A Few Facts About Tuba Repair

by

10/25/2002

530 w 25th st ny 10001

Neighborhood: Chelsea

Charles McAlexander is a big man, maybe 220 pounds and 6 foot 1. He wears an old work shirt that used to be bright red but now is more of a calm royal maroon with the inscription of Brass Lab in gold cursive on the chest pocket of the left-hand side. The button up shirt is having trouble deciding which way to settle on account of the volume of his belly, as the buttons are being torn between leaning toward the right and toward the left because perhaps he has put on a little weight (or a lot) since the time he first got it. There are little spaces between the buttons and the fabric that I can see bare skin. He wears dark colored jeans and rolls them up funny at the bottom, like a farmer would, maybe four times with a thick fold that drops the pants right above his high-top hiking boots, which is high. When I hear that he absolutely loves Country and Western Music, I am not surprised in the slightest. He tells me to call him Chuck.

The Brass Lab is a warehouse with space extending to the back which is his shop, to the front which is the customer’s space to poke around a little, to the very back which has a refrigerator and a microwave and a metal rod with two long-sleeved flannel shirts hanging from it. A Danger Do Not Enter Sign hangs in front of that part of the room, perhaps he likes his food too much to share it, perhaps it just happens to be right there. Or, perhaps it has something to do with the large "Toxic" chemical storage containers that are stacked next to the refrigerator.

Chuck has been a repair technician for close to 25 years which means he does just about everything except actually build the instrument itself, "from minor repairs to complete restoration; lacquering, sautering, finishing, you name it…" He did not inherit any musical interest from his family. He describes his mother’s view on music simply: "She hates it."

Brass instruments, perhaps one hundred of them, French horns, trumpets, trombones, baritones, euphoniums, flugel horns and alto horns, hang from metal rods on the ceiling and others from rope that Chuck must have put up at least 25 years ago because it is covered in more than just the dust that accumulates as time goes on. Chuck says that what differentiates woodwind players from brass musicians is that brass instruments are "sexier" and that brass players, "have a little juice in them." Of woodwind players, he says, "they are squirly and anal retentive." There is a comic by the door that depicts the skeletal process of human evolution, from walking on all fours to the present development of walking on two feet. Each depiction of the skeleton is holding a trumpet. I bet that Chuck would agree that music has concurrently evolved with man’s constantly changing stature.

It’s funny how the tuba began, Chuck tells me. No one heard it. The tuba was designed so that the bell (the end of the tuba where the sound comes out) pointed straight up. Because of this nobody could ever hear it, especially in marching bands, because instead of going towards our ears, the sound was being emitted upwards instead. These old tubas were called raincatchers because they would be ready to catch whatever came down. The age old paradox was perfectly relevant: if sound is coming out but is not heard by anyone, is it sound at all? Apparently John Filip Sousa did not think so, so he invented the sousaphone which redesigned the tuba by wrapping it around spiral-like so it could face outwards, towards other people, instead of straight up. It changed the sound of the tuba somewhat, but at least now, people could actually hear it. The new design did, however, double the price.

There is a little bit of voodoo involved in making tubas. There can be two tubas made the same day at the same factory in the same way by the same people and one can come out sounding great and the other one can end up, "sounding like absolute crap." Chuck says that, "out of 100 tubas, three will be really good, three will be unplayable, and the rest will be just mediocre."

So much talk about tubas reminds Chuck of something and he gets a big grin on his face. There used to be a tuba in Manhattan that was world famous. It faced the street on the second floor above the revolving doors in Carl Fisher’s music store which sold mostly sheet music. This tuba was a concert bass, not a double b flat but a quadruple!, and you needed to stand on a ladder to play it or clean it on account of the fact that it was "at least" nine to ten feet high. But two years ago, Carl Fisher went out of business and nobody knows what happened to the infamous tuba. "I mean, everybody knew about it." And now, nobody knows of its whereabouts.

We talk a lot about the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece is what connects you to your horn, the mouthpiece fits you as well as the horn. "If you tried wearing my mouthpiece or vise versa," Chuck says, "it would feel like wearing someone else’s false dentures." It’s a life long search to find the perfect mouthpiece, and what complicates the search is that you are constantly changing. The strength of your muscles can wax and wane depending on the amount that you play and because of this you will have to find a new one; if you lose or gain as little as five pounds the mouthpiece will work differently from before and you will have to change it in response to your weight. Some people have gone through so many mouthpieces that they have boxes upon boxes of them stored up in their attics.

