Katy Hopkins, owner of Yahara River Woodwinds, looks at the instruments she repairs as “puzzles.”
Each woodwind that clients bring to Hopkins’ home has its own tale, she said, and each requires the level of care and effort a puzzle would.
Hopkins goes so far as to see instruments as a musician’s child because they “have a very close relationship with their instrument.”
She started Yahara River Woodwinds, located on Prospect Street, in October 2019. Upon thinking of what to call her repair business that she operates out of her basement, Hopkins recalled sitting on her back porch, which overlooks the Yahara River.
“I wanted something that would be memorable,” she said.
And so Hopkins built quite the clientele base before COVID-19 took hold, with her customer base comprising musicians from around Dane County. Before then, Hopkins lived in Memphis, Tennessee, where she was simultaneously a middle school and college music educator. She’s been certified to repair woodwind instruments, like flutes, bassoons and oboes, since the 1980s.
Hopkins said she was starting to feel burnt out from teaching, and when she relocated to Wisconsin last summer, she decided to explore the option of repairing woodwinds full time.
Her business came to a screeching halt in March; however, as her clients weren’t doing performances due to the pandemic — or finding there was money available to pay for woodwind repairs.
In that, Hopkins saw another puzzle to solve.
She started making masks for her family and friends, selling them online to supplement for lost income. Soon, fellow musicians took notice of her efforts.
“I was getting lots of requests from (them) asking if I had thought of making masks they can use while playing their instrument,” Hopkins said.
So she got to work designing custom masks for those who play woodwinds, brass and flutes.
In a month, Hopkins conceptualized three mask prototypes, which she sent to the musicians in return for their feedback. It took several more months of obtaining their input to perfect each mask’s fit and fabric, Hopkins said. And each instrument came with challenges each mask had to remedy.
For example, fragile reeds on woodwind instruments can break if they encounter fabric, Hopkins said.
Even more difficult is how flautists blow down over their instrument, which sends their breath into the room or space they are playing in. To solve that problem, Hopkins’ flute mask has a mechanism to contain that air.
She has still been able to repair woodwind instruments — just with social distancing protocols in place.
Before COVID-19, clients would meet Hopkins in her space to demonstrate what’s wrong with their instrument, they now have to let her know in advance either on her website or over the phone. Then, clients drop their instrument off and wait in the car while Hopkins resolves the problem.
Once Hopkins is finished with the repair, the client will test the instrument in their vehicle, and repeat the process if necessary.
Hopkins said her most common repair involves the pads all woodwind instruments have under the metal keys to keep holes closed as they play.
“They cover the tone holes which is where the musician blows into the instrument,” she said. “The pads wear out as time goes on.”
Often, Hopkins said the musician will blame themselves if their instrument doesn’t sound right. They are always overjoyed to find the problem had nothing to do with a lack of talent. It’s what she finds the most invigorating about each repair — each puzzle.
“Their eyes get really big,” she said, “They go, ‘This is wonderful it’s not me.’”