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Mending to beat the band

At L.A. Unified's repair shop, a devoted crew daily confronts myriad variations on a theme: damage to instruments. Piano bowling, anyone?

January 20, 2007|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

BY the time a musical instrument arrives at the Los Angeles Unified School District repair shop, it might be dented, cracked, scratched, bent, chipped, smashed, warped, jammed, gouged, rusted or snapped.

It might be missing strings, keys, valves, hooks, hammers, springs, pads, paint, cork, felt or horsehair.

Somebody might have carved "Tony {heart} Jenny" on its side.

Maybe somebody kicked it or threw it. Maybe somebody used it as a club or bowled with it. Never heard of piano bowling? The school district repair guys have. That's when a piano gets rolled across a room, from one student to another.

"Kids," said Doug Hershberger, one of the piano tuners and repair technicians, "are very creative."

In the interests of creativity -- but not that kind of creativity -- schools have long offered courses in instrumental music.

Through it all, there has been one constant: If instruments are being played in schools, instruments are being broken, sometimes in amazing ways.

When that happens, they wind up at 1240 S. Naomi Ave., in a cavernous workshop on the grounds of what once was Lafayette Junior High School downtown near the Santa Monica Freeway. Now surrounded by warehouses and truck bays, the shop is a short walk from the spot where jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton is said to have once lived on Central Avenue.

Inside, it seems a throwback to some pre-industrial craft guild workshop.

Twenty-five people work at the shop, which is responsible for maintaining about 85,000 instruments, some of which have been in L.A. schools since the 1930s.

The man in charge, Steve Riccobono, believes it is the largest musical instrument repair shop in the United States. Bill Mathews, executive director of the Illinois-based National Assn. of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians, said Riccobono is probably right.

On any given day, the shop might receive a shipment of violins and violas, saxes and clarinets, tubas and sousaphones. Or French horns, oboes, trombones, cellos, basses, piccolos and flutes.

Autoharps. Drums. Trumpets, bassoons, contrabassoons. Electric and acoustic guitars. Guitarrons and vihuelas, members of the guitar family that are used in mariachi music. Ukuleles. Sitars -- the district owns a couple of those.

And, of course, pianos.

PIANOS get sent downtown only when they need major repair work. Otherwise, technicians go to the schools to tune and fix them. If it seems excessive for one school district to employ four piano technicians, consider this: There are more than 4,000 pianos in L.A. schools.

One of them is destined for Bancroft Middle School once Hershberger finishes rebuilding it. A 7-foot, 1905 Steinway B grand piano, it was donated to the district and, according to Hershberger, had been badly treated at its first home, Fremont High School.

"The kids were tearing it up," he said.

If it had been a lesser piano, the repairmen might have done just enough to make it playable. But, Riccobono said, "when we get a fine piano like this, we spend the money to restore it."

Walking over to the piano, which was without its strings, he dropped his fist on its soundboard, the spruce innards below that help produce the instrument's music. The thump resonated through the room in rich waves in the key of G.

"Hear that sound?" Riccobono said. "That's why."

So for several months, in between tunings and other jobs, Hershberger, a second-generation piano technician who apprenticed to his father as a young man in Long Beach, has been lovingly bringing the Steinway back to life.

He repaired cracks in the soundboard, had the case refinished in the original ebony, took off the legs -- ungainly modern things that probably were added in the 1950s -- and had the district's adjoining mill shop make him a new set that replicated the originals.

He even had a fellow technician, Steve Bagmanyan, an Armenian immigrant who once painted cars in a body shop, paint the metal plate of the piano a bluish silver, with black highlights.

After all the work is done, Riccobono estimates, the restored piano will have a market value of $70,000 to $80,000.

But it isn't for sale.

AT any given moment, a visitor to the shop might see Edwin Barker, a strings expert, carefully repairing a crack in a cello, or brass specialist Patricia Collins ironing out a dent in a tuba with one of the shop's "dent rods," medieval-looking contraptions that are fitted with smooth metal balls and jammed into the instrument to straighten it out.

Come December, workers might be polishing the district's silver-plated sousaphones, trumpets and trombones that come out of storage precisely once a year, when the All City Band -- comprising some of the district's best musicians -- plays them in the Rose Parade.

Some of the shop's tasks are fairly simple, like replacing the horsehair on a violin bow.

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