Goobs’ Trombone Spit Valve Repair
I might’ve told y’all that the girls are in their HS band: Juice plays French horn* and Goobs plays sax and t-bone.** I bought nearly everything the girls play at school from one pawn shop or another. And I get the instruments repaired at a little place called Woodwinds Plus. A very correct gentleman, tall and very dark and thin, Mr. Sylvester Artis, manages the place and, along with very correct colleagues who call each other “Mr,” repairs all kinds of musical instruments.
Saturday we had to go to Woodwinds Plus because the spit valve on Goobs’ trombone had broken off. (I could go on for just pages and pages about the disgusting necessity for spit valves, yes, on certain instruments, yes, simply because some human habitually blows into them, a necessity that had never occurred to me before my daughters became musicians, but, this time, I’ll spare you.) Goobs, quite aware of the cost of instrument repair (yes, because our instruments come from pawn shops, mostly), had taped up the hole left by the departing spit valve, and had been satisfied with her own work –until we went to the bank. Then, of course, she saw her opportunity and leapt upon it.
I always feel intimidated by the very correct gentlemen at Woodwinds Plus, probably because they’re older and wiser than I. Now, I know, in this day and age, it’s a stupid reason to feel intimidated by mere people, but there you are.
“What can I do for you today?” Mr. Artis asked Goobs as we walked up to the counter. I always make Goobs and Juice talk to the very correct gentlemen. The girls hate it because they’re shy, but I really hope something of these gentlemen will rub off on the girls, so I insist.
“The spit valve. . .” she said and kinda trailed off. She opened the case for Mr. Artis and his colleague (who had sauntered up to the counter, too), and, ignoring the spit valve issue, they made admiring noises over the dents all over the trombone. The colleague took the trombone lovingly into his hands.
“You hit somebody with this?” Mr. Artis’ colleague asked. “Tell the truth. You beat some poor boy with this, didn’t you? In the head?” He took the trombone and the case and walked off to the repair area, central to the little shop. There are two big tables there, covered and surrounded with the arcane paraphernalia used by those who coax abused instruments back to their former glory: poles and tubing and valves and buttons and keys and screws and knobs and pliers and mallets and things. This section of the shop is wide open, except for a wood bar separating the repair portion from the rest of it, so we watched the repair for a while. Before even playing with the spit valve, the very correct gentleman worked, for more than an hour, on the dents. He stuck metal sticks into a vise and then stuck the various trombone parts on the sticks, beating out the dents. Then he washed the parts, inside and out. Then he polished and buffed them. THEN he sat down at his table and took the valve apart. He cut Goobs’ tape off the hole the valve was supposed to cover and frowned at it. He scrubbed the black gunk from around the hole and began the work to put the valve in its rightful place.
(Juice and I had told Goobs that this repair was not one of those Super Glue thangs. “He’s going to have to solder it back on,” I told her, but neither I nor Juice could explain the work to Goobs’ satisfaction. I was glad she was getting a chance to see the work. Mostly, though, I was glad I had been right about how the thang would be repaired.)
Woodwinds Plus is packed to bursting with extremely old and brand-spanking new musical instruments. Today, a viola, a cello and a guitar sit in the big front window. Some of the glass cases inside, near the cash register, are full of things instruments --and, I guess, musicians-- need, like reeds, oils, picks, drumsticks, spotless white gloves, mutes, strings, metronomes, swabs, drum heads, mouthpieces, cork grease, cases, polish, books, and straps, for example. The glass cases up against the walls are full of memories: old, old, faded black and white photographs of the three gentlemen, looking younger and more intimidating, and other musicians and soloists and their friends and colleagues, pretending to play, so the picture’d look interesting. The last time I was there, I managed to identify Mr. Artis in one of the pictures.
When the girls and I come to WP, we’re always fascinated by the stuff on display. And the stuff kind of hidden, or just pushed out of the way of old feet: Saturday, we found a beautiful brand-new French horn, in its open case near where one very correct gentleman was repairing Goobs’ trombone, and a gorgeous viola, its bridge broken, leaning up against the wall near where another very correct gentleman was giving a saxophone lesson.
The girls and I have visited WP many times, but we have never witnessed any lessons, despite the fact that we knew at least one of the very correct gentleman gave flute, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, and God knows what-all other instrument lessons. Saturday, people were running in and out of WP, taking half-hour lessons. When we came in, Goobs heard somebody struggling with a saxophone.
