This last tends to happen gradually, so that while playing you don't really notice that you're having to work increasingly harder to get notes to pop out. But after about ten years, other, more catastrophic things start happening, the scariest of which is the dreaded "popped spring," wherein the springs that open or close tone-hole pads corrode and break. This always seems to happen either during or right before a gig, requiring panicked, emergency repairs in the middle of dark, noisy nightclubs. If you've ever seen someone playing a saxophone with rubber bands on it, that's what's happened. It can be extremely hard on the nerves.
Eventually, stuff starts breaking faster than you can reasonably expect to get it fixed in the normal, bi-annual maintainance visits to your repairman. Every professional saxophonists needs a working relationship with a good repairman. The normal, music-store-based servicing won't do, because those stores do the bulk of their business repairing school instruments. If you try to get work done at the wrong time of the year, you can wind up in line behind 20 or 30 high school horns, and it can take the guy a week to get to you. You need a cat you can call for those last minute "horn emergencies," one who'll drop the other, less urgent jobs he's got on the go and put your horn up on the bell mandrell, fix it up, and get you on the way to your gig. I used to use a guy in Mid-City named Paulo Tung, but he moved to Oakland CA. The last couple of years, I've used a German guy, Martin Kruschke, a very good saxophonist in his own right, who works out of his house in the 9th Ward.
Poor Martin was getting a little tired of my panicked calls to fix broken springs and bad pads, I think, and last fall suggested it was time for an overhaul. I started putting money aside (an overhaul is a significant expense) figuring I'd have enough by March or so, but stuff just started crapping out willy nilly, and last week, after having the same spring break on me, twice, right before a hit, I asked Martin if he'd be able to take on the job.
An overhaul involves stripping everything off the horn; keys, levers, corks, pads, rods, springs, everything...labelling all the parts, then soaking the naked tube in a stripper bath to take off the years of accumulated gunk that's collected on the horn. Then all the old pads are stripped out of the tone hole cups, the cups are cleaned, and new pads and resonators are inserted. All springs, felts and corks are replaced, everything is put back together and adjusted, and the whole process takes about three or four days. Because I had at least three gigs scheduled over that time, pianist Mike Terragano very kindly offered to lend me a student-model Yamaha tenor from his teaching gig, to get me through those jobs.
Now some people can pick up pretty much any horn and play it, no problem. Joe Lovano, for instance, is known to switch back and forth between the several vintage tenors he owns, some with radically different keywork setups, and it's no problem at all. His mind just makes the adjustment, and he plays.
I'm not like that at all. One time, about two overhauls ago, I even borrowed another King Super 20 (that's the model of my tenor) from my pal Gordie Bertram, and I had trouble playing that, because the springs weren't broken in the same as on my horn, and Gordie's fingers had worn down the pearl buttons on the keys in a different way than mine. That's how finicky I am. And this Yamaha had stuff in way different setups than mine. I spent the first three sets on the first night's gig floundering around, missing keys, or hitting stuff by accident. Yamaha has a way of setting up the octave key that just drives me nuts, where it's higher than the thumb post. I like mine level with the thumb post (everybody who's not a saxophonist is doubtless rolling their eyes by now). Worst of all, the high "F" key opened too wide, totally destabilizing the altissimo register above that note. No big deal for beginners, who can't play up there anyway, but a real drag for me on that gig, which involved a lot of showboating holding high notes to juice up the tip jar. I was reduced to finding other ways to be a flash bastard besides playing high notes.
By the end of the second night's gig, I was getting much more comfortable with the horn. Now I was starting to worry that my own horn would feel funny when I got it back (I know, I'm obsessive). Monday evening, I got a text from Martin: "John. Your horn is ready."
On my gig tuesday night, the horn did feel strange, but good strange. Low notes I'd had to labor to produce now popped out of the horn effortlessly, and the overall responsiveness and playability was amazing. I vaguely remembered this from overhauls past, the feeling is like wearing those basketball practise shoes with lead weights, then suddenly switching to sneakers; you feel light as a feather, like you could jump ten feet. The only wrinkle was the altissimo register, the high "F" needs to be lowered just a crack more to make those notes truly stable. But like all good repairmen, Martin offers free adjustments in the two weeks or so after the overhaul, because things tend to settle, and pads and corks compress, requiring some minor tweaking.
We're currently in a small lull between last weekends Superbowl crowds and next weekend's Mardi Gras madness. It's made for some interesting gigging, which I'll write about after the smoke clears.