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Herminie men are all about the music

| Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, 12:18 p.m.
Repair technician Jeremy Shirey works on a flute at Volkwein's Music in Latrobe. Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Manager Tom Cochran tests a saxophone after repairing it at Volkwein's Music.
Repair Technician Sam Rizzi works on a trombone. Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review Volkwein Music, Latrobe
Instruments in the 'boneyard' are used for spare parts. Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review Volkwein Music in latrobe

Herminie resident Tom Cochran's job is all about the sound of music.

He is the manager of Volkwein's Music in Latrobe, which is winding down from a traditionally busy season.

The store supplies thousands of musical instrument rentals, along with sales and repairs, for numerous school districts.

“A rainy football season can be profitable for us with woodwinds, especially if they're put away wet,” said Cochran, 53. “We do a pretty good majority of school districts in Westmoreland and Somerset, and go as far as Cambria and Blair counties.”

The five-man shop in Latrobe specializes in brass and woodwind repairs.

The specialized work takes years of experience to handle the different repairs needed.

Those repairs run the gamut from instruments being run over by vehicles to strange objects being lodged inside — including dead mice.

“People ask us all the time what we find inside instruments,” Cochran said.

He has found cupcake wrappers, marbles, pencils and even items of clothing — most notably the panties removed from a college player's sousaphone.

But finding a petrified rat or a dead mouse inside an instrument is not funny.

“It can be quite gross at times,” said Cochran, who grew up in a musical family.

Instrument repairman Sam Rizzi, another Herminie resident, has a shelf above his workbench where he has saved items pulled from instruments within the last year.

A miniature toy car was found inside a tuba. Then there's the rubber snake, the Transformer head and the little flexible saber.

Rizzi has worked for 15 years at Volkwein's. Before that, he repaired instruments for 10 years at Stemple Music in Jeannette. He started with a 10-year stint as a machinist at Union Switch & Signal.

“This is what I really intended to do from the beginning,” said Rizzi, who played trumpet in high school at Yough High School with Cochran.

They both have heard the tale of a professional trumpet player in Pittsburgh who took his horn in for repair when it didn't sound right, and a live 22-caliber round was found inside.

They have a “boneyard” of various brass instruments hanging from the ceiling in one room that is used for replacement parts when something is smashed beyond repair.

“It's hard to find parts for some of the older instruments,” Cochran said.

There is a polishing and buffing room, reminiscent of an auto body shop, where they render dents and dings invisible.

Cochran worked at Stemple Music after he studied one year at Western Iowa Technical School in Sioux City following high school. He always liked to tinker with things.

The specialized field of instrument repair makes for “a fairly small community” of practitioners, Cochran said. “We pretty much know one another.”

Cochran, who has been fixing instruments for more than 30 years, played trumpet in a former band, O-Ring Jones.

Jeremy Shirey was fixing a clarinet on a recent visit to the Latrobe shop. He estimates he has restored more than 4,000 clarinets in his 12 years at Volkwein's.

Hempfield Area and Greater Latrobe school districts are among the districts served by the Latrobe business.

“Saxophones and clarinets are pretty sophisticated instruments and can get out of whack easily,” said Hempfield band director Brian Tychinski.

“We're really glad to have a local vendor that does good quality work and delivers in a timely manner,” he said. “When an instrument breaks the day before a football game, they take care of it for us.”

Greater Latrobe officials also appreciate the service.

“Volkwein's provides a good portion of rentals for grades 4 to 6,” said Josh Jordan, Latrobe's music department leader and assistant senior marching band director. “They also do a lot of work for us for grades 7 to 12.

“They are very thorough when they do saxophone and tuba repairs,” he added. “When we get the instruments back, we find they go above and beyond, and the instruments are very clean and polished.”

Volkwein's, with a logo of “helping people discover music since 1888,” has its main location in Robinson, with another 15 repairmen who also handle percussion and string instruments.

The Latrobe location provides support services for rentals and repairs, including the music books required by various school districts if needed.

It is not open for walk-in business.

The business is still in the family, with third-generation Carl Volkwein Jr. as CEO, and “thousands and thousands” of instruments are repaired on a yearly basis, according to General Manager Matthew Barabas.

Specific numbers are considered proprietary information and are not disclosed, but a few trends are shared with the public.

A noticeable trend this year is an interest in trombones, said Dave Haffey, a marketing associate with Volkwein's.

And ukulele sales have been up the last couple years.

The last time they were popular was in the 1920s and ‘30s, Haffey said.

Rose Domenick is a freelance writer.

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