03 October 2014

Left-Handed Saxophone

Welcome back. I haven’t seen you at the Saturday morning coffee klatch. Here’s something you may have missed: Owen’s son produced what’s probably the first left-handed saxophone. I don’t mean saxophone music for left hand; I mean a sax modified to be played with only one functional hand, the left. 
Some regulars at the Saturday morning coffee
klatch in January 2012. Owen is in blue jeans.
(from Saturday Coffee Hour)

I’ve blogged about the coffee klatch my father-in-law hosts in his shop alongside the project(s) he or someone’s working on--homebuilt airplane, Model T Ford, cat tree (see P.S.). I’ve also commented on the broad flying and engineering expertise of the regulars who attend. Owen Russell is an exemplar.

Owen and Son Brian

Owen retired as an engineering director about 20 years ago. By that time, he had earned a bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering and spent 46 years in engine design, development and application with a half-dozen major car, snowmobile, aircraft and outboard marine companies. Among his cooler achievements was designing, building and campaigning three racing sports cars and, post-retirement, building two experimental aircraft.

One of Owen’s current projects is rebuilding a 1981 Fiat X1/9 sports car. That’s a joint effort, at most a couple of evenings a week, with his son Brian.

Brian grew up with an interest in music and--who would've guessed?--a mechanical aptitude. After college, he focused further study, apprenticeship and employment on musical instrument repair and restoration in Washington, DC, and Wisconsin, earning in-depth experience and certification with various wind instruments.  

Brian Russell at the lathe in his
shop in Winneconne, Wis. (from
In 2009, Brian opened his own business, offering wind instrument maintenance and repair as well as the more challenging wind instrument customization.

One-Handed Sax Player

Brian’s greatest and most gratifying challenge came in 2011 when Greta Borzillire called from New York State.

Until a massive stroke affected her husband Charlie’s right side seven years earlier, Charlie had been a successful musician, music teacher and gifted performer who, onstage with his saxophone, could wow a crowd of thousands.

Charlie’s professional career as a saxophone player began at age 14. It continued in the Army, when in 1969, he became only the second person to be drafted directly into the 158th Army Band. He later majored in instrumental performance and composition at Boston’s Berklee College of Music.

Charlie’s long and arduous recovery was led by Greta and rehabilitation specialists, abetted by family and dedicated friends, and driven by music. On his second day in the hospital, he failed a feeding evaluation. To avoid use of a feeding tube, Greta suggested priming him with the mouthpiece from his sax. It worked; it triggered his feeding responses.

By 2008, Charlie had progressed playing a sax with left hand alone to join a local band program; within two years, he was soloing with a jazz band. In 2011, a grant from New York State enabled Greta to contract with Brian for a custom saxophone.

Although this 2011 photo is of Charlie Borzillire
playing the sax Brian would later rebuild, the
photo is from a music-only video in which
Charlie plays the partially modified sax.
Brian began by making minor modifications to a sax from Charlie’s high school days, so Charlie could play a broader range while Brian worked on the main tenor sax. Over the next 14 months, Brian diverted as much time as possible from other clients to develop a left-hand-only fingering system and rebuild the sax to enable the left hand to control all keys over the instrument’s full range. Charlie was thrilled with the final product.

Wrap Up

The first one-handed sax is not well documented, but it was likely built in the 1920s by C.G. Conn Ltd., a U.S. musical instrument manufacturer. Brian’s left-handed sax is thought to be a first, and he was influenced by David Nabb and Jeff Stelling’s right-handed sax. Nabb is a professor of music at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, who like Charlie, suffered a stroke, and Stelling, like Brian, operates a brass and winds instrument shop.

Online, I saw an instrument maker in Germany who built a right-handed sax and one in the Netherlands who advertises one-handed saxophones for either hand. I expect there are others who rose to the challenge of helping musicians continue to make music.

What’s noteworthy for me is that I know Brian’s father. I met Owen at the Saturday morning coffee klatch. You should try it. Thanks for stopping by.


Links to Retired—Now What? Blog posts: Saturday Coffee Hour; Model-T Ford Photo Addendum; Cat Tree Construction.

Brian Russell:
-Brian’s business website: russellwinds.com/index.html
-Video (8:46 min) on the left-handed sax modification: www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_PYrO0PhiA
-Saxophone forum thread Brian started to assist others undertaking a similar project: forum.saxontheweb.net/showthread.php?187042-Left-Hand-Only-Tenor-Sax&highlight=Borzillire
-Blog post on Brian’s accomplishment: bassic-sax.info/blog/?p=36523

Local NYS newspaper articles on Charlie Borzillire recovery:
-From Dunkirk, NY, The Observer (13 Jan 2013), following delivery of left-handed sax: russellwinds.com/charlie-article.html
-Earlier article on Charlie playing with partially adapted sax Brian modified: www.starnewsdaily.com/local/community/story/Monday-Morning-Memo-Week-of-September-4-2012-09-04

David Nabb, Jeff Stelling and Univ. of Nebraska Kearney’s One-Handed Woodwinds Program: 


Websites of example European instrument makers:

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