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Harmonious Handyman

UVU student Tracy Furr puts fix-it skills to use by making marimbas by hand.

By Jay Wamsley | Photography by Brooke Steinicke

WHEN Tracy Furr’s parents offered to buy him a musical instrument when he entered high school, he decided on a marimba. Furr had always loved percussion instruments, but this one presented a problem: a $12,000 price tag.

With fresh-from-middle-school enthusiasm, Furr set out to solve the problem by making an instrument for himself. Today, he is making marimbas for other people and finding success in a new hobby-turned-business. A Utah Valley University student majoring in music performance, Furr remembers the trial and error involved in his first homebuilt marimba.

“After looking around to see if there were any that were cheaper than the $12,000 model, we found that there was a set available that didn’t have resonators on it,” he says. “My dad operates a machine shop, so we figured I could use the skills I had obtained from working at the shop and use his equipment to make my own set of resonators. That led to looking into just building the whole marimba from the ground up.”

Finding instructions online and with his machine-shop background, Furr built his first instrument.

“I finished it and did not like how it turned out at all,” he says. “So I built an even better one out of better materials and got a way better result from learning from my mistakes on the first one.”

“From that point, I was getting requests from high schools about building equipment for their marching bands,” Furr says. “So I started building speaker and mixer carts, along with carts to mount percussion equipment for taking onto the field. Once I started doing that, I got requests to fix up or restore older percussion equipment to make them look new again and upgrade the old frames. Now I’m at a point where I have started this business of building marimbas, restoring old equipment, and fixing equipment. I’m basically an instrumental repair shop for percussion equipment.”

The native of Orem is continuing to attend UVU and will graduate in 2020 with an associate degree. His abilities for building and repair have spilled over into his interactions with the university, as he works part-time doing what he describes as “upkeep and maintenance of the percussion equipment — basic things like if a screw has come loose on an instrument, a drum has an old head that needs replacement, part of a hardware stand comes apart — I put that all back together again.

“Basically I’ve become a mini mobile repair shop person that makes sure everything is kept running.”

Furr has also built the music conductor podiums (the lifted platform on which the maestro or conductor stands to be seen by his or her musicians) for the Noorda Center for the Performing Arts. He drew up the designs for them and built them in his shop.

“I approached the music department faculty about making the new podiums for the new building because I knew that there weren’t a lot of options for them online to choose from, and I wanted them to have nice quality podiums that fit the rooms they will be in,” he says. But the bulk of his time is spent with the marimba. He plans on making this a full-time job, along with “helping out the schools and music community around Utah to develop the percussion programs and fix all the issues that have accumulated.”

Furr has built 20 marimbas and about 40 different pieces of equipment “for other odd-end jobs.” He describes building a marimba as a “very intricate and difficult process.” He uses Honduras rosewood along with over 100 feet of aluminum tubing per marimba. The building process takes a lot of proper alignment to get everything right for the marimba to properly vibrate for the correct sound. The key, he says, is to “have the cords running through the bars line up in the right spots, or else the vibrations of the bars will be chocked off. Each resonator has to line up perfectly under each bar, and the plug in the resonator has to be in just the right spot for it to resonate fully.”

Tuning the bars themselves requires not only tuning the fundamental note, he says, but also tuning up to four overtones in the bar to give it an equal dark timbre sound across the bars.

“This all has to be done while making sure the finishes and textures of the marimba are smooth and beautiful to make a perfect matching of the sound and looks of the marimba,” Furr explains. “It can be stressful at times, trying to work in my current shop space right now which is a second garage at my grandma’s house, but I’m looking to move into a bigger and better shop space so I can have more space for my tools.

“The end results of my labor, though, always give me joy, and being able to hear the final product always makes me happy.”

I have gotton to know a lot of people by working with the faculty at UVU, and I've taken my time at UVU to expand my knowledge of what I can do to help the percussion community.

Furr has begun to attend conferences and events promoting his business. He continues to learn more and more about the marimba — “I have learned a lot about how the instrument should sound and proper playing technique. But this has been something I have slowly learned, as I have been attending school.”

He says his full package of UVU courses has helped him solidify his life goals and decide on a career path. He took classes that helped him learn more about the acoustics of the instruments, along with the business side.

“What really sparked my interest was seeing a need for people to have more affordable marimbas and not having the ability to have one at home to practice. I have gotten to know a lot of people by working with the faculty at UVU, and I’ve taken my time at UVU to expand my knowledge of what I can do to help the percussion community.”