“He’s just learning,” she said confidently.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“His tone,” she said. “Shaky.” Nosy, Goobs maneuvered herself around so she could see the sax student. It was a man, nearly my age. He finished his lesson and walked out, smiling. The next student, a boy with a trumpet, was already waiting for his turn. Of course, Juice commented upon the trumpet player (because she used to play trumpet). "He's holding it down. He shouldn't hold it down. His tone is good, though." The teacher sang the notes he wanted his students to play, corrected the way they held their mouths, the way they breathed, and even the way they sat (probably). When the aspiring trumpeter left, an aspiring flautist, about my age, rose from his seat and went back to the teacher.
At one point, one of HU’s former band directors, a Professor Brady, came in, with a baritone saxophone (according to Goobs). He looked at Goobs’ trombone and asked her who she’d been hitting with it. He asked Juice if she played, what she played.
“French horn,” she said. The atmosphere changed. (Earlier, before the director came in, the teacher, walking slowly from the back of the shop, asked, “French horn?? I can’t do nothing with that.” Mr. Artis said, “If you can play French horn, these colleges, they’ll give you a full scholarship. You don’t even have to major in music.” We had heard this before. I was waiting to see what the band director would say.)
“You any good?” he asked Juice. She shrugged.
“She’s very good,” I said. Nobody had asked me, but . . . you know.
“Modest, huh?” He joked around with the girls some more, asked me if they looked like their daddy or me, if they were recruiting trombone and French horn players, asked if they were on good terms with Mr. Smart (the girls' own band director), looked at a cello somebody was trying to sell, and then he left. But he asked for Juice’s name twice.
We had been at WP for nearly three hours when Mr. Artis (who had joined his colleague in the repair –when he wasn’t busy returning already-repaired instruments to their owners and taking in sick instruments, and appraising instruments to buy) said, to Goobs, “All right, young lady, let’s hear you on this trombone.” Mr. Artis’ colleague had tucked the trombone in its case –along with the repair bill—and brought it to the counter.
Mr. Artis, et al ALWAYS make young musicians play before they leave. It’s part of the repair payment, I think, and my favorite part, mostly because I’m proud of my girls’ talents, but also because I learn something, too. Every time. Goobs got up and took her trombone, blew into it. By now, the third very correct gentleman, the teacher, much older, I think, than Mr. Artis or the other colleague, was making his way to the counter. He was slightly, habitually bent, as were his fingers, and his steps were very, very, excruciatingly slow. He stopped Goobs and said something about the way she was holding her mouth. Asked her to play “Taps.” Goobs didn’t know what “Taps” was, so the teacher sang the notes, three at a time, for her, and she played them back to him. Almost satisfactorily.
“Now you play something of your own,” he commanded. Goobs played something or other. “Louder,” he said. “Play it strong. Not like a peashooter.” Goobs played some more, until the teacher was a little more satisfied.
“Thank you,” said Goobs.
“You’re welcome,” he replied. After asking Juice about the parade their band had participated in last week, last Friday, he talked to me a little about Friday nights, and how dangerous they were nowadays.
“Folks killing each other,” he said. “And I know why, too. I know why, too. Children aren’t held responsible for anything they do. Their parents are put in jail for whippin ‘em. I got whippin’s. Didn’t hurt me none.”
“I got whippin’s every day, seem like,” Mr. Artis, working on something behind his colleague injected. We all laughed.
“One them grown folk tell you do something, you did it.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “No conversation about it.”
“No. And sometimes, they didn’t even say anything. Just a look.” And he demonstrated. He made other pleasantries, and then made his way to the repair area.
I looked at the bill in my hand. It cited the replacement of the spit valve. The three hours of straightening and beating and shining and loving on the instrument wasn’t on the bill at all. And the trombone? It looked like a different horn entirely, a million times*** better than it had when we brought it in. Mr Artis’ colleague, coming in from smoking a cigarette, came close to me and murmured, “I like to see the young musicians, like to encourage them.” He was a very, very fair-skinned black man, with blue eyes and thinning, curling, shiny hair. I looked at him and imagined that he had been a lady killer back in the day. All of them, no doubt. Women have always loved musicians.
“I appreciate that, sir,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Here,” he said to Goobs, “give me your case. Let me shine it up for ya.” He didn’t charge for that, either. He wished "a blessed day" upon us as we left Woodwinds Plus. We wished it back upon him. Upon all of them.
Thank you, Lord Jesus, my brother, for folk committed to passing on the good traditions.
*. . .and trumpet and keyboard and guitar. . .and anything else she thinks would be fun to play.
**Got this cool abbr from Woodwinds Plus.
***Damning with faint praise here.