Cor Values Stork Custom Mouthpieces.
John Stork arrived in New York in the fall of 1980, at loose ends after six years with the Air Force Band and a cross-country tour with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. In need of a job, he went to the Giardinelli Band Instrument Company, which was at that time one of the largest and most prominent music dealers in the world. "I was looking for a job that day. What I found was a career." Up to that point John had no plans to become a mouthpiece craftsman, and Giardinelli had no job openings on the day he appeared there, but as Robert Giardinelli reported later, "While talking to him, I also got the feeling that he was a very sensitive, intelligent, and honest young man, so I decided to hire him as my assistant ... one of the best decisions I ever made."
Though Giardinelli's was a large company, it was in many ways an expansion of a small repair shop. They were known for their mouthpieces, which were used by large numbers of professional musicians at that time and have since been duplicated for continued use today. Stork recalls that the machines there were already antiquated. Robert Giardinelli himself was an old school craftsman. "There was not one job in that shop that he couldn't do. He had learned the art of instrument manufacturing from his father in Sicily, who had been taught by his father and so on for many generations. The instinct didn't just run in his family, it galloped! From repairing a horn to repairing a lathe, from scratch building a clarinet, to making the tools to do it with, his skills set the standard."
John Stork went to work for Giardinelli, learning the basic skills required to manufacture mouthpieces by hand. "After two years of back boring, polishing, hand stamping, and buffing, the unexpected happened; the man doing the custom work was suddenly let go. Within minutes Mr. Giardinelli called me into his office and told me, "You are now my custom mouthpiece maker. Come with me, young fellow!'" From that moment on, John Stork became Giardinelli's apprentice, watching him work for a year before Giardinelli decided the time had come to switch roles. Now Giardinelli watched John work, carefully guiding him as he gained skill and confidence as a custom mouthpiece maker. "He was available to me all the time, eight hours a day. If I had a question or ran into a problem, all I had to do was knock on his door and he was there for me. He was a busy man--Giardinelli was a big company--maybe the biggest pro shop that the US ever had--but he made himself available to me anytime as I was learning the craft."
Phyllis is herself a Juilliard-trained trumpet player who studied with William Vacchiano and Gerard Schwarz and freelanced in New York City prior to Stork's opening. She met John at Giardinelli's when she went with Vacchiano to have a mouthpiece adjusted. "Six months later we were married," she smiles. Both Phyllis and John had set out to be professional trumpet players, never dreaming of the life and business they'd create. Phyllis said,
But I don't think I ever wanted to be a freelancer. I'd have been happy to have an orchestra job somewhere, but the situation for female trumpet players back then was just horrendous. People can't imagine now. I remember taking an audition for a job, I think it was in Mexico. After the audition a member of the committee called me and said, "You were absolutely the best there, but we couldn't hire a woman." Things were very different back then. As John describes it, Being the "custom man" at Giardinelli's Pro Shop insured daily challenges. Every orchestra that came to town would stop by the shop. One day you'd be making a cornetto mouthpiece out of plastic and the next day a tuba mouthpiece. We had a lot of regular clients who would come in and ask for a little off the rim, a little off the cup, take a nick out of a dropped mouthpiece. And the repair side was just as busy as the mouthpiece side. When people found out there was someone who could actually copy a rim we got pretty busy on the custom side. It's handwork; it's craft. You never knew who would walk through the door on a given day. One morning could bring the Leningrad Symphony while the afternoon would be taken over by the Count Basie Band. Most every major symphony player, worldwide, would stop by the shop on tour as did top jazz players like Dizzy Gillespie, John Faddis, Marvin Stamm, Herbie Green, Randy Brecker, J. J. Johnson, Steve Turre, Wynton Marsalis, and so many more. We were even privy to a private John Stork making a mouthpiece concert by Maurice Andre on one afternoon, just for the guys in the shop!
Stork had begun already begun preparations to open his own shop when, a few years later, Robert Giardinelli sold the company to a large corporation. "We visited another shop nearby and realized that we could take the customizing and turn it into a business. Also there was a big transition going on at Giardinelli's after it was sold." The whole environment and philosophy of the company was changing rapidly, with high-ranking professionals who had previously been greeted with respect now being asked to submit to bag checks and treated with an element of suspicion.
Stork had already bought a lathe and begun preparing to open his own business. "We saved $20,000 to buy our first lathe, then I had to make all the tooling. It took a year. I had to make all the reamers, all my hand tools, everything." After saving for a year, and countless hours making his own tools, he and his new wife Phyllis opened Stork