The Beat Goes On--With Proper Maintenance

Mark Vandermark makes adjustments to a 1929 Buescher saxophone. Credit: Sarah Eddington
Mark Vandermark makes adjustments to a 1929 Buescher saxophone. Credit: Sarah Eddington

By Sarah Eddington | LSU Student

At first glance, Mark Vandermark's office resembles a typical tool shed. Apart from a John Belushi Animal House poster, however, not many could recognize most of the tools hanging on the walls.

Vandermark has been a musical instrument repair technician in the LSU Department of Bands for the past three years where he oversees maintenance of more than 800 instruments for the LSU School of Music, including the Tiger Marching Band.

"I'm responsible for making sure all the instruments are up and running," Vandermark said. "My main function is to keep Tiger Band going."

On any given Friday or Saturday preceding a home game, Vandermark will have a dozen panicked Tiger Band players flood into his office needing a quick repair before the game.

"I basically know what they're going to need before they get here. My job is to anticipate, because they are going to be wanting something in a hurry."

Vandermark doesn't mind the last-minute work because, he says, he's a bit of a perfectionist. "Students procrastinate getting their instruments tweaked, and I don't want to see any dents in their horns on TV. That (ticks) me off."

Vandermark has been repairing and restoring instruments for the past 30 years. His work has ranged from simple chemical cleans and dent repairs to complete instrument restorations.

Vandermark's passion for music started while growing up in the town of State College, Penn. , home of another football power, Penn State.

"I knew I was going to be in the music industry since the eighth grade," says the 54-year-old Vandermark, "I've never done anything else but this."

Growing up, he played a number of instruments, beginning with the trumpet in fourth grade and eventually adding the saxophone, his favorite instrument. He also plays the trombone and euphonium.

Vandermark's zeal for music continued in college where he played the bass trombone in the Penn State Blue Band while secretly hitchhiking two hours to Pittsburgh for trombone lessons from a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Vandermark said he has frequently played for hire over the years, including gigs with the Climax Blues Band and The Beach Boys. Vandermark and his band at the time, The Fabulous Classics, opened up for The Beach Boys at the Ritz-Carlton in Maui.

"They kind of ignored us a bit while we were all hanging out in the back room before the show, but after we played our first set, we showed them we could hang. We had rehearsed big time, and when we first came out, I think they were kind of intimidated. They even asked us to play the whole last set with them."

After getting caught in the crossfire of a bar fight during a performance in Pennsylvania, Vandermark said he was knocked over and his trombone smashed. "I took it to the local repair man and he fixed it, but I knew it could be better. I didn't know how, but I wanted to learn."

So Vandermark, then 19, enrolled in an instrument repair course at Western Iowa Technical College. It was the first time he had seen what went into repairing an instrument, and it wasn't pretty.

"It was hard at first. Watching the teacher work the instrument is like watching your kid get its first tooth pulled. It's like your baby."

Over the years, Vandermark said he worked in various music stores, but in 1987 he opened his own brass and saxophone repair shop in Pass Christian, Miss., where he worked for eight years, gaining some regional notoriety.

While the average repair takes around two to four hours, Vandermark said he spent more than 100 hours restoring one memorable saxophone that had been run over by a car.

"There really isn't anything I can't fix. If the damage is bad enough, I can use the best parts of the instrument to build a new one."

Vandermak said the owner of the saxophone was from California who had gone to a number of repair shops. "They all told him it was not reparable," he said. "Someone apparently mentioned my name and he brought it to me. There's a small group of people that do what I do, which is complete restoration."

While at LSU, Vandermark said he no longer takes on outside work, with the exception of repairs for anyone associated with LSU. "This is a rare job. There are maybe 10 other universities that have their own technician on staff."

Vandermark said one of his former apprentices told him about the job opening at LSU in 2007, telling him it was perfect for him. At the time, Vandermark was working at a music shop in Florida, which is where he had relocated after Hurricane Katrina.

Vandermark said he jumped at the chance to return to "the South."

"Florida isn't really the South. I took the job at LSU because I liked southern culture and largely because my wife and I love to fish."

Vandermark is the third instrument repair technician in LSU history, the first being James Geideman, who worked from 1946 until 1979. He was followed by Roger Wattam, who worked from 1979 until 2007, according to Linda Saucier, the Band Department secretary.

Roy King, director of the LSU Tiger Marching Band, who was on the committee that hired Vandermark. said it was the first time the school issued a special test to assess potential employees.

One portion of the test required the candidates to solve a pre-determined problem for a given instrument, one of which was a piccolo that was said to be out of tune.

"Mark was the only candidate who noticed that the piccolo was a very old model, and older models were set in D-flat. Modern piccolos are normally all in the key of C."

King said Vandermark is a vital asset to the School of Music.

"Not only is he fixing the instruments and getting them ready to use when needed, but he is also maintaining them so they last a long time, meaning you won't have to buy new ones as often."

Vandermark currently teaches instrument repair and maintenance classes for undergraduates at LSU. "I teach them how to diagnose the problem and then figure out how to fix it. I teach them how to think like a craftsmen."

Amy Bernloehr, music education senior from Orlando, Fla., is currently enrolled in the independent study class, a class she entered with no knowledge of tools but is now restoring a 1929 Buescher saxophone.

"Taking an instrument apart helps you get a better understanding of how it works," she said. "It's been really awesome having someone with such insight into the repair field and seeing how quickly he can do everything. He's just a cool guy."