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Back to school for band & orchestra: The art of extracting petrified hot dogs

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Lisa Suhay

(Read caption) David Cline, owner of Calamas Instrument Repair Service in Norfolk, Va. bangs out dents from a brass instrument to prepare it for use by students in the new school year.

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The man who repairs marching band and orchestra instruments for a host of schools in Virginia and North Carolina has some back-to-school advice for the parents of young musicians, “Don’t let your kids use their instrument cases like a lunch box or backpack.”

David Cline, owner and head technician at Calamas Musical Instrument Repair service sits in a long narrow room that smells of machine oil and musty, velvet-lined instrument cases, his eyes magnified by a jeweler’s lens visor as he works to breathe life back into a badly abused trumpet that will soon be back in the hands of an eager student.

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Mr. Cline's shop also saved the day for the eight-man American reggae and dub band SOJA during a recent visit to Norfolk, Va. when tenor saxophone player Hellman Escorcia experienced catastrophic instrument failure shortly before a performance. 

“It always feels good to be able to get a performer back on the stage,” Cline says.. “I feel just as good about helping someone famous as I do a kid in school. If that student goes without an instrument will he or she ever become famous? So it’s all important.”

Calamas Musical Instrument Repair Service in Norfolk, Va. is among many repair shops of its kind nationwide currently working the kinks out of clarinets, taking the dents out of brass instruments, and removing the occasional hot dog out of a marching band tuba.

“Oh yeah, we get some interesting stuff out of the instruments,” says Cline. “Most of the time it’s because kids use their instrument cases like backpacks. So we get pencils, erasers, a super ball or two, but mostly food lodged in the brass and wind instruments.”

So far the most memorable things to pop out of an instrument he was repairing was a dead bird and a petrified hot dog that looked almost good as new.

“I’m pretty sure the hot dog was creepier than the bird because you have to imagine the sheer volume of chemicals it must take to keep a hot dog looking that good after months and months inside a tuba,” says Cline.

Cline warns parents, “Kids like to put their lunches and snacks in the same case as their instrument and so it’s never a surprise to see roaches and other bugs swarm out of a case we open here.”

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This tells me, the mom who has had sons in marching band and chamber orchestra, that if you can’t figure out how your house got bugs, you might want to check the instrument cases. Then add a new lunchbox to the back-to-school shopping list.

I know about Calamas because our eldest son, Zoltan who is now a junior in college, worked as the Calamas delivery helper and trainee during his freshman year of high school.

When I visited a business nearby there last week, I stopped in to say hello and realized that the man at the workbench, and others like him across the country, are a rarely recognized key part of our schools’ music programs.

While there are band instrument repair schools, Cline learned the craft from his father who also learned as an apprentice as part of a family business built around keeping instruments in fine fiddle. He started in his own family’s business back in 1980, filling the same role my son filled for the business – pickup and delivery.

When he had proven to be reliable, his father began to teach him the basics of how to repair brass instruments using a host of iron rods and curved rod “hammers” to gently work out the dents from the inside out.

Then he learned to cut precise little circles of cork to create pads for flutes and woodwind keys before moving on to fixing percussion instruments from snare to timpani drums.

“The business was started by a Greek man named Bud Calamas in the late ‘60s and he trained my dad back in 1975,” Cline explains. “My dad helped train me and then over time dad bought the business and my sister Paula Sexton and I took it over from dad.”

Today, Cline says this mom-and pop-shop’s biggest competition is the Little Creek School of Music, a nearby trade school which trains instrument repair technicians to service musical instruments for the US military bands.

Cline explains that there’s a glut of technicians on the market which has eaten into the family’s business.

While they are well trained, he believes that most can’t match the level of excellence reached by any generationally owned, family operated business, where sons and daughters have their parents voices in their heads and a cherished tradition inspiring and informing their work.

When kids return to classrooms, parents may want to educate them about the hands behind the instruments they are bringing home and the labor that goes into restoration.