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Artisans of Michigan: Fixing your horn

Feb 17, 2017

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

We headed to the city of Monroe in the southeast corner of the state for our latest Artisans of Michigan. We visited Michigan Musical Instrument Service. Kevin Powers has been repairing instruments there since 1987.

“I do most of the work for the Detroit symphony, all the brass players, the Toledo symphony, some of the guys from Cleveland. Those would be my occasional clients. My everyday ones are the school kids that come in with a dent in the trumpet. That’s who my normal customers are,” Powers

And those kids have interesting ways of damaging their instruments.

“Usual thing of slip in the parking lot and fall on their horn, you know, or they back over their tuba. I get a lot of work like that,” Powers said, laughing.

After college where he got his initial training, Powers got a job at a high-end trumpet maker, Schilke Music Products in Chicago. That’s where he got to make some trumpets for some names you might recognize.

“Oh, right. Yes. I built one for Dizzy Gillespie, one for Jon Faddis, and Wynton Marsalis,” he said, adding that he thinks he was just lucky to get the assignment.

Over the years, he’s learned to fix just about anything and he enjoys the challenge of all of them.

“Too me, if it’s a bassoon, an oboe, or a flute, or a saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, whatever. I don’t really prefer one or the other. For me, fortunately, I’ve become well-known for fixing brass musical instruments, particularly tubas and trumpets. But, I don’t really care which one it is.”

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

He was once a professional musician, so he can play all the orchestral instruments for two-and-a-half octaves. That comes in handy when he needs to test them after he fixes them. He played a few notes on a trumpet he had recently repaired.

With the equipment in his shop, he can manufacture replacement parts, or build new horns from scratch. But, picking up a hammer, he showed how repairing them can be just pounding the big dents out of a horn, then using special tools to basically rub the wrinkles and smaller dents out.

He says, though, fewer guys like him can stay in business.

Some of the tools used to take brass piping and turn it into a part for a trumpet.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

“With the way that the schools have been going, closing, and the state and the federal government drawing money back for the Endowment for the Arts, school closings and consolidation of schools have ruined music programs. There really isn’t enough work for more than a few guys in any major city to, you know, put the food on the table. So, it’s tough,” he said quietly.

Add to that, cheaper horns are being imported. It’s sometimes less expensive to buy a new trumpet than to have one repaired.

I asked him if he spends a lot of time alone in his shop and he says not really. There’s always someone dropping by.

“You know, they want to come in and see what’s going on, watch me swinging a hammer while I’m fixing a horn or building a new one. I get a lot of joy out of that, the fact that people want to come by and chit chat about music, you know, while I’m working. They’ll come and watch me. I don’t mind. Take a look over my shoulder.”

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