Downtown repair shop keeps LA’s music education going

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Around 80,000 LAUSD instruments are maintained by the team at the district’s free repair shop. Photo courtesy of Breakwater Studios.

In a nondescript warehouse in Downtown LA, a team of skilled technicians spend their days carefully restringing, tuning, and repairing the 80,000 instruments that make music education in the city possible. 

It’s one of the last publicly-funded shops of its kind in the country. And the stories of these workers — and the kids who rely on the service they provide — are at the center of The Last Repair Shop, a new documentary directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers. 

Bowers, who is also a composer and LAUSD alumni, recalls that when he first visited the 64-year-old shop, he was excited to learn about its history. But he soon found out that history was deeply intertwined with his own. 

“Steve Bagmanyan [is] the piano technician there. After talking to him, we found out he actually tuned the pianos at my elementary and middle school,” says Bowers. “So I definitely directly benefited from their effort to keep music programs in the schools.” 

Bagmanyan rediscovered his love for music working as a piano tuner in the U.S., after leaving behind his home and beloved guitar in Azerbaijan amid violence and war. And his story is just one of several moving tales shared by the shop’s diverse staff. 

“We just asked who would be open to being interviewed, and these four individuals just happened to say yes,” says Bowers. “I think that speaks to these individuals feeling like they had a story worth telling, and also maybe speaks to the idea that every human has a story that is really profound if you take the time to ask them.”

The film also shows the impact their work has on LAUSD students, some of whom couldn’t afford to learn an instrument otherwise. 

“As we talk to each of these kids, they talk about the necessity for music to help them — whether it's to stay calm, or to feel a sense of confidence,” says Bowers. “Access to this is not only for those that might go and pursue it and become musicians, but also just for kids to have some sort of coping mechanism to be able to get through what they have to deal with.” 

While more school districts in major cities used to offer repair shops like this, Bowers says nearly all have been shuttered due to cuts in public funding. He hopes the film will remind people how important they are, and the value of accessible music education.

“I hope that when people see things like this, they are encouraged to really take a look at how music programs can impact students and impact people's lives as they grow up,” he says. “I really hope that they'll realize the importance of keeping this place and hopefully, bringing back others.”