The instrument collector

instrumentI come from a rather musically vocal family. My grandmother, mother, aunt, uncle and sister all sang in church choirs.  Somewhere when the musical genes were dispersed, alas, they missed me.  God gave me words without a melody.

I have often wondered why I was given the desire and not the talent. But that did not keep me from thinking that while I may not have a voice I could make up by playing music. Over the years, I have collected a strange assortment of instruments. It seems the search and recovery became an obsession, and the importance to master any one instrument began to fade. I have three violins, two banjos, a folk guitar, an alto saxophone, a flute, a balalaika, two harmonicas and a African zudikan. And more.

You might assume someone determined to own such a large collection might know something about music. Not so. I know very little about music and have learned to play only one of these instruments — and not very well, I might add. I have also learned that buying a secondhand musical instrument without being able to play one can be very expensive. Not knowing what it is you are truly buying compounds the problem.


My interest in this collection started with my first purchase, a violin. I came across a rather beat-up stringless instrument in a dusty corner of a secondhand store in Saugerties. I had always wanted to play a violin as a child.

Suddenly the desire was rekindled. As I wiped away years of grime, underneath was a rich-looking red wood. I romantically envisioned this had to be nothing less than a Stradivarius carelessly discarded by a family member who did not know this was a priceless treasure. After a month in the repair shop, I learned such terms as bridge, tailpiece, chinrest, fine tuners and ultrasound strings. My “Strad” was missing all of them.

My next find was a saxophone which appeared to have nothing missing. It looked rather like the one my husband once played, only a little more beat-up. I was right, it was a little more beat-up! The repairman again taught me new phrases, like “pads that needed replacing” and “reeds that dry up and die.” Another not-so-much-a-bargain bargain.

My uncanny ability to seek out and find the unusual led me to my next purchase, a three-stringed instrument that appeared to be much like a guitar, only triangle-shaped. It was only years later while watching “Dr Zhivago” that I discovered that I owned a Russian balalaika.  Although I have spent no money on this rare find, I have so far only found one person who could play it or tune it.

I thought I was on safe ground with the next addition to my now growing assemblage. I found a banjo that appeared to me in excellent condition. The chrome was shiny, without a scratch. That was because it was supposed to be covered with a skin or “head,” as it is called in musical jargon. It actually was an unusual Hefton bass banjo. I acquired some new knowledge from the repairman, whose grin I was beginning to dislike.

It seems that not everyone can repair this kind of banjo. There are two men that have the skill to tackle this rare find. One is serving Uncle Sam and stationed in the Philippines, the other serving time in Dannemora prison.

No one’s musical collection is complete without the musical saw. The one in my garage was a bit rusty, but surprisingly, with a little polish and a good bow. What I had was called an Idiophone.  Somewhere out in the world is a 1921 gold-plated, rhinestone-studded, Mussdehl & Westhaal,  the “Stradivarius of music saws.” Should you come across it, call me immediately.

I now realize my addiction is here to stay. I cannot pass by any dusty, unwanted orphaned, injured castoff, music-lesson dropout. I must purchase them regardless of the repair bills.  But I am growing more selective. I close my eyes to basket cases, the ones that come in several pieces.

I have learned that there is nothing worse than trying to play a tune on a rusty harmonica or trying to pump a note out of an accordion with moth-holes dotting the bellows. I have learned that an eight-note piccolo with four dead notes is a repairman’s way to winters in Florida. I have earned the right to the red-carpet treatment at Empire Music Repair. And I have learned that when a salesman says, “With a few minor repairs,” he means it won’t be cheap.