The Music Man
Jim Varno of Varno Musical Instrument Repair is back in the business of helping the music makers of southeastern North Carolina.
Hurricane Florence dealt Jim Varno a disastrous blow to his home and business but it did not dampen his spirit for what he loves to do.
The owner of Varno Musical Instrument Repair in Leland, Varno is happy to be back in business in the middle of what he calls his busy “summer blitz.” Before school begins is a bustling season for many, and it’s no exception for Varno. He is an instrument repair technician putting smiles on students’ faces by getting their beloved band instruments in tip-top condition.
For the past 11 years, Varno Musical Instrument Repair has focused on doing quality work for musicians, private music teachers and many school systems, including those in Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties. He repairs woodwind, brass and stringed instruments using up-to-date technology and specialized tools.
Throughout the school year Varno can be found in the band rooms meeting with band directors every week, and he even volunteers to set up a mobile shop during band competitions. He can prepare 50 to 60 instruments a week to meet play condition.
“However, something like a repair on a 1925 Grand Rapids Trombone will take time,” he says. “Quality work can’t be rushed. Quality is job number one.”
Varno does most of the repair work himself, but at times he brings in other workers, many of whom are apprentices from local schools and focused on going into music education.
“I love people,” Varno says. “Speaking to the guy that is doing the work on your instruments says a lot to the customer and helps build relationships.”
Varno has a long successful history in hands-on instrument repair and management. He’s repaired instruments for the likes of Smokey Robinson, Yes, Boston, The Miracles, the New York Philharmonic and many other famous entertainers. His name is even listed in the credits on the Aerosmith album Get a Grip.
When asked about the most unique instrument brought in for him to repair during his almost 40-year career, he takes time to ponder the question before responding: “I’d have to say it was an original 200-year-old English claghorn. A man brings it in and says, ‘Can you fix it?’ and I say, ‘What is it?”
Varno grew up in the Beatles era and by the age of 7 dreamed about becoming a rock star. He learned how to play guitar from his older brothers and listening to records.
“I learned that if you played a 33 rpm record at 16 rpm, it took things down an octave and then I could pick up the notes that way,” he says.
As a teen, his early childhood aspirations of becoming a rock star hadn’t changed, but his mother encouraged him to learn a trade instead. He started to take shop classes like metal working.
“I liked avocations,” he says. “I liked music and could play guitar so I thought I’d give instrument repair a shot.”
In this business it’s a must to be skilled at test playing all the instruments that one repairs.
“At the time, I didn’t know a clarinet from a tuba,” he says.
But for a musician who played by ear and had relative pitch, he soon learned.
“Ears let you cheat,” he adds, “so I had to learn how to read music.”
He attended State University of New York at Morrisville and in 1979 graduated with an AAS degree in Musical Instrument Technology. Out of college, a repairman from Illinois took him under his wing. Making $3.15 an hour, he learned more about the trade and the safety aspects that went with it. From there he spent more than a decade in New Hampshire working for one of the largest repair facilities in the country at that time, Daddy’s Junky Music Store.
“I started out doing band repair,” Varno says. “The owner took a liking to me, and I became a manager in service repair.”
While he was there, the facility was nominated for Best Repair Facility in the Country by Music and Sound Retailer Magazine.
Moving back to New York, he spent five years as the only technician at Music Land USA. After some time, he and his wife, Joan, decided that they wanted to “get out of dodge,” so they planned a trip to Wilmington, North Carolina. During their travels, they stopped in Fayetteville to talk to a family-owned business with 33 music stores called McFadyen Music Company.
“They liked me, and I liked what I saw,” Varno says.
They offered him a position but told him the job wasn’t in Fayetteville.
“They told me the job was in Wilmington, and I said, ‘Well, that’s where we were going!’”
After doing repairs, Varno jumped to managing all 33 of McFadyen’s facilities. A company called Brooke Mays eventually bought out McFadyen and after a while started to downsize. When that happened, they let Varno go. “It was devastating to me,” he says.
Unsure what to do, he started working at Ace Hardware. But his wife suggested he start his own repair business. “It was daunting, but then I started thinking, ‘I know how to do this’. As the saying goes, it’s better to fail trying than not try at all.”
What was previously planned to be Varno’s garage man cave was redesigned as his instrument repair shop. Once McFadyen’s closed, Varno found himself one of the only repair shops in the area. He became busy right away. “New Hanover County Schools came knocking on my door,” he says. “I was extremely blessed.”
Starting the business took a lot of work, but Varno says he would never go back to working for someone else. “Once you’re forced into the pool and dive in, the water is warm.”
Fast forward to September 2018, and in a bat of an eye, Hurricane Florence made it so that he’d have to build his shop all over again. Looking at his neat and orderly shop now, it’s difficult to imagine the damage. But it’s been a long road.
In preparation before the storm, he gave all the instruments that he had back to their respective owners. “I thought the school instruments would be a lot safer behind cinder block.”
The Varnos stayed during the storm, and shortly into it the winds severely damaged their home’s roof, bringing in rain for three days. Varno drilled three holes in his shop ceiling and grabbed a plastic tote and continuously poured water down the drain. After the storm, their home and his attached shop had to be gutted down to the studs, and they were forced to live with in-laws for months. He soon noticed that his highly polished hard-steel instrument tools started to rust from all of the moisture and heat.
Varno thanks the tight-knit music community and others for coming to his aid during a time of need. Volunteers helped him steel wool and heavily lubricate the tools and move them to storage. While rebuilding during the winter months, he used his church’s warehouse, where he did some instrument repairs. The regional director for NAPBIRT (National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians), which Varno has been a member of since 1980, set up a GoFundMe page for local technicians, and Varno received money for new benches in his shop.
Having reopened fully only since mid-April, he is excited to be back in business and continues to look toward the future. “I love what I do, and I’ll continue for as long as I feel that I’m beneficial to the community,” he says.
Varno Musical Instrument Repair
By appointment only: 611 Lanvale Hills Circle, Leland