The Right Tool

The Right Tool For the Job

This article may cause a bit of a commotion, but the topic has been all over social media and caused heated discussions for years. The question in question has to do with title verses training. Which is better, a band technician or a specialist technician? The first step to making the right decision is understanding the difference between a band technician and, for our purposes, a flute technician. This will be a short but deep dive into the realm of technicians and address both the internal and public conflicts that resolve around each title.

First, what is the difference between a band tech and a flute tech? Well, there can be a fine line or a great divide between the two. Both should be given absolute respect for their training, but it is important to understand the origins of each category. A band technician is someone who works on all instruments, a general technician. They are trained to repair woodwinds and brass but many find themselves working on one or the other, although, in smaller shops, they may be the only tech and therefore work on every instrument that comes in the door. Band techs have brilliant problem solving skills and often pull techniques from other areas of knowledge in order to complete problem repairs. These techs are resourceful, have a wide breadth of knowledge and are like a Swiss army knife, capable of adapting to many different situations.

A flute technician may or may not have gone to school to be a general technician, but at some point they found themselves focusing on the flute family only. These technicians often train with many different brands and makers to learn the specific techniques that are required to work on and maintain professional level flutes and piccolos for the demanding needs of professional level players. They specialize in fine tolerances of less than .0005 of an inch and the nuances between brands.

Now that this is out in the open, it can be safely said that a bad technician is a bad technician and they can come in many forms. For example, a band technician who doesn’t know the limits of their knowledge, who works on mainly student and step up flutes, yet is willing to take on a high end, handmade flute using student flute repair techniques is a bad technician. This technician may ruin your flute. The same can be said for the specialist. A flute technician who knowingly takes on a repair beyond what they are capable of, for example, brazing or soldering or fabrication of key work, can also destroy a handmade instrument. There are hacks at all levels of repair and getting to know a technician and their strength and limits is of utmost importance. When in doubt, call the manufacturer and ask them for a list or a resource for certified technicians.

Here are few examples of my experiences and why these experiences determined choices I made with my own and my students’ instruments over the years.

I once took a professional wooden headjoint into a band repair shop in the local music store. I wanted to have the headjoint fitted to my flute and I knew the process was not difficult and involved expanding the tube to fit the barrel of my flute. This was before fitting tapes were popular and the tube only needed to be slightly expanded. The head technician asked me the value of the headjoint and once he knew that it was pro level, he sincerely told me that they were uncomfortable working on that in their shop as it was beyond what they usually work on. Do I believe that they had the skills? Yes, but their frankness and honesty about not wanting to be responsible for something beyond what they felt comfortable working on was appreciated. I knew that they would be honest and upfront with me about repairs and from that point on, they were my go to repair shop for all of my students from that point on.

Another story involves a former student who took their solid gold headjoint to a local music store chain to have it fit to their flute. The music store didn’t think twice, expanded the gold tube to fit and sent the person on their way. This solid gold headjoint was over $6000 dollars, they charged the player $60 to fit the headjoint but unknown to the player, the technique they used destroyed the headjoint. It caused ridges and marring on the inside of the tube that cannot be removed and the headjoint will never be the same. If the player ever sells the headjoint, it will be recognized as damaged. This shop didn’t even think of the player or their reputation and blindly took on a repair that they claimed no responsibility for doing. That shop and company has been blacklisted by many a player, including myself, after that repair.

Finally, I have a friend who works on a multitude of woodwinds as they specialize in woodwinds. This tech works on all aspects of the instruments, can fabricate missing or broken keys on historical instruments, knows how to care for the wood, AND can eliminate those .0005 leaks, all while being familiar with the individual manufacturer’s recommendations. I would absolutely trust this technician with the life of any of my instruments, be it flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, or saxophone. I have referred many people to this tech because I know their work ethic, knowledge base, and quality of work. They aren’t a flute specialist, but they aren’t a band technician either—they are somewhere in between, but their work is impeccable and their ability to make and restore keys is well beyond what a band or flute tech could do.

Ultimately, the most important factor is this: know your tech. There are some highly trained individuals out there who work as band technicians, who nonetheless know how to work on pro level flutes. There are also highly trained flute technicians out there who I would never let touch my flute. The title or description of the repair position only gives you a glimpse into the knowledge and ability of the technician. The more important part is getting to know your technician, their background, and more importantly, getting referrals. You also need to educate yourself a bit about your instrument and what the maker recommends. Different shops use different materials, different techniques, and different approaches to repairs. Know what your instrument requires to be maintained, find a technician who is skilled in those techniques and has good references before using them. If you find a tech who does work that you like, stick with them. If you don’t like their work, find a new technician. For your sanity and the safety of your instrument and consistency of repairs, don’t technician hop. Also, ask questions! Feel out the technician. A tech with an attitude who won’t answer questions is not a tech I want working on my instruments. A tech who knows their stuff won’t hesitate to answer questions or even refer you to someone who they think will suit your needs if they can’t. My last piece of advice would be this: don’t let dollar signs make the decision. Cheaper isn’t always worse, and more expensive isn’t always better in this field. The technician’s work is what matters most.

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