Clarence Wood — “Woody” to his friends — wasn’t sure he was up to the job last summer when a fellow musician came by with ayoung student and a special request.
Ten-year-old Abby Geiseke wanted to learn to play the flute. Because she was born without a left hand, any instrument she playedwould need alterations.
Wood was skeptical.
“I’d never seen it done,” said the 88-year-old repair technician. “But she was insistent, so I told her, ‘I’m going to try to help.’”
After World War II, Wood majored in music at the University of North Texas (called North Texas State College then) and had planned on being a band director until he completed his student teaching.
After realizing that job wasn’t for him, he headed up to Elkhart, Ind., to the Conn music instrument factory. He spent a year learning how to repair instruments and came back to Texas and opened a shop with a friend in Texas City.
Ten years later, he closed that shop and moved to Shreveport, La. — where he worked as an instrument repair technician for therest of his career — not counting several months in Jackson, Miss., where the family lived briefly.
Over the years, he’s worked on thousands of instruments, and often found himself as the go-to guy when repairs by otherswent bad, Wood said.
He still repairs instruments in his shop on Bolivar Street. Occasionally, he takes an old clarinet or flute and turns it into atable lamp.
But altering a flute for Abby, who could only operate two keys with the end of her left arm, would take some work.
Wood started by designing a stand that could hold the flute. Another musician friend donated a high-rise cymbal stand that would be the base. Its built-in swivel could help position the flute to fit Abby’s embouchure. Wood picked up some steel at the hardware store and bent it to make the frame. Then he added two clamps originally made for holding garden tools to hold the flute.
He took one of his old flutes and made some alterations that he thought would work. But after playing it, he realized they probably wouldn’t.
“I had to make it simpler,” Wood said.
Repositioning the holes that change the notes wasn’t an option, that would change the instrument’s tuning. But he could reconfigure the keys that cover the holes. He cannibalized a few long trillkeys from an old clarinet and added them to two keys.
Some keys that would normally be left open he closed. That change only requires Abby to move her fingers one-eighth inch,which Wood said wouldn’t hamper her technique as she continued her studies.
Accomplished flute players can fly up and down the scale, note by note, or in leaps and bounds, at blazing speeds. The alterations to Abby’s flute don’t change that part of the instrument’s capability.
The only thing that was changed, besides the fingerings on all but four notes, was the range. A typical flute can play about a 36-note range. The alterations cost Abby’s flute the four highest notes.
Usually, composers hand those high notes off to the piccolo, so the typical middle school or high school student isn’t playing them anyway, Wood said.
The entire project took most of the summer. Wood was two weeks into the school year before he finally finished the flute and thecustom fingering chart.
Ann Macmillan, who leads the music repair shop at the University of North Texas, said she’s made some alterations on woodwind instruments over the years, including work on a saxophone and a flute for students who were missing part of a finger.
But nothing on the scale that Wood has done.
“It’s pretty extraordinary,” MacMillan said.
Usually, music teachers steer students toward brassinstruments when they don’t have the full use of both hands, MacMillansaid.
David Nabb, a UNT graduate who teaches saxophone at the University of Nebraska Kearney, made the study of adapting woodwind instruments part of his academic life after he suffered a devastating stroke at age 37.
The stroke affected the entire left side of his body. About three years into his recovery, he had a new instrument, thanks to a collaboration with a music repair technician who wanted to help him.
Altering instruments isn’t new, Nabb said. Someone altered a flute for a member of Napoleon’s army after cannon fire cost that soldier both a leg and an arm. A well-known professional flautist in Hungary plays with a flute altered for her by a music repairman in Amsterdam.
“Listening to her play, you wouldn’t know it was any different,” Nabb said.
But the alterations take hundreds of hours to makeand, as a result, can be prohibitively expensive, if the technician is to befairly compensated for his or her time.
Wood did the work for Abby for free. Nabb was able to pay his repairman for some of the work with vocational rehabilitation money. But he estimates that it was probably less than half of what it should have been.
Still, Nabb said he believes that people with disabilities should be able to play the instrument they want to play.
All the qualities that make music beneficial for people — self-expression, a sense of community and spiritual uplifting — stillmatter to people with disabilities.
“People with disabilities can appreciate all that,too, and perhaps take advantage of it even more,” Nabb said.
He and the technician who helped him, Jeff Stelling, work with others with disabilities who want instruments adapted to their needs. They worked with a teenage girl who was learning to play the clarinet when a skiing accident cost her the use of an arm. She tried to play the euphonium for a while, Nabb said, but now she is playing saxophone.
Wood’s daughter, Christie Wood, said since word gotout about Abby’s flute, they’ve heard from people with many different kinds of disabilities from all over the country.
A flute player herself, she thinks alterations to flutes and saxophones are less difficult because all the holes are covered with keys. She wonders whether it would even be possible to adapt clarinets, oboes and bassoons, since those instruments have some holes in the wood that must be opened and closed with a finger.
Woody Wood says he’ll never adapt another flute,but he doesn’t want to own the plans, either.
“It’s all in the public domain,” he said.
Christie Wood put her dad’s schematics for the flute up on her website to make it easy for all the people who want to know more.
MacMillan said the information is going around music repair forums, too.
But Nabb doubts there ever will be enough demandfor one-handed instruments that they will ever be mass-produced. Most of thetime, the technician needs to take into account the musician’s physical capabilities anyway.
“It really is a collaboration,” Nabb said.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.