trumpet for orchestra work; but all the instruments were suitable for a professional player. No one would know what you meant if you said you wanted a ‘student level trumpet’ back then. Different manufactures were known for certain instruments and models and they were all constantly trying to out-do one another with the latest advances in instrument design. It’s one of the reasons you’ll find such huge number of models of vintage instruments. It worked somewhat as the consumer electronics industry works today with iPhones and Samsung Galaxies, this tablet pc and that HDTV. And this sort of competition drove advances in instrument manufacture and design.

The original student  level instruments:

At some point the instrument companies decided to split their production into student and pro level instruments. The idea was that the student instrument would be more affordable than a pro instrument, more durable as far as accidental damage, and easier to play for a beginner. Take for example, the original Bundy line of instruments from Selmer. These horns were tanks: You could drop them, never clean them, forget to oil the valves and keys and they’d keep playing. The construction was solid and well designed. You can find them today relatively inexpensively and have them overhauled or cleaned and they’ll play for another 50 years. Student instruments opened new markets for the manufacturers and and new opportunities for the masses to get involved in music.

Corporate management and the ‘intermediate’ level horn:

With the successes of the student level horns, companies now had an entirely new market and a new system in place to mass produce instruments. Eventually, someone came up with the idea of the ‘intermediate level’ instrument. From a business standpoint it was a clever move. Lots of other consumer products had entry, mid, and upper level products being sold, so why not musical instruments?

The intermediate level horns being offered then and today (for the most part, yamaha saxohpones being an exception to the rule) aren’t really much different than the student horns apart from some cosmetic upgrades and a few changes in materials here and there. Some would disagree with me, but in my experience, you’re paying for silver plating and some mildly interesting engraving on intermediate horns and that’s about it. Intermediate horns, in my mind, are best left alone. They may look somewhat like a pro instrument, but when it comes to actually playing them, they’re really not any better than a student instrument and in some cases are actually worse. I see them like I see those Hummer H2 SUVs that were popular in the mid 2000s: They may look similar to an actual hummer, but try to drive them the same way and you’re going to get yourself into some serious trouble. But hey, they sold! And that’s why they’re there.

The big problem(s)

So intermediate horns sold well. But the companies still wanted to make more money. But how? Shorten production time. Musical instrument are still made mostly by hand, automation simply hasn’t been completely developed nor integrated into instrument manufacture and for some work, like padding a woodwind instrument, it probably won’t be any time soon. So you could hire more workers or you could increase the load on each worker. It’s much cheaper to simply increase work load and since there’s still only 8 hours in a workday, now a trumpet bell maker in an instrument factory might have a quota of 20 bells a day vs the 15 he had ten years ago. All of that means less time spent on each part which inevitably leads to lower quality.

Another example of the cost of the speed up can be seen if you look at clarinet manufacture: They’re made of African Blackwood and the wood should really sit for a few years and dry out before it’s machined to ensure the piece won’t crack. But while in the past the wood might sit for 3 years before it was made into a clarinet body, negating most instruments from developing cracks, today it might only sit for a year. The result is a whole bunch of unstable clarinets cracking.Finally, and this is something that really bugs me, there’s a growing problem with the finishing of brass instruments; specifically the buffing and degreasing process but I’m going to write about that in a later post.

A conclusion (sort of) to my disjointed rant

SO! What we have today is a multifaceted issue but the driving force that’s causing most of the problems is modern business management techniques: More work + less time x marketing spin = more profit. In some fields that might work fine, retail for example, but in manufacturing, it isn’t conducive to a quality product. If I was wrong, why do serious musicians often seek out vintage instruments and hold them up as examples of quality not seen in modern productions? Heck, look at Selmer; they have the Reference series of saxophones that are supposedly a sort of copy of their famed Mark VI line. They’re basically admitting they can’t make their own horns the way they used to! The Bach part of Selmer is doing the same thing with their Artisan series trumpets. There’s even some company that bought the old Bundy name and is slapping it on junky Chinese instruments and you know what their slogan is? Bundy: The return of a legend! I don’t know who thinks the Bundy name is legendary, but anyway, it proves my point, the instrument manufacturers are seriously lost.

Sousaphone painting

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I bought this sousaphone recently for a customer looking for a fiberglass horn. The horn was in pretty good shape but the paint was very yellowed and scuffed up from years of use in a high school marching band. So I needed to repaint it to make it look nice. I figured the best way to get an even coating and easy access to the whole body of the horn would be to suspend it in the air. I used some household twine and hung the body from our basketball hoop. It worked out pretty well.

Ultrasonic cleaning and why it’s great

I love my ultrasonic cleaner. You should love it too. Here’s why:

Ultrasonic cleaning is a process where transducers, on the bottom of a tank of water and mild cleaning detergent, generate millions of microscopic cavitation bubbles with sound waves transmitted through the water. These bubbles get into every tiny space on the object you’re cleaning and gently remove the dirt.

The cleaning process is fast, safe for instrument lacquer and finish, second to none in quality, and environmentally friendly to boot. The only downside is that the machine is expensive…very expensive. But hey, that’s my problem not yours. You as a customer get all the benefits. It’s recommended that instruments, especially brass instruments, be ultrasonically cleaned and serviced once a year. This prevents build up of calcium and dirt which can rot your leadpipe and damage your valves.

I can’t say enough good things about ultrasonic cleaning.

www.davidfrostmusic.com