- Associated Press - Saturday, June 3, 2017

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - When eager kids and musical instruments with lots of intricate little parts mix, there are bound to be some mishaps.

A trumpet tumbles down the bleachers as the marching band hustles onto the field during a football game. Pencils get thrown into tubas. Clarinet mouthpieces wear out, and brass instruments get scratched up when well-meaning parents attempt their own homemade repairs with pliers or wrenches.

Eric Haitz, the band instrument repair technician for the Omaha Public Schools, has seen it all.

Haitz runs a one-man instrument repair shop deep in the bowels of the Teacher Administrative Center. Down a maze of hallways, next to a welding shop and near the automotive collision bays, Haitz works his magic on busted trumpets and fragile flutes in a workshop filled with tools and spare instrument parts.

“I am it,” he said. “The one and only.”

He fixes, cleans and tunes all of the brass and woodwind instruments used by OPS, the Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/2rpQKbU ) reported. He estimates that’s roughly 3,000 instruments, from tiny piccolos to gleaming saxophones, spread out across the district. When repairs are needed for string instruments, such as violins and cellos, they are sent to a private contractor.

Haitz’s job is a rarity among school districts. Most don’t have anyone on staff to do in-house repairs. Music teachers might be able to handle minor fixes, like a stuck valve, but most instruments are sent out to music shops for more extensive repairs. Districts such as Bellevue, Millard and Westside all outsource their repairs.

“We can add new strings or replace a bridge on a string instrument,” Gail Carpenter-Johnson, a Westside elementary instrumental music teacher, wrote in an email. “We occasionally do emergency repairs at concerts that are very temporary and then send the instrument to the repair shop.”

Omaha Public Schools, which has the state’s largest school district, has done in-house repairs for years. It’s quicker and cheaper than sending out every instrument, said Ann Davis, OPS’s supervisor of instrumental music.

“The volume of instruments we deal with in our district makes it more affordable to do it in-house instead of contracting it out,” she said.

OPS music teachers rely heavily on Haitz to keep their instruments in working order.

“I run down to TAC, haul the instruments in and he’ll try to fix them right there in front of me,” said Andrew Brown, the band director at Benson High. “Which is really handy, because a kid is waiting to play their instrument, and if they’re not playing, they’re not learning.

“With a shop, you drop it off and you’re waiting in line not only with other schools in the area but other parents who might drop stuff off.”

Brown can usually handle a stuck mouthpiece or a spit valve that falls off a trombone - he plays trombone himself and feels comfortable tinkering with them.

But woodwinds? Those go straight to Haitz.

“I’d rather just not touch a woodwind instrument, because they have so many tiny, intricate parts,” Brown said. “If any one thing goes wrong, it can screw up the whole instrument.”

Haitz, 36, has worked for OPS for eight years. He was a musical kid who played guitar in his youth group, and he ended up at Western Iowa Tech Community College in Sioux City to study band instrument repair. Only a handful of colleges in the country offer that type of program, he said.

“My stepdad was a mechanic, and I was always involved in music, so if you put those two together, you have this job,” he said.

While there’s a steady stream of work year-round, things really ramp up at the beginning and end of the school year.

Around this time, music teachers are returning hundreds of instruments for repair and inventory. Two band teachers provide an extra set of hands in the summer to prepare for checkout day in the middle of August, when 1,100 instruments go out the door to elementary schools.

“We have instruments that are really old, but they were built really well so they have to be brought back to life,” Haitz said.

Marching band season can be hectic - instruments sometimes get dropped on the field - and Haitz keeps busy around winter and spring recitals. Occasionally he travels to big events, like the All-City Music Festival at the Holland Performing Arts Center, to repair a snapped string on the fly.

There are maintenance jobs - polishing, oiling and cleaning instruments. Sometimes fixes are simple and take only minutes. Other times, Haitz will open up an instrument case to find just a collection of parts, or something jammed into the embouchure hole of a flute. Oboes are finicky, and saxophones have a lot of moving parts and keys that are timed to close together.

And then there are tubas.

“You find a lot of things in tubas,” he said. “Kids like to throw things down into them.”

Many instruments are now manufactured in other countries, so it’s not always easy to find replacement parts. Haitz will retrofit old parts or fabricate his own from raw materials. OPS’s inventory is older, and some instruments just start to wear out.

“The ones that are more interesting to me are when it’s go time, someone’s waiting for the instrument and it needs to be fixed,” he said. “Some of it is just abuse over time - you can imagine that instruments in a public school get pretty beaten up.”

He’s gotten back instrument cases filled with crumbs and cat fur. Violins that were sat on by someone’s little brother. Instruments that have survived house fires, and ones patched up with duct tape or super glue - he calls those “dad repairs.”

Once, he headed out to a school to do several on-site repairs. He watched as a music student took big bites of a Snickers bar, then blew into a trumpet.

“The teacher was, like, ‘Stop, do you realize who’s in the back of the room? The guy who has to clean the Snickers bar out of your trumpet,’?” he said.

But Haitz said he enjoys tinkering with instruments and playing a behind-the-scenes role in fostering a love of music among students.

“A lot of kids, if their instruments aren’t working properly, they think ‘Oh, I just can’t play, this is not for me,’?” he said.

“Part of it, for me, is to make sure they are working properly. Most of the time it’s just something about the instrument.

“At the end of the day I’m here to serve the students, to try and make sure they have a pleasant music experience, as much as I can affect that situation.”

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Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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