Cali Owings, Published July 08 2013
It's My Job: Instrument repair combines music, tinkering
While the area’s young musicians are playing summer sports, pool-hopping and enjoying time outdoors, their violas and cellos are in the shop getting a tune-up from Miller in time for fall music classes.
The store at 618 Main Ave. handles many repairs for school districts throughout the area in addition to client requests and repairs to their own rental inventory.
Miller has been at the store since January 2004.
Repairing instruments combines two of his interests – music and tinkering. Patience is important for an instrument technician, Miller said, because of the detail-oriented work of repairing handmade instruments.
How did you get into instrument repair?
Well, string instrument repair kind of on accident. I went to school in Red Wing, Minn., to learn guitar building, and I learned pretty quickly that it’s not something that you’re going to be able to feed yourself doing. So I went back to school and learned string instrument repair.
What was your experience with guitars and string instruments before you went to repair school?
I played guitar so I was pretty familiar with those, but I had never even touched a violin until I took the class. We didn’t have orchestra in my school. We had band or choir – those were your options. I played trumpet and euphonium from fifth grade until I graduated.
So I’ve always liked music and played music, and I thought this is a cool way for me to get a job in the music business without being a musician.
My dad is a mechanic, and he wanted me to be a mechanic. I’m sort of a mechanic, I guess, but I work on instruments instead of cars and trucks. That’s not to say I don’t turn a wrench in the evenings when I get home because I do like to work on cars and motorcycles and stuff like that.
What would you say is the most fun part of your job?
I really like introducing young kids to instruments. Like when you have a little kid come in and you give him a violin and help him learn to play it or make a sound on it.
I also like when people bring in old instruments that have been in their family for 80 years or more. It looks like a piece of junk, it’s falling apart, there’s horse-hair strings sticking out of the case and they ask, “Can you do anything with this?”
You restore it and you take that object that’s been under grandpa’s bed for the past 50 years and make it into a usable instrument – something that you can take to school and play in orchestra.
How do you approach repairs?
When I look at someone’s instrument, even a rental, I imagine, “What if this was my violin? What would I want to see done to it? How would I want it to work?” I treat all of the instruments that way.
Sometimes people are specific about what they want and it’s their instrument, so I’ll do whatever they ask. But I’ll definitely also make a few suggestions that I think will make them more successful musicians.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599