The Horns Whisperer

Got a troubled trumpet? Busted bassoon? Peter Ferrante can fix it.

Tucked into a nondescript apartment building in a business section of Lee Highway, the Presto Brass & Woodwinds shop feels like a curious blast from the past.       

“It’s unique all right,” owner Peter Ferrante says with a chuckle. “It’s packed in here.”

This cubby of a store is filled to the brim with every musical accoutrement—flute pads, tubing shrinkers, ligatures—you could want for your brass or woodwind. From the street, the windows are blocked with boxes; inside, the aisle is barely passable. Still, one senses that every item in the place—including Ferrante—is exactly where it should be. His pegboard is equidistantly loaded with the tools of his trade. Tens of tiny drawers along the walls and on the counter are neatly labeled.  

“The first time I went in there, it was the holidays, and I felt like I was in Santa’s workshop,” says Paul Norris, the director of bands at Swanson Middle School in Arlington. “Peter had on this apron and was holding a tiny hammer. He reminded me of one of Santa’s elves.”

Most days, Ferrante dons a navy baseball hat decorated with his logo. “I save a lot of instruments,” he says, peering at me through horn-rimmed lenses. “They fall apart just before concerts, and I save them.”

For the most part, it’s Arlington’s middle and high school students he’s saving. When school’s in session, he works on 30 to 35 instruments a week. Over the years he’s also performed emergency surgery on Earth, Wind & Fire’s saxes and the band Chicago’s horns, when they’ve passed through town.

“Some just need a little tweak and some need everything,” he says. Screwdrivers and pliers are the tools he uses most, but he flicks on a small torch to show me how the blue-hot flame works on sax keys that have gone awry.

Ferrante has “saved” several of my sons’ instruments, but I’ve often wondered how his store survives. Bucking current marketing trends, he doesn’t advertise and has no web site or Facebook page. Yet, he hasn’t lacked for business since the store opened 23 years ago. Perhaps it’s because he provides the ultimate in customer service. He’s open weekdays from 3 to 10 p.m.—just when you need him. His busiest time is from 8 to 10 p.m., when everything else is closed, and students are panicked about the next day. Sometimes there’s a line out his door due to the power of word-of-mouth recommendations. And although he’s 66, he says he has no plans to retire until he “falls over backward.”

He himself can play most brass and woodwinds “well enough to tell if they work,” but his first love was the clarinet.

“My mother started me on the clarinet in the fourth or fifth grade,” Ferrante explains. “It became part of me.” Hanging on a door in his shop are yellowed newspaper shots of him playing sax and clarinet in local bands, such as the Alexandria Citizens Band, where he was president from 2002 to 2006. He especially loves playing military band pieces but usually listens to WTOP while he works.

Ferrante was born in Chicago but moved to Falls Church before high school.  After a stint in the Navy, he took advantage of the GI bill to learn instrument repair skills in trade school. He’d played in a Navy band, so it was a natural fit. He worked for several bigger music stores before deciding he could do it better on his own. Unlike most large music stores, Ferrante does the repairs onsite and sometimes even on the spot, while the customer waits. If a concert date looms, he’ll rush an order.

“You can’t get that anyplace else,” says Norris. “It’s great to have a local contact, so we know where an instrument is at all times.”

Occasionally, Ferrante’s technical adeptness seems to backfire, though, because he makes it seem too easy. Rather than being grateful that he took only a few minutes to repair her son’s instrument, one mom protested his $12 minimum charge.

“She just doesn’t get it,” Ferrante explains. “I had the tools, the technology, the space and the time.” And such skills don’t come free. A more appreciative customer, though, brings him a sandwich and a Coke every time she comes in.

Get Ferrante talking, and he’ll bemoan the fact that everyone’s looking for a bargain these days rather than a quality instrument.

“People who buy junk off the Internet, I don’t have any sympathy for them,” he says, waving that idea away.

He recommends purchasing your instrument by touching one to make sure the keys aren’t too far apart or too close for your finger span. In addition to those stacked in his aisles, he has two storage units of instruments for sale. Some of them were abandoned, because they were too expensive to repair. Others, he just couldn’t pass up rescuing from musical oblivion.

After all, instruments are no more one-size-fits-all than he or his store.

Amy Brecount White is a music-loving Arlingtonian and the author of Forget-Her-Nots (HarperCollins, 2010).

Categories: People