The brassiness of SE Tech students

Gonna open a shop back home (Alex Friedrich / MPR)

The hallmark of SE Tech in Red Wing — that’s how we’re solving the naming problem here — is its focus on musical instruments.

Its programs in instrument repair and construction are among the few offered in this country, and they draw students from all over the globe.

Sounds very Old World. So why here? I haven’t heard of Red Wing as a music hub. (And so far, no one has been able to tell me.)

I step into Greg Beckwith’s band instrument repair class. It focuses on brass instruments, and I must say the room is more visually alive than a lot of other campus workshops I’ve seen.

That ring on the left? Not good. (Alex Friedrich / MPR News)

Students learn everything about their instruments, such as the manufacturing process, alloys, and the variances among manufacturers and models.

They may take apart and reassemble instruments, and Beckwith says he’ll subject instruments to various forms of damage — such as denting — and teach them how to fix it.

As a final project, he says, students have to take a damaged instrument and bring it back to working order.

He points to a collection of trumpet parts stacked near the door.

“We’ll find out which ones are still viable [after repair] and which ones need to be recycled,” he says.

I talk to Michael Armbrister, 19, from Nassau, Bahamas, who’s working on a trumpet. (When I catch him, he’s working on its tuning slide.)

He’s graduating from the 9-month program next week. After that he’ll learn some piano repair in St. Paul and head back home to open his own band-instrument repair shop.

Armbrister tells me he’s the son of a carpenter, and has grown up working with his hands. He played the trumpet back home, so repairing instruments is a great way to marry his love of music with hands-on work.

“It felt better than working on a car, tiling for doing electrical work,” he said. “And I’ll still be playing on the side.”

Apparently, he and many of his classmates should have a decent future.

Beckwith, whose own father started the band-instrument repair program in the mid-1970s, says the placement rate for graduates is 80-90 percent.

Most go on to independent repair shops or music stores, while others work for companies or school district band programs.

Those school programs account for the bulk of the business, Beckwith says, and many contract work out to repair shops.

“Every city, district, school has a school band,” he says. “Someone has to take care of their instruments.”

Recent graduates earn in the mid-$20,000 to low-$30,000 range annually, though $75,000 “is not unheard of” for experienced technicians who work on commission, Beckwith says.

“If you like to tinker,” he says, “it’s a great niche.”