He’s the guy who takes the ‘ewww’ out euphoniums and the flaws out of flutes.
Don Johnston is Central Alberta’s music repair man.
All summer long, he’s been cleaning the dirty brass tubing in tubas, euphoniums and trumpets, re-padding saxophone keys, and hammering the dents out of flutes and trombones.
As the only brass and woodwind instrument repairman between Edmonton and Calgary, schools from Caroline to Cremona have been relying on him to get their band equipment up to snuff for the start of a new school year.
Johnston estimates he’s improved more than 200 instruments in his back shop at Red Deer’s 53rd Street Music store since June.
He’s taken apart many music-makers to clean out the spittle buildup that can corrode metal and make users sick. (Once-a-year cleanings are highly recommended, said Johnston, who noted a bagpipe player in the U.K. died from a lung infection caused by bacterial buildup in his instrument).
When he’s not scrubbing down brass parts in an acid wash, he’s fine-tuning clarinets, oboes and bassoons to ensure their keys close properly to produce the right sounds.
A lot of kids, when starting out, don’t know if it’s them or their instrument that’s out of tune, said Johnston.
“When your first instrument isn’t working, you get discouraged by that,” added the 56-year-old, who’s seen kids’ “eyes go big” when they start playing a refurbished instrument and hear how good it sounds.
Johnston has fixed everything from expensive Selmer saxophones, to somebody’s grandfather’s 90-year-old coronet with only sentimental value. But during the summer months, most of his effort goes into ensuring Central Alberta students get a good, clean start to their school band year.
Some projects are fairly major: “I’ve had some trumpets totally apart to replace parts that have worn through…” he recalled.
Flutes regularly come in bent at funny angles, and Johnston has to hammer them back into straightness on a steel rod. He then rollers over the hammer marks to smooth them — and even replates the surface, if needed, using a silver-plating kit.
Other repairs take only small adjustments. “When woodwind keys get out of alignment they leak air and (the instruments) don’t play as well.” He can handily fix these problems with a tweak of his pliers.
Johnston, who’s always willing to give his opinion on whether a used instrument is worth buying, or how much it should be sold for on the second-hand market, is the last graduate of Canada’s last instrument repair program (formerly offered at Fort McMurray’s Keyano College).
But he also knows first-hand the importance of maintaining equipment, since he’s a percussionist for two community groups — the Monday Night Band and the Red Deer College Symphonic Winds.
The Toronto native learned, as a boy, that music can be an important form of expression, as well as a refuge.
When he moved to Calgary with his family at age eight, Johnston was hassled by some new classmates. He found he could dodge bullies and meet like-minded friends by hanging around in band class.
He said, school bands “allow (kids) to have someplace where they can stand out, if they want to — or not to stand out if they don’t want to.”
Playing with an ensemble also helped him learn about teamwork. And it taught him such valuable life lessons as: “How much you succeed depends on how much effort, or practise, you put in.”
Besides playing with his school band, he also signed up for the local cadet band and the Calgary Stampede Band. “At one time, I even taught for them.”
But at age 19, he suffered a big blow when doctors discovered bone cancer in his right leg. These days, the same condition can be treated without amputation, but Johnston wasn’t given any choice in the late 1970s. After losing his leg, music helped him realize he could adapt to being a one-legged person.
He recalled his friends marvelling that he could still play a drum kit by working both pedals with his left foot. “People don’t think you can do things, and then you prove to them that you can.”
Johnston, who moved to Red Deer four years ago to take the local repair job, has met many successful people over the years — “a lot of doctors and dentists and lawyers, who relate back to their music days as a very positive influence on what they do now.”
As for those interested in learning what Johnston does, they would have to go to the U.S. for formal training. He said no Canadian schools teach musical instrument repair anymore.
Although Johnston works alongside string instrument repairman Steven Rasmussen at 53rd Street Music, he’s the only brass and woodwind repairman in town. He, therefore, mentors a young apprentice to ensure his craft doesn’t die out.
With band classes on again, he knows it won’t be long before another student accidentally sits on her flute, or raps a clarinet against a music stand in frustration — and more repairs will be needed.
In the meantime, anyone with an instrument that’s gathering dust at home can pass it on to students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a musical education. The Foundation for Red Deer Public Schools is collecting usable instruments for school band programs. Anyone who drops off an instrument at the Red Deer Public Schools office, 4747-53rd St., will have it appraised and will get a charitable tax receipt.
Chances are good that Johnston will be giving the donated instrument a tune-up and cleaning before it’s passed on to students.