2024 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

Oscar winner “The Last Repair Shop” explores the costs of repairing musical instruments

Ellen Rolfes Mar 11, 2024
Heard on:
Courtesy Searchlight Pictures
2024 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

Oscar winner “The Last Repair Shop” explores the costs of repairing musical instruments

Ellen Rolfes Mar 11, 2024
Heard on:
Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

We’re watching Oscar-nominated documentary shorts in March. This week: “The Last Repair Shop,” which focuses on the people who work behind the scenes to maintain the 140,000 musical instruments owned by Los Angeles Unified School District public schools. The trailer and the full, 39-minute film are available to stream on YouTube for free. 

Funding for music and arts education has been declining for decades, forcing many schools to make do with less or shut down their programs altogether. 

Even in California, where arts education is mandatory from kindergarten through high school, music education has faltered. Journalist Louis Freedberg wrote last year that the state’s programs were “dying a slow death in many schools, strangled by budget cuts amid an ongoing emphasis on core subjects like reading and math and [on] test scores as the measure of student success.” 

It’s why the Los Angeles Unified School District’s music program stands out. The district offers its more than 500,000 students, regardless of their family’s income, a school-owned instrument for free. That’s not easy, or cheap. And it’s the subject of “The Last Repair Shop,” which on Sunday won the Oscar for best documentary short

“I don’t accept the thing that people say, ‘We will try to do our best.’ No, we do our best. Always, no matter what,” Steve Bagmanyan, a piano technician by trade who works for the LAUSD, told Marketplace. 

Bagmanyan oversees the musical instrument repair department run by the school district and covered in the documentary. The film mixes scenes of meticulous craft with interviews with employees at the shop and public school students whose music education benefited from the tune-ups, adjustments and repairs. 

Bagmanyan said parents would tell him after screenings in L.A. that they had no idea who had repaired their kid’s instruments or how it was done. 

“Parents and taxpayers should really see who is taking care of their schools that their kids are going to, what’s done, how it’s done, how well their tax money is spent,” Bagmanyan said. “We just had a lady donate a [broken] harp, the first one in the district, and then we learned that there is this girl in high school that wants to learn to play.” 

“Our [district’s] mill helped us with building the harp, fixing it, repairing it, building a dolly for it. We’re going to string it soon and it’s going to go to that girl. So yeah, all these people helping us to help kids. It’s amazing.” 

Los Angeles has one of the last remaining public school systems to operate its own repair shop in-house and provide free repairs for the 140,000 school-owned instruments. Bagmanyan said his department fixes between 3,500 and 7,000 instruments annually, depending on the year. 

Without dedicated, funded repair programs, many schools in the U.S. delay or forgo fixing their instruments. Music for Everyone, a nonprofit in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, that has purchased over 14,000 instruments for the community since 2006, began a repair program to support the county’s public school music programs after receiving an influx of grant requests for repairs. 

“A teacher friend of mine, I asked her, ‘What’s going on? We’re getting a lot of repair requests,’” said Brendan Stengle, assistant executive director for Music for Everyone. “She took me to the back of her car, opened her trunk, and there were pieces of saxophones and toolkits.” 

“She said, ‘I’m not unique in this. The only way with my current budget that any of my instruments get fixed is if I [watch instructional videos] on YouTube and try to figure this out myself.’”

Music for Everyone has worked with schools in the county to create a catalog of all their instruments and their conditions. Through this process, the organization also paid to repair between 75% and 85% of each school’s damaged inventory, a total of 600 to 800 instruments across the county. Doing these kinds of schoolwide overhauls lead to fewer repair requests as well, Stengle said. 

Unlike LAUSD, Music for Everyone doesn’t have its own repair technicians; it contracts private vendors to do the work, but aggregates all schools’ repairs together to negotiate lower prices per repair than one school could secure on its own. 

What to know before buying or renting an instrument 

Instruments are expensive, costing several hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars each. While schools typically don’t expect students to buy large instruments like a marimba or a bassoon, many families are expected to provide smaller ones. Decent-quality violins, the cheapest instrument to acquire, start at about $600. A beginner saxophone costs $1,000 or more. Buying used or inheriting an instrument from family or friends can save money, but that depends on its condition. 

“If you’re given a violin from somebody else who hasn’t used it in a while, it’s going to need new strings, it’s going to need a new bridge, it’s going to need to be cleaned,” said Ron Beaudoin, CEO of National Educational Music Co., which sells and rents educator-approved instruments. “There might be a crack or two that needs to be adjusted or closed. [Service costs] about $100 if the instrument is in solid condition.” 

Repairing saxophones and other higher-maintenance instruments, Beaudoin said, can cost $150 for a basic service and $700 to completely disassemble it and replace worn-out parts. 

“That becomes less of a good deal than you might have thought,” said Beaudoin. 

That’s why Bagmanyan prioritizes educating teachers and students about what distinguishes quality instruments from cheaper ones made by “no name” brands. He estimates about 95% of instruments are now manufactured in China, many in factories that quickly discontinue models and don’t make replacement parts. It’s also extremely difficult to judge quality based on looks or brand alone. 

“You can invest in a quality beginner alto saxophone, like Yamaha, [which costs] $1,500 and will keep playing for decades and also hold its value. Or you can buy another alto saxophone that looks exactly the same — beautiful, shiny, comes with a beautiful case — for $300,” said Bagmanyan. “But when the springs or keys start breaking and you need to replace them, you [can’t fix it]. You can’t take a Yamaha key and put it on whatever instrument.” 

You shouldn’t buy solely based on brand either, Bagmanyan said. Many once-great American names have been sold and slapped on cheaper, low-quality instruments. 

“The instrument doesn’t have to be brand new or top of the line or expensive. But what’s important is the instrument must have the right tone and the right touch. So, when beginners, especially kids, begin playing that instrument, they don’t hate it,” Bagmanyan said. 

That’s also why Bagmanyan says he discourages parents from buying electric keyboards. Cheaper models have smaller keys and unweighted keys that are very different from the pianos students might play at school or during lessons. 

While the LAUSD repair shop doesn’t buy instruments, it does maintain and update a list of instrument recommendations based on quality, tone and repairability. 

“We know schools have very limited funds or limited budgets. If they spend that budget on the quantities instead of quality, it becomes a problem,” Bagmanyan said. His repair shop deems any instrument with damage that costs more than 50% of its original value to be “beyond economic repair.” Others can’t be repaired because parts aren’t available. 

“You can basically have an instrument that is brand new, but it’s worthless. You can’t do anything to it,” he said. 

If the upfront cost is too high, renting can save parents money while they work toward a purchase. Violins are typically the cheapest rental at $30 to $40 per month, and saxophones tend to be more expensive, $60 to $70 per month. 

Many rental companies include the cost of insurance and repair services in the monthly fee, and renters can usually apply a portion of their payments to purchasing their instrument in the future. 

Whether parents choose to rent or buy, NEMC CEO Ron Beaudoin recommends that they avoid trying to become experts overnight and instead seek advice from their child’s teacher, a local music store or a reputable company before selecting a specific instrument model. Above all, he said, parents should let their kid pick the instrument. 

“The one they’re most passionate about is [the one they] have the greatest chance of succeeding on,” he said.

When your barber is also your banker 

Miss last week’s newsletter? Take a listen to David Brancaccio’s interview with Arlo Washington, who set up a community development financial institution in Little Rock, Arkansas, to help unbanked and underserved neighborhoods. His story is the focus of the short film “The Barber of Little Rock.” 

Looking ahead 

Next week we’ll explore the economics of book bans with “The ABCs of Book Banning,” which is available to stream on Paramount+, with a subscription. 

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