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Q&A: String-instrument repairer low key, instrumental to musicians


Stringed-instrument repairer Jay R. Nagel, Potsdam. Mr. Nagel, a Watertown native, graduated as a trumpet major from SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music in 1967 and received a master’s degree in music education from Crane in 1968.

As an undergraduate, he enjoyed a work scholarship under the direction of Robert Mero, technical assistant to the dean. It’s where Mr. Nagel learned the basics of all types of instrument repair while studying to pursue a career as a school band director.

While an undergraduate, he met his future wife, Barbara, while she was in the process of purchasing an instrument from Kurt Brychta, a maker from Buffalo who frequented Crane School of Music. Mr. Nagel and Barbara developed a close relationship with Mr. Brychta, who, on his trips to Potsdam, would always have a new project or lesson in string or bow repair ready for Mr. Nagel.

Mr. Nagel’s first teaching job was as band director at Herman-Dekalb Central School. He was lured away two years later by Crane to be concert and tour manager. But he missed teaching and after a year ended up at Potsdam Central School in what was then an elementary/junior high band director position. It soon became the middle school director post, a job Mr. Nagel held for his career until retiring in 2001.

In his spare time, Mr. Nagel began repairing orchestral string instruments for students, instructors and for rentals at Northern Music and Video in Potsdam.

You noted you consider your repair work over the years as more of a public service than a business. Could you explain?

“I’ve done a lot of gratis or ‘pro bono’ work over the years for string programs when budgets have been exhausted or non-existent. With my wife having been the orchestra teacher at Massena Central School and daughter, Wendy, a professional cellist in the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker in Germany, I always felt the need to support and help maintain all the string programs in the area.”

How busy are you with stringed-instrument repairs these days?

“Not as busy as I used to be. But I enjoy the work on better instruments and do the quality work that gives me greater personal satisfaction.”

To what do you attribute the decline in repair requests?

“As time passed, my close association with the college changed with faculty turnover. Quite frankly, I kind of welcomed that relief as our children were approaching middle school age and my wife returned to the workforce after a nine-year break.

“At about the time I was retiring from public school teaching, Northern Music was undergoing a gradual changeover in ownership. It eventually resulted in them taking all their repairs to Syracuse where one of the new owners had previous ties. They may still call on me with the occasional emergency that can’t wait for the round-trip to Syracuse. I’m happy to help out.”

What is your most common repair?

“Bow re-hair — as the hair does wear out and start to break off the bow. Then, being a wood instrument, violins are subject to constant change with the seasons and often need seams glued, bridges adjusted or replaced and sound posts replaced. I also see a lot of ‘attic’ violins that great-grandpa owned and people now want to fix up for their child to play on.

“Attic violins are always worth looking at and occasionally one may be worth fixing up, but often I’ll encourage the family instead to purchase a good instrument from Northern Music. Their ‘Shen ‘ of instruments are an excellent line.

Is a stringed-instrument repairer hard to find in the north country?

“As far as I know, I’m still the only person in the area that does this type of work. If I see a problem with an instrument that I don’t feel I can repair just as well or better than the finest repair person, I send them to Tom Hosmer in Fayetteville or Ken Sullivan in Rochester. They are knowledgeable experts in restoration and excellent craftsmen. Ken visits Crane several times a year much the same way that Kurt Brychta did.”

Any tips about how people can keep their instruments in top shape?

“The most important thing is to check the bridge to make sure it is vertical and pull it back to position when it begins to tip. All bridges tend to tip toward the fingerboard with repeated tuning of the strings and they need to be pulled back to vertical to avoid warping. This one simple thing can extend the life of a bridge tremendously and avoid an otherwise unnecessary expense.

“Other than that, one should keep their instrument clean and free of rosin buildup by wiping down with a dry cloth and lubing their pegs whenever replacing a string.”

How do people find out about you?

“Mostly by word of mouth and seeing my ads to help support the Community Performance Series and the Orchestra of Northern New York. All the string teachers in the area know me.”

What other pastimes do you enjoy?

“Skiing and golf.”

(When Mr. Nagel retired from teaching, he pursued a lifelong ambition of becoming a “professional ski bum.” For eight years, he worked part-time at Whiteface Mountain and at the Potsdam Country Club pro shop.)

“I’m now fully retired from those obligations and am able to pay immediate attention to any instrument or bow that comes my way.

“I better get moving. I’ve got an order in from my wife to get her cello in shape for the upcoming wedding season. She plays in a string trio with two colleagues for local and destination weddings in the Thousand Islands during the summer.”

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Mr. Nagel and his wife Barbara have been married for 45 years. Besides daughter Wendy, they have a son, Eric, a 1995 graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, with a bachelor’s degree in marine transportation. He works for AET, a global leader in petroleum shipping, out of its London office.

Jay Nagel may be reached at 244-1143.

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