Minnesota nonprofit, technical college make instruments affordable for young musicians

Katie Hauser is a band teacher, not a matchmaker. But when she opened the trumpet case and saw a shiny horn nestled inside, she knew just which aspiring musician would be perfect for it.

“This student has been using a school-owned instrument that was at the bottom of the pile, really past its usable life,” said Hauser, who teaches music at Roseville Area Middle School. “This one will be way better.”

Hauser received two refurbished trumpets — along with a used cornet, saxophone and baritone sax — from Vega Productions. The Minnesota nonprofit gets donated and, often, refurbished musical instruments into the hands of public school students whose families can’t otherwise afford them.

“Playing an instrument is an expensive endeavor,” said Caitlin Marlotte, Vega Production’s executive director. “A lot of families have a tough time finding $20 to $40 a month in their budget for rental fees.

“We hate the idea that students can’t access music because they can’t hurdle that cost barrier.”

In addition to raising money from donors and seeking grants from foundations to purchase new instruments, Vega Productions rounds up scores of used ones that have been collecting cobwebs in a closet or attic for years — even generations.

That’s because solidly crafted musical instruments can, in fact, enjoy an almost unlimited life span. With expert attention, Grandma’s French horn or dad’s trombone can often be returned to its original sonic glory.

But the cost of repairs and even tuneups for worn, damaged or long-neglected instruments also can be prohibitively expensive. Vega has solved that challenge, too, by forging a new partnership to bring instruments up to standards for school music programs.

It turns out that Minnesota State College Southeast in Red Wing was actively looking for musical instruments needing some TLC. The technical and community college is well known for its one-year band instrument repair diploma and a more advanced two-year associate of applied science degree. The coursework trains students for careers as technicians who will work at music shops or open their own instrument repair businesses.

“We have 48 students every year who need to overhaul a variety of instruments to get them to the standard we set in our curriculum,” said program instructor John Maddox. “This is a perfect marriage.”

For the second year, Vega has brought a truck full of donated but damaged instruments to the Red Wing campus for the hands-on work required to return them to proper playing condition. Students deal with bent, loose and deteriorating parts of instruments constructed of metal, plastic and wood. They oil valves, refit keys, replace pads, straighten dents, solder loose pieces and fabricate parts from base metals to remake a component.

“They are all musicians of some sort and that’s what draws them in,” Maddox said. “They have a curiosity for the craft and for the technical side of making music. They’ll make a legitimate career with this, one that can support them and their family and they can still be involved in playing.”

Maddox earned a degree in trombone performance from the University of South Florida and was planning to get his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota. Always fascinated by the mechanics of his instrument, he heard about MSC Southeast’s repair program.

After his audition on the Minneapolis campus, he visited Red Wing to see the program for himself.

“That’s when I realized, this is what I’m pulled to, this is what I should be doing,” he said. “I have an analytical mind, I like solving puzzles and knowing how things work.”

At a workbench in Maddox’s classroom, student Patience Buck cleaned keys on the foot joint of a disassembled flute. Buck, 28, was previously the K-12 music teacher at a school in rural Nebraska. She left the classroom to enroll in the instrument repair program. “The district where I taught had no budget for music and I know about kids who really want the opportunity to be in band,” she said. “They will value these instruments.”

The student handiwork has real value. It allows Vega Productions to save on work previously done at commercial repair shops, where the cost of significant repairs and refurbishments can run into hundreds of dollars per instrument.

“We pay for parts and the students provide the labor, the most expensive part of the job,” said Marlotte. “In the past, we got donations of some wonderful instruments that we couldn’t afford to fix, but now they’re getting a second life.”

Marlotte is in the process of dropping off the reconditioned instruments at schools that need them. On a recent afternoon, she arrived in Roy Pienaar’s band room at the Hmong College Prep Academy in St. Paul, lugging a vintage saxophone returned to usefulness through the program at MSC Southeast.

The two admired the etched floral pattern on the bell, its mother-of-pearl keys and new red felt pads. Then Pienaar popped in the mouthpiece and effortlessly tooted the distinctive opening saxophone riff of “Careless Whisper.”

“What a tone! This one was built to last,” Pienaar said.

Pienaar calls donated instruments the “lifeblood” of the music program, calculating that 70% of his students rely on them to participate.

“Our families appreciate these opportunities and the kids take good care of their instruments,” he said.

“They inspire the kids to work hard and inspire me to be a better teacher.”

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer who is in a good mood 98.7% of the time.

 

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