One of the many joys of being a luthier is the collaborative and friendly nature of your colleagues. As it turns out, fretted instrument repair techs aren’t the only ones who are eager to share their experience. It’s a joy to share the talent and experience of these instrument repair folks, who take great pride and pleasure in their ability to enhance your instruments of self-expression.
We caught up with Chris Himmel, owner and repair tech at Himmel Musik, who specializes in, “the service and repair of band instruments for the school, student, and amateur/semi-professional player.”
Tell us a little about yourself?
I’ve been involved with music for most of my life. I started as an avid listener and eventually started playing piano, and then later guitar and trumpet. I attended the Hartt School in Connecticut majoring in music education and eventually started teaching music and band. I play mostly classical music, but have also been involved in jazz bands, rock bands, and musical pit orchestras.
What do you remember as your first encounter with a musical instrument?
We had a piano in my parents’ house growing up so it was just always there. My father had taken some lessons and dabbled in it so he was my first musical influence and gave me the opportunity to play with it and learn whatever I could.
What was your most memorable moment performing live?
Just before I left teaching I had the opportunity to conduct the Salem High School Band on stage at Carnegie Hall. We performed a band arrangement of the first movement of A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms. This same arrangement was one that I played in high school and always stuck with me as especially beautiful, and helped set me on the music education path.
If you could play any venue in the world, what repertoire would you play, and what venue would it be?
Carnegie Hall is hard to beat, but Symphony Hall in Boston would be special since I grew up going to concerts there. In the end the music trumps the venue and as long as I’m with good people and enjoying the performance I’m happy just to play.
Thinking about musical instrument repair, how did you get started?
While I was teaching the opportunity to start working on instruments kept coming up. It’s hard for families to devote a lot of money to keeping instruments well repaired and schools very often don’t have the budget to fix everything that needs fixing. Kids would bring me instruments or I would find them on my desk that a colleague had left there to see if I could make it work. When I left teaching to be home for my kids we still needed a source of income. There was a hole in the area for instrument repair and I now had the chance to invest in getting some quality tools and learn as much as I could.
What has been your favourite instrument repair so far?
My favorites are always the old family instruments that have been sitting around for decades. I worked on an old cornet that had belonged to the customers grandfather in the 1920s. It was a high quality instrument that had seen a lot of use, but was in disrepair and hadn’t been played in a long time. Having the chance to restore the instrument and bring it back to its original visual beauty and open the sound up was great, and only made better by seeing the deep, personal connection the customer had to the instrument and knowing it was going to be played again by the next generation of the family.
Customers often come in with instruments that have strong memories or emotional attachment, have been in their attic since middle school, etc. When they ask, “is this worth fixing,” how do you respond?
It always depends on what their expectations for the instrument are and how strong that nostalgic bond is. If the instrument is of low quality, or very badly damaged, the question of how much the nostalgia factors in and do they intend to play it again, or keep it as a memento.
What advice would you give to band instrument owners about caring for their instruments, especially if they’re not going to be played for a while?
Maintenance is key, so taking the instrument out and keeping mechanisms oiled and slides greased, and checking to see if corks are falling apart can help avoid large repair bills later when someone decides they want to use it. Keeping everything clean will also ensure that molds and things don’t start growing inside the instrument, which can lead to all kinds of repair and health problems.
Thanks to Chris for his time, and be sure to look up Himmel Musik for help in the maintenance or repair of band instruments!