The Antique Maestro

Words by Isaac Ray Norris

Photos by Alyssa Hall

 

Music is a commonality in many of our lives, and sometimes it comes by way of family. Instruments are passed down to children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews. Pianos are purchased, practiced on, and eventually become family heirlooms

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For Bob Tedrow and his constituents at Homewood Music and Burns String Instrument Repair, music and its instruments are a livelihood. Here, the team repairs guitars, banjos, padded instruments like saxophones and clarinets, and even more odd instruments, like the concertina.

A concertina is a free-reed musical instrument, like an accordion or harmonica. It has bellows, and buttons typically on both ends of it. When pressed, the buttons travel in the same direction as the bellows, unlike accordion buttons, which travel perpendicularly to the bellows. The air moving through the bellows creates a vibration in the steel reed, thus creating its unique sound. Those little accordions you see cartoon pirates playing? Concertinas.

Bob has been working with the instrument for so long that he has become synonymous with it. He can spot one of his instruments at a glance, even predicting the year it was either repaired or created by him. 

A unique individual fascinated by the past, you’ll find Bob dressed the part, appearing as a mid-century tinkerer with sleeve protectors, small round glasses, and a white collar. The 1928 Model A sitting outside his shop completes his aesthetic. His attention to detail is expressed through his uniform, whether he knows it or not, and can be found in each instrument he touches.

This respect and admiration for the past was instilled within Bob at an early age, as his grandparents were influential figures in his life. “My grandparents lived in the same community, across the street from each other in Pennsylvania. One set of grandparents were optometrists, artists, musicians, and drove sports cars. The other set of grandparents were drillers for oil.” 

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Because of his father’s job, Bob was moved all over the country, but it was thanks to his eccentric sports-car-driving grandmother that he got into music. “I went to college in Colorado, and somehow I fell in with a bunch of musicians. Before that I had a banjo that belonged to my grandmother, and I picked around on that and eventually taught myself how to play. I was basically playing banjo with a bunch of hippies in the mountains of Colorado.”

Not too long after that, Bob went to school for occupational therapy. That career path led him to a psychiatric hospital in North Carolina. This specific hospital had various activities for patients, and eventually Bob taught himself pottery, woodworking, and leather work.

Bob and his family moved again, this time for his wife. She wanted to go to law school in Birmingham, Alabama. “This was around 30 years ago, and at that time no one was repairing instruments, so I was hired by nearly all of the local pawn shops and high schools to repair their instruments.”
 

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One day while he was in the shop, someone brought in a concertina for Bob to repair. He was familiar with the instrument, due to its oddity, but was unfamiliar with its inner workings. All the skills he learned at his old job in the psychiatric hospital, mainly leatherwork and woodworking, came to his mind. “I started taking it apart just to figure it out, and then I decided to learn how to make one myself. I wanted to create something that would garner world acclaim. It took me about 10 years to figure everything out and actually make a great concertina.”

An early adopter of the internet, and later of all things mobile, he became a source for other interested crafters. “I would subscribe to these magazines and talk to people about the instrument. And then the internet happened,” he says. “I started to use it to find out information about concertinas, and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t the first thing to pop up when you searched for them.”

Bob’s story is marked by his drive to discover. To reach into something, pull it apart, and figure out what makes it tick, or rather, what makes it sing. For Bob, it takes “a certain type of person that enjoys doing something that doesn’t make a lot of money. It takes a kind of obsession and inquisitiveness about something that’s larger than yourself.”