Reflections of a BIR tech.
2021 begins as does the next decade in my career as a Band Instrument Repair technician. I started repairing in 1990 by joining twenty-two other people at Red Wing Technical College to learn the art of BIR and here I am, thirty years later, still at it and still learning about it. The typical question comes up from time to time when someone interviews me about how I found in this unique business. My answers are the same, and I’m sure variations of them are floating around the internet, but with this new year following a rather rough one, I thought I might reflect a bit on how I landed as I did.
How did I decide to become a tech? Many people helped me along the way.
I came into BIR sideways like a lot of technicians. My undergraduate degree completed and, as most other college kids at that time, I had no idea what to expect once I had that piece of paper in my hand. I floated around a bit and even tried grad school, but I didn’t have the passionate drive to be a full-time performer. Maybe it was burnout, divine intervention, or something else, but the direction I started wasn’t the one I needed to keep. During my first attempt at graduate school, I had a very supportive professor who put me on the right path. He was not my major instructor. He was the bassoon professor that I took lessons from as a minor, but his words affected me for life when I dealt with the tangled crossroads. I still remember that click in my head when he said, “You don’t have to be in education or performance to be a musician. There are lots of careers out there that have nothing to do with either.” He listed a bunch of them and landed on repair. “You should look into it. You’ve got good hands and we always need technicians.” This was Dr. Marc Apfelstadt, with whom I’ve reconnected with on Facebook. I will forever have gratitude to him for planting that seed.
My second influencer was also less direct, but no less impactful. This was 1989ish, and the internet did not exist. The only resource for BIR training I found was an ancient laminated piece of typed paper in a random three-ring binder at the music library with four or five addresses of repair schools. Several of them had closed, and the remaining ones were very far away. I tried a different route and called a couple of music companies in North Carolina to see if there was any hope of apprenticeship. Few people wanted to talk to me, however I had one technician take the time to answer my questions about the trade and my best options. At the end of that conversation, he told me,” go to school, call me when you graduate, and I’ll give you a job.” A year later, I did just that and joined Pearson Music Company to work in their satellite shop in Winston-Salem, NC. Years afterward, he admitted to me he gave that same phrase to everyone who asked about apprenticing and I was the only person who ever took him up on the offer. Thank you, Mr. Paul Wingler for giving me my first break.
I found myself in a class of twenty-two and only one other woman. BIR was very heavily male dominated with only about six percent of working techs being female. Still, I do not remember being treated any differently by my instructors because of my gender. I had to learn how to run a lathe and other industrial machines, use a torch in soldering techniques, make tools, hammer and burnish brass, work pads and keys, the whole nine yards. It was a rough time as school day started from 7:30am to 3:00pm and I worked as a lifeguard at the Y from 3:30-10:00 at night. Weekends were the same, but I was younger back then, and had more energy to get through the year. I’m proud to say I’m one of the last classes of Red Wing Tech to study with the late Mr. Gene Beckwith, a founder in the craft of BIR. My other instructor, Mr. John Huth, is another pioneer who continues to teach there today. They inspired a lifetime love of this field in me, and I cannot thank them enough for sharing their knowledge.
As I mentioned before, my first posting put me in Winston-Salem, NC. I'd planned to work at this shop for a few years, then moved around the country at different places before settling. Obviously, that didn’t happen, which makes me the longest and most experienced tech in the area. The older man who ran the facility had been working in BIR since the 70s, at the realization of this field as a career. Mr. Steve White was what I would call a southern good ol’ boy. I remember him as having rock solid integrity in that when you looked in his eyes and shook his hand, it was a binding contract. He freely shared his knowledge and vast experience with me, and taught me so much more than I thought possible. He was tough, but always fair as he guided me into helping me setup my career. I have to credit a lot of my skills to learning from him in repair, business, and growth expectations. Steve passed away in 2003, but his lessons I remember to this day. His favorite saying was “we’ll be squattin’ in high cotton” which he liked to use whenever we got a new tool or a big load of repairs.
There are many other techs that have touched my life and helped me over my career, most notably the long-standing members of NAPBIRT (The National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians).My first national conference took place way back in 1992 in Denver, CO, and I recall being overwhelmed. It seemed huge with hundreds of older technicians (almost all men), tool vendors, and displays. Most tech talk went straight over my head and I felt rather small, but they welcomed me. We were all there for one purpose and that was education. Julie Jorgensen agreed to be my roommate and became a mentor and guided this gawky young woman through the jungle of her first big conference. Through this organization, I met a plethora of lifetime friends and colleagues. Bill Matthews, Ross Watkins, Mike Nye, Ed Strege, Jim Gleason, Jaime Hamner, Miles DeCastro, Sally Lindenberg, Lee Hirschmann, Manda Hollifield, Erin Yardley, Chris Bluemel, John Blythe, and so many others. I can name dozens at this point and still have more to add to the list. I would not be the tech I am today, if not for the members of NAPBIRT willing to teach and share their experience. It is for this reason I am an active member and regularly take part in mentoring, writing articles, teaching clinics, and presenting at conferences. I became a regional director and served on the board for several years as the secretary and then as the president. Now, I’m serving as past-president and ready for the next generation to step into those roles.
I started off as a bench tech at Pearson Music Company, moved up to management at Duncan Music Company, and then joined the staff at the UNCG School of Music as the instrument inventory specialist and repair instructor. As other jobs I’ve had, I was the first to hold this position and make it into a vital part of the school’s operations. Organizing instruments, assigning lifespans, rotation uses, and of course repairs. Many days, I’d get a student running up to the shop from rehearsal, a desperate look on their face, with something that needed some quick TLC. I developed an open door policy that a lot of students liked. They’d come hang in the shop while I worked on the bench. Some wanted to talk, and some wanted a quiet place to be for a while. My fondest memories of campus were working with the kids and helping to guide them as I had been. Several discovered BIR through me and found lifetime careers of their own. Manda Hollifield was one, and she became a close friend in addition to a colleague. She turned into an active member of NAPBIRT and has already given clinics at the regional and national level. I couldn’t be prouder, knowing I had a hand in encouraging her to find her niche. There a certain satisfaction when I attend a conference and discover four or five of my previous students there as young growing techs in this field. I feel it’s my obligation now to pass on my experience to the next generation. This is one way of honoring all those who took the time to mentor me.
During my UNCG years, I wrote and published a repair manual I used as a textbook. Stuff Band Directors Need to Know. It is available on Amazon in print or ebook form. This sparked another lifelong dream I’ve had about becoming an author. I penned my first fiction book with the simple goal of just getting it finished. That led to a series, and now I have ten books under the pen name, ML Nystrom. I enjoy writing and will continue it, but it doesn’t take the place of my original love of BIR. After thirty years, I run my own independent shop in my house. I’m yet a contributor to NAPBIRT and still mentoring people who are interested in repair as a career. I can also say, I have not stopped learning and developing new skill sets. It is doubtful, I'll cease as this field is constantly changing, and my passion for it hasn’t waned even after three decades. I joke about retiring when I hit the age of 65, but I don’t think I ever truly will. Someday, I expect I’ll be that eighty-some year old woman, shuffling with my walker to the bench to adjust a flute or straighten a bent trombone slide.
As the saying goes, “find something you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Well, it has been work as some points and not every day has been a “squattin’ in high cotton” moment. However, I can say without a doubt, I love what I do. In reflection over the last thirty years of my career, I was lucky and very blessed to have the people that had my back and helped me become the tech I am today. As I start the next year, I humbly thank all of you and promise to continue this legacy as long as my hands hold pliers and dent hammers. Salut.