By Ricky O’Bannon
Vocational courses like auto tech or wood shop have long been parts of some school curriculums, but a school district in north Texas is reimagining that model for music students to offer a first-of-its-kind course in instrument repair.
Starting next school year, junior and senior students in Arlington Independent School District can enroll in a class introducing them to the intricacies of fixing broken cello bridges and dented trombone slides.
The two-year course is a public-private partnership between the school district and the Frederick, Maryland-based Music & Arts, which is the largest instrument retail, private lesson and repair company in the country. Arlington ISD will supply students and classroom space, and Music & Arts will provide tools and a repair technician to teach the classes with a target size of 12 to 14 students. Students in the program may also be employed by the company during their busy summer repair season between their junior and senior year of high school.
“The school district's strategic plan is to have 100% of students be college or career ready,” said Jeremy Earnhart who is the Fine Arts Director for Arlington ISD. “Once the students complete two years and have this instruction under their belt, they will be quite ahead of the game in terms of being career ready in instrument repair.”
Like many cities in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Arlington, Texas, is experiencing booming population growth, which means growing schools and more student musicians who will one day need their instruments repaired. While Arlington might be best known to the outside world as the site of the over-the-top and glamorous stadium of the Dallas Cowboys, Earnhart points out that his is a high-poverty school district where seven out of ten students qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunches.
For students interested in music who might not have the financial means to attend college or might not want to teach or pursue a performance career, Earnhart said this program can provide a skill base for and exposure to a craft that is in high demand.
“What we're trying to do in Arlington right now is to create a template for high-achieving arts programs in a high-poverty school district,” he said. “We're creating an experience and making programs available that are completely unique.”
For Music & Arts, the program might help address an industry-wide workforce challenge. According to the National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians, surveys indicate that there is a national shortage of trained repair techs, and that gap in the workforce is expected to expand as an older generation of technicians approach retirement age.
“There is definitely more demand than there are technicians,” said Pat Wiegand, who is the director of repair and refurbishment for Music & Arts. “We are always looking for technicians to come work for us, and we find it is a challenge. That's kind of why we came at this with a little different approach.”
Traditionally there are two paths for instrument repair technicians to be trained. The first is through apprenticeship. The second is at one of only four schools in the country, which are located in the Midwest and Washington State. Wiegand said that if students discover they have an affinity for instrument repair through the Arlington program, the goal is to guide students in the next steps to pursue later training through one of those schools or apprenticeship.
Vincent Chiappone — who is the director of sales for Music and Arts in Texas — said exposure is key particularly for students in a market like Texas as the handful of repair schools are far from home.
“It is something that is very specialized and very skilled. It's really a limited pool of people, and they're starting to age,” Chiappone said. “We're growing. Music programs [like Arlington’s] are growing… With everything growing and the number of repair techs sort of shrinking and getting older, we thought there was really a need.”
Music & Arts Executive Vice-President of Operations, Allan Greenberg said that his company had previously looked into starting a similar program in Maryland before being approached by Ernhart through Chiappone with the idea for the course in Arlington.
“I've been in the business since 1993, and we've always talked about why can't we have a vocational tech program?” he said. “When I went to high school we had auto shop, wood shop and print shop. Why not an instrument repair tech program?
Through music lessons and retail supply, Greenberg said his company is all about music education, and while this fits into that goal, it also helps address a real business need.
“We can't just hire you tomorrow and teach you the job and expect you to be productive quickly. It's a real skill and a vocation that takes time and repetition,” Greenberg said. “We are building for the future. The students that come through this might be the ones that we hire to become the next generation of repair techs. I think it’s a win all the way around.”
The program in Arlington might serve as a test case for the company and possibly the industry as a whole for a new model for how musical instrument repair technicians begin learning their craft. If it proves successful, Greenberg said that the company would consider trying it elsewhere.,
“The answer to that is ‘stay tuned,’” Greenberg said.