Instrument repair is Soldier’s passion and profession

By Spc. Mark VanGerpen
Defense Information School

News story photo
Photo credit: Jonathan E. Agee
Staff Sgt. Michael A. Bravin, instrument repair technician with the U.S. Army Field Band, has been fixing instruments since he was 18 years old.
FORT MEADE, Md. -- It came to him mutilated, bearing the dents and scars of Afghanistan. It looked like someone had dropped it from a helicopter or run it over with a tank, he said.

He spent three days with it, hammering out the dents, buffing the scrapes, restoring its form. He cleaned it from the inside out, removing dirt and debris, making it flawless again so it could get back to its Soldier’s hands in the field.

But after three days, the trumpet still wasn’t ready. It sat on a stand on his work table, suspended over a myriad of other instruments that needed his attention more urgently.

Staff Sgt. Michael A. Bravin, instrument repair technician with The U.S. Army Field Band, has a passion for fixing broken instruments, and the band provides him with more than enough to keep him busy full time.

Having a shop littered with instruments and parts is not new for Bravin. The band has hundreds of instruments, and between repairing, cataloging and inspecting them, Bravin is always swamped, he said.

“I will never be without something in front of me,” he said. The busyness doesn’t bother him, though. Bravin has been a tinkerer for years, since he repaired his father’s worn-out clarinet when he was 18 years old.

That passion led him to volunteer in the instrument repair shop when he played trombone with the band’s Jazz Ambassadors.

In June 2012, it turned into a full-time job, and he became the sole repairman in the office. The job took him out of the spotlight, but it gave him an opportunity to do what he really enjoyed.

“This is new for me, but I’m in the rear with the gear, and my job is to support them (the Field Band),” Bravin said. “There’s a big chunk of what they do that they can’t do if I don’t get all of this online and running. A Humvee without wheels does not go.”

Spc. Joseph D. Robinson, a temporary apprentice to Bravin, knows Bravin’s importance to the Field Band.

“These guys are spoiled,” Robinson said about the band’s access to Bravin’s skill set. “They’ve got it good.”

Robinson is a supply clerk with the 3rd Infantry Division in Fort Stewart, Ga., home of the 3rd Infantry Division Band. The band has no on-site instrument repair technician. The band has to take its broken instruments to a civilian repair tech, which is time consuming and expensive, and there’s no guarantee that the repairman will even have the right equipment to properly fix them.

So he brought a truck full of instruments to Bravin’s office for repairs. The trumpet was one. He is training with Bravin so he can open his own repair shop with his unit.

Bravin has taught Robinson a lot of the finer details of the trade, some as simple as using the proper tools, Robinson said. Many of the tools on Bravin’s shelf would be easily recognizable to a mechanic or woodworker, but some are specially made for specific instrument models, and using any other tool could damage them.

Most of the time, repairing an instrument starts with cleaning it, Bravin said. The most common defect Bravin works with is the buildup of stray material inside the instruments.

“People are blowing hot, moist air through a tube,” Bravin said. “You’re going to get condensation. You’re going to get coffee, food, tobacco through the instrument. Things are going to collect.”

Damage is the other common problem, especially with brass instruments, Bravin said. Many instruments are made of thin brass stretched and twisted in a very precise way, and are therefore easily susceptible to dents and dings.

Picking up a tarnished tuba that looked like someone had taken to it with a bat, Bravin played a few notes to show that damage doesn’t always stop an instrument from playing. But a dent in the wrong place could stop a valve from working properly or block airflow, he said. Preventing that from happening is one of the reasons he loves his job. The reward of taking something apart, making it better and putting it back together is as appealing to him now as it was when he was younger.

“There’s a measure of satisfaction and accomplishment in fixing or improving something,” Bravin said. “Of course, that’s compounded when you hand it to its owner or its end user, and you get that validation of, ‘Yes, good job!’”

If the number of instruments in his shop is any indication, Bravin will be reaping those rewards for a long time to come.

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