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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Schools get sudden donations after ‘The Last Repair Shop’ wins Oscar

By Cathy Free Washington Post

Steve Bagmanyan found his calling in a shop of broken instruments, tucked away in an industrial section of downtown Los Angeles. But each year, the shop breaks his heart.

Cutbacks have left just 11 people repairing instruments for more than a half-million students in Los Angeles public schools. There used to be 60 technicians supporting the students.

“The work that we do is important and needs to be passed down, but people who do what we do are a dying breed,” said Bagmanyan, who has been on the job for 21 years. “Children are our future, and yet we’re cutting arts and music programs around the country.”

In the past week, though, fortunes seem to be reversing for the repair shop, as Bagmanyan’s silent toiling suddenly got a huge spotlight.

Since “The Last Repair Shop,” a film featuring Bagmanyan and three other instrument technicians, won an Oscar for best documentary short film at the Academy Awards on March 10, people across the country have been donating to a fund to boost instrument repairs and school music programs in Los Angeles.

“The attention has been overwhelming, and we’re honored,” Bagmanyan said.

Most people didn’t realize the L.A. instrument repair shop existed until the documentary came out, he said.

The school district’s repair shop is believed to be the last large in-house program of its kind in the country. Since 1959, it has been offering free instruments and repairs across the district, which today has 540,000 students in more than 1,000 schools. The Los Angeles school system is the second-largest in the country.

“For children who live in poverty, public schools are the entities that actually provide (musical) resources and enrichment activities that wealthier families can already afford to provide,” said school district superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

In most schools, including those in the country’s largest district, New York City Public Schools, students rely on teachers, volunteers or private repair shops to fix broken musical instruments.

“Where does a child get a saxophone, a violin, a clarinet?” Carvalho said. “We’re able to offer that. And we never allow those instruments to go silent because they are broken.”

Donations from the fundraiser will be used to hire more instrument repair technicians and start a student apprentice program, purchase new equipment for the shop and expand music classes, he said.

People have already donated more than $24,000 so far to the Last Repair Shop Fund, a campaign launched last month by the filmmakers and the Los Angeles Unified School District. That’s just one part of the fundraising effort, which has a campaign goal of $15 million, and was recently featured in the L.A. School Report.

In Los Angeles, the district wants every child to play on a smooth-working instrument, Carvalho said.

“Last year, I purchased another 40,000 instruments to increase our music programs significantly, and now with the success of the film, we’re hoping to build on that,” he said.

“This is an investment of love and an investment of community,” he said, noting that students who take music classes have higher math, English and science test scores.

“The Last Repair Shop” documentary focuses on Bagmanyan and three other dedicated instrument repair specialists, weaving their personal stories with comments from students who have found comfort and joy in music.

Brass specialist Paty Moreno spoke about her struggles as a single mom, while woodwinds repairman Duane Michaels recalled opening for Elvis in 1975 with his bluegrass band. Dana Atkinson, a strings technician, talked about coming to terms with his sexuality as a young man.

Bagmanyan, 60, an Armenian refugee from Azerbaijan, supervises the operation and handles piano repairs and tuning. He recounted giving up his beloved guitar and fleeing his homeland in the late 1980s to escape ethnic persecution from a conflict that continues today.

“I learned that music is the only language that doesn’t need a translator,” Bagmanyan said. “At the end of the day, when you know an instrument is going back to a student who needs it, you have to smile. It’s a very good feeling.”

He said that he and his crew repair between 3,500 and 7,000 instruments every year, from piccolos to string basses.

“It’s not that we’re making the instrument like new – we’re making it so the instrument sounds right,” Bagmanyan said.

“If an instrument doesn’t have the right pitch or touch, a child may eventually hate that instrument and the music,” he added. “They deserve to play a working instrument.”

The public response to the film and the fundraiser has been touching, said Ben Proudfoot, who co-directed the short documentary with composer Kris Bowers and is the founder and CEO of Breakwater Studios. Bowers attended L.A. public schools, where he played pianos that were kept in tune by Bagmanyan.

He and Proudfoot accepted their Oscars with 12-year-old Porché Brinker, an L.A. public schools student who is learning to play the violin and is featured in their documentary.

In Bowers’s acceptance speech, he talked about the heroes in public schools who often go “unsung, unthanked and unseen.”

“Tonight, you are sung, you are thanked, you are seen,” he said, pointing to the upper balcony where Bagmanyan and the other instrument repair technicians were seated.

Proudfoot said there was a spike in donations after the Oscars, including from people who benefited from the L.A. music program as children.

“We started with $3,000, and it immediately went up,” he said. “We’re seeing lots of $10 to $100 donations from people who are inspired by what they’re doing in the shop and want to contribute to a dying art form.”

Many of the donors seem to relate to the issue of repair in the documentary, Proudfoot said.

“We’ve all experienced broken relationships and broken promises – life is full of those things,” he said. “Sometimes, you have to walk away, but sometimes, things can be fixed.”

“The people in ‘The Last Repair Shop’ come to work every day with the will to repair,” he added. “They represent the very best of America that goes to work every day to stitch the fabric of this country back together.”

Bagmanyan said his cup is full knowing that children might carry a love of music with them for a lifetime.

Getting dropped off at the Academy Awards this year in a school bus with the rest of the crew was another high point.

“When they announced the winner and it all became real, I had this nice, warm feeling of relaxation,” he said. “I was planning to retire this year. But now, I’m going to build the shop back to the level it once was and keep on going for a while.”