Minnesota College Hosts Elite Musical Instrument Repair Program


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RED WING, MINN. – The most intimate relationship a musician can have is with a precious instrument. And when that relationship breaks down, an elite group of college students here can fix it.

At Minnesota State College Southeast, approximately 85 students learn how to repair musical instruments. Most of them choose from three specialties: harmony instruments, violins and guitars (which students also learn to build guitars).

It’s a rare chance to learn these special skills. According to school spokesperson Katryn Conlin, only three schools in the country offer musical instrument repair, and no other college offers violin repair. The scarcity of programs here attracts students to Red Wing from all over the United States and Canada.

At 18, Sarah Jensen of Clearfield, Utah, has already worked for several years in the instrument repair shop of her father, who graduated from Red Wing in the 1990s. While refurbishing a set of keys and of saxophone pads, Jensen said she loved to see the joy on people’s faces when they picked up their instruments.

“I’m autistic,” she added, “and I think in some ways. I love puzzles. For me, the saxophone is a 3D puzzle, and I love it.

Michaela Alderink of Fairfax, Minn., Had worked “a lot of not fun jobs.” At 33, she decided to enroll in the program after opening her high school clarinet case one day.

When she smelled the wood, leather and metal inside, Alderink said, “I realized that I could be surrounded by this scent the rest of my life.”

Many of the students are musicians; some have advanced performance credentials and have performed professionally. But musicians often have to tinker with their lives. Learning repair techniques can be a welcome addition to playing and teaching income.

John Maddox, trombonist and harmony instrument repair instructor, graduated from Red Wing in 2012 and began teaching here two years ago. Repairing an instrument, he says, is almost a sacred mission.

“You take a musician who has a 30-year relationship with his instrument,” Maddox said. “They may have spent more time with this instrument than they spent with their children.

“So it’s not like fixing someone’s car. It’s their voice. This is how they express themselves to the world.

Repair shops are a feast for the senses, filled with shiny brass and lustrous wood, with students patting, hammering and scratching. The soundtrack is the scratching of emery paper, the soft whistle of a knife on a whetstone, the rapid “whuff” of a lighted blowtorch.

Most students stay in the program for a year and receive a diploma in repair. Some stay for two years and earn an associate’s degree in applied science. Either way, few of them are likely to have a hard time finding work.

“If they want a job, they can definitely find one,” said Steve Rossow, who teaches violin repair.

Alex Kauffman from Detroit Lakes worked as a FedEx driver at Fargo before signing up here. He already spent two years learning how to build and repair guitars and is now studying violin repair.

“I’m not much of a musician,” Kauffman, 30, said as he dug holes for violin pegs. “I come to this not from the music side but from the craft side. I love working with wood.

It’s an endlessly fascinating quest, said John Huth, trumpeter and harmony instrument repair instructor.

“Each of us could work anywhere and probably make more dough,” he said. “But it’s the students. I love to teach.

“And it’s a subject where you never learn enough. “

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