I have a 15-string zither which I bought about 10 years ago and, for the very first time, I broke a string. I have no idea what kind of strings it has, nor do I know the gauges. The only thing I know is that the tuning pegs and string loops were the same kind as on a harpsichord, but since I don't know if harpsichord strings were used on my zither, that didn't help me much. I figured I'd contact the luthier who made the instrument, but the only phone number I could find for him currently belongs to an Arab woman who didn't know a thing about zithers or strings gauges. Now what?
I tried phoning a large instrument retail shop in the city. After getting transferred through 3 different people, I was finally paired up with someone from the guitar department who was willing to plumb the depths of their string cataolgue in order to find me something potentially suitable.
“I could get you something from our German supplier, but that could take another 3 months at least. What size string is it?”
“I have no idea.”
“Well, what note was the string you broke?”
“It's not like that...”
I went on to explain that it isn't tuned in any particular way that I knew of (the person I bought it from knew nothing about it), and I've always tuned it differently – regular major or minor scale, various pentatonic. The only further information I could offer was that the string in question was approximately a couple octaves above middle C.
We talked for a bit longer and he found that they had 7 different sets of zither strings listed in the catalogue, but since he wouldn't be able to measure the strings on my zither against the ones listed in the catalogue, trying to order the right set would be guesswork.
Realising that no instrument retailer was going to be able to help, I started phoning instrument repair shops. Soon I found a place that tentatively said they could help. “We normally only fix instruments in the violin family, but we can probably do something simple like this.” Not only was he saying this about the broken string, but my little zither had suffered some water damage a few years ago which had caused the back soundboard to come unglued in one of the corners; this, too, could get a quick fix. “Bring it in and we'll have a look.”
The really interesting thing was something he said almost in passing: “We get a lot of calls like yours. With Toronto being such a large multicultural city, people have brought their exotic instruments with them from all over the world, but then when they need supplies or repairs, they can't find them here.”
This was a bit astounding to me. Knowing that many musicians are actively playing the music of their particular culture both at community-specific events (weddings, expat gatherings, religious celebrations) and those aimed at a broader audience within Toronto (Afrofest, Harbourfront Festival), how could it be that there were no businesses to serve their needs when the musicians' very own services were in demand here? Presumably working musicians maintain their instruments by learning how to do repairs themselves and getting supplies sent from home or stocking up during trips back. But if you can't visit home or get things sent to you, what other options do you have?
I looked around a little more and found that, if this BlogTO post is anything to go by, instrument shops in Toronto service Western instruments fairly exclusively.
There's one exotic instrument shop on the list – Musideum – which I had thought was mainly just a retail/rental shop. The branding on their website doesn't exactly give the impression that they're catering to your average working musician either: “When you walk into Musideum, you are invited to experience how harmony can arrange the world;” “Listen to music that integrates cultural aberrations, discovery, silence, cinematic art, and improvisation in all the mothertongues;” And: “At Musideum, rare musical instruments and eccentricities on view… an opportunity to touch, play and listen too.”
However, their website also says that they do offer “affordable hard to find parts and accessories for many rare instruments” so maybe they're filling a niche after all? I'd be interested to find out how comprehensive their supply service is as well as how many people use them as their primary source for supplies. I didn't even think of trying them until long after making arrangements with the violin guys.
To be fair, from an entrepreneurial perspective setting up an exotic instrument repair shop is a dizzying prospect. You can't possibly cover all or even a majority of the non-Western instruments out there, so how do you narrow it down? Then again, who knows – maybe there's a slew of small, community- or instrument-specific businesses operating on the side and under most people's radar, but are accessible for musicians' through the latter's various networks. Although if the people calling violin repair shops for help are hobbyists and amateurs instead of professionals with networks to tap, their needs might not be met.
But back to my needs. I took the zither into the violin shop where they confirmed they could fix both the string and the sound board. I asked if they could also measure the strings and write out the gauges so I could attempt to replace any future broken strings myself. “We'll do our best.” A few days later, I picked it up and they'd done a great job, but, damn, no string gauge chart.
“You'd need a micrometer to measure out all the strings.”
“Don't you have one of those here?”
“Well, we don't even normally repair instruments like this...”
In other words, we could have the measured the strings, but we didn't want to, so we didn't. Okay, fine.
“Why don't you call the maker? He'd know exactly what he put on there.”
“I tried, but I couldn't find any current contact information.”
“Well, he's around. I spoke to him just the other day.”
He gave me the luthier's phone number and I called him the next day. As it turned out, the now-retired luthier had all the details in his records and kindly emailed them to me. Oh, and he calls it a hand harp, not a zither. Have i been mis-categorising it all this time? Maybe I'll ask one day at the harmonious cultural aberrations store.