Chuck says that if there’s anything that unites repairmen, it is that they were once musicians, but were not good enough– to make it a career, to go pro, to be able to depend on it financially. He also says that repairmen are not necessarily skilled, talented, or educated in what they do.

At Sacramento State College he gave up playing the trombone (because he just wasn’t that good…) and it just so happened that he got a job as a salesman with one of his fraternity buddies at a music shop. He was a lousy salesman, "to put it lightly" and they came close to firing him altogether, but then decided to give him a try as a mechanic in the back room of the place. Chuck was immediately drawn to the mechanics of the music he used to play and quickly proved himself a good worker.

His first real job as a mechanic was at MusicCraft, a music repair shop in San Diego that had a large contract with the San Diego School District. They would ride around in an 18 wheel truck and go to all the schools in town and just load the thing up with all kinds of horns from the various schoolhouses. They would fill it three times before they had collected them all and would work all summer long to get them ready for the Fall.

The shop he owns now began in the same space, but with only a workbench in the bedroom in 1983. There have never been any other workers, just him and his wife. His wife is the business manager and handles problems with the bank and the government. "She deals with all the b.s. involved in the bureaucracy of running a business. She doesn’t want to do it, but she does, and she does it well," he mentions off-handedly.

He likes his job because he is paid to do what he would do on his day off. There are few things that really "tickle his brain" so two years ago he decided to branch out into antique restoration work as well where he replicates old pieces of furniture or chandeliers or drawer handles and it is quite a challenge to make something new look just as old as the hundred year old hand-crafted something that has deteriorated in its old age. Now, he says he gets a challenge, "at least four times, no, five times a week."

What doesn’t he like about his job? "The people," he says instinctively, "without a doubt." The musicians who come in, he says, are idiot savants. They are phenomenal in one area but only that area, they don’t read books or the news, they know nothing of the world around them, their conversations are about music and begin something like this: "so, what kind of mouthpiece are you using?" He compares them to a genius who can calculate adding 500 digit numbers faster than a computer but who cannot tell when they are hungry or when they need to go pee.

How well do professional musicians know their own instruments? "Hardly at all." "‘Uh, yeah it’s shiny,’ might be all that they know." They may know how to push this button or that one very well, extremely well, but at the same time they do not know what exactly is going on inside, what a standing wave is or the resonating column of air inside of it, nor about the nodes or antinodes and the way that sound works it way through. They usually know nothing at all about the physics of the energy of vibration or the air or the tubing… In terms of horn maintenance, "they may grease it once in a while." Chuck says that 90% of his clientele are professionals. "Many of the musicians think that we are best friends." But, Chuck tells me that he is two-faced, I mean he is a businessman after all. He says that if he treated his customers the way he really thought about them, he would be out of business–in an instant.

Chuck’s customers are not restricted to New York City in the slightest. His clientele live in Sweden, Spain, Mexico, Australia, the Caribbean, Taiwan, England, Venezuela, Denmark, Germany, Italy and Israel. While he says many repairmen are not necessarily skilled, he is known across the globe for his mechanic dependability and prowess. He doesn’t advertise, his customers come to him from information passed by word of mouth. He is, according to himself, "One of the best in the business."

Chuck says that the greatest repairmen, "know that they’ve never learned it all and that there’s always something else to understand." There is no club that brass repairmen belong to, but rather a camaraderie between them.

He says of his competition, "I don’t have any." "I am not god in repair," he says, "I just happen to be a good mechanic." Right now he is booking two months in advance. "I mean when the greats call me and I can’t work on their horns for over two months, they think I’m arrogant, but really it’s just the truth."

When I turn to leave, he immediately goes back to his work and I see him working intently on a certain trumpet, and he doesn’t look up once, even though I stay for much longer after our good-bye, just snooping and looking around the place.

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§ One Response to “A Few Facts About Tuba Repair”

  • Brian Bellendir says:

    I have a small music store in Kansas. We do some instrument repair. We took a 4 valve Miraphone tuba on trade that was disassembled. The rotors were out of f the horn. I have tried every vale combination and can’t make this thing play. Three of the valves are the same. One is different. Any suggestions? Do I have the right combination of rotors? Ant help would be greatly appreciated.

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