Careers in Music – Instrument Repair Technician

13th April 2023

This is the first in our new series of blogs profiling various careers in the Music Industry. First up we are joined by our own Sunniva Hellerud who is a specialist Woodwind & Brass Repair Technician here at Dawkes Music.

Sunniva’s story is inspirational for anyone who wants to explore a career in the exciting line of musical instrument making and repairs.

Q: Before we get into your journey into the Music Industry can you please explain your current role at Dawkes Music?

A: I mainly work in our new Trade Workshop Department. I repair Woodwind and Brass instruments, but I also work closely with our Trade customers to offer support when finding tools, parts, materials as well as offer training.

I run repair courses for musicians and other repairers and work in product development to find new and exciting items for our customers. For example, I was heavily involved in the development of the new V-Pads we’ve launched which are premium-quality Vegan Saxophone pads.

Q: What was your first experience with music/instrumental tuition?

A: I started playing Flute when I was six or seven years old and took lessons through my childhood in my native Norway. I played in wind bands for many years and always enjoyed the social environment and creative output that came with playing.

When the time came to choose a career I first thought of pursuing Flute playing professionally. However, the high competition and lack of jobs made me look for an alternative career. I wanted something that still gave me the joy of playing and the social benefits of music.

Q: When did you decide you wanted to explore Musical Instrument Making/Repairing?

A: I was studying Classical Flute at Toneheim Folkehøgskole and during a particularly vigorous practice session, a spring came off my flute. I heard it ping off and saw the impact it had on the mechanism and after some fiddling around I managed to repair it myself. It was a bit of an “aha-moment”, as I realised at that very moment that this was the career for me.

My mother being an artist has taught me the love of creativity and the arts, while my father’s work in engineering has influenced me to be very technically minded. Instrument repair sat so comfortably between the two, making it the perfect choice for my type of personality. You work with beautifully intricate instruments, and you get to mend something broken every day. You also get to work with some of the most passionate and creative people out there.

Q: How was your experience at Newark College?

A: It was awe inspiring to meet such a vibrant community of young and old makers from all over the world – all in this little market town on the Trent!

I moved to the UK to attend the course at Newark College and straight away I felt at home amongst a large group of people that had all done the same as me. People came from all over Europe to study on these unique and prestigious courses. Music was everywhere and the town was full of dedicated musicians, makers and repairers. 

It was such a great environment to learn in and I made connections and friendships I still have to this day. In fact, I even met my now husband amongst the Piano course students! The Woodwind course dives deep to teach both engineering, instrument making and repair. I can testify that it is incredibly satisfying to design and make a tool you will use every day from that moment onwards.

I still use the tools I made in the first year of Newark, and they have served me well. I studied Flute making and of course re-padded my fair share of instruments in the three year long course. Newark was an invaluable foundation to start my career on. Attending the course was the best choice I ever made.

Q: How was the transition to working at a busy retail workshop like Dawkes?

A: The change was an exhilarating shock, but the team was so welcoming and supportive I felt completely at ease. The high pace environment and the many customer interactions felt daunting at first. However, seeing the workshop and shop staff’s dedication to high quality support was so motivating.

I particularly fell in love with working so closely with customers. It was great to see how appreciative people are when you fix their instrument. I was trained here by Abi Taylor to take on Brass repairs who with the rest of the team really took me in and made me feel part of the family. We’ve had so many years of fun and I love the teamwork we have in the Dawkes Workshop.

Q: What do you find most enjoyable about working as a Repair Technician?

A: The feeling of really helping people is immense: restorations of heirloom instruments, emergency fixes before a big gig or exam, or being able to get someone playing again after struggling with a fault. Musicians love to play and helping them play even better is a fantastic feeling.

I also get to connect with other repairers and musicians. We have a great community of like-minded people of all ages. This role has allowed me to travel and to inspire new repairers through our courses and one-to-one training sessions.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of the job?

A: The biggest challenge is facing the required self-doubt you need to be able to grow as a repairer. You never stop learning in this job. Even after 3 years at Newark College I was still a beginner, and had many years of doubting my skill. I would patiently check and re-check my work to try to find places to improve.

Even now, 12 years after starting at Newark, I’m always learning to constantly become a better repairer. It’s a challenging and even humbling job at times, but the joy it brings is tenfold.

Q: Any advice for aspiring Woodwind or Brass Repairers?

A: Get involved! You must start somewhere and there’s a community out there waiting for you. There’s a National Association for Musical Instrument Repairers who offer trade support and meetings for Repairers. Here at Dawkes we host a series of ‘Getting To Know Your Instrument’ 1-day courses for complete beginners. We strive to offer support and advice on tools, parts and materials for repairers of all levels.

We also work closely with Newark College to offer work experience, job opportunities and further support for repairers graduating from their courses. Attending the course at Newark full-time is by far the best way into this trade as it gives you a solid start and a strong network. If you’re not sure you want to take the leap yet, getting started with a beginner’s course is a good start.

Q: What would you like to achieve in the Music Industry going forwards?

A: The few training opportunities for repair and making that are left need support and visibility. Repairers who are just starting out need support to successfully join the trade. Here at Dawkes we try to do this in several ways:

  1. By supporting each Newark student with credit towards tools and materials
  2. We offer advice, training, and support to active repairers
  3. We try to inspire new repairers to join the trade

Personally I hope I can leave this trade knowing it is still thriving. The relationship between education, technicians and musicians is vital for a successful musical eco-system. I hope more visibility, communication, and projects between all parties can help support each other accordingly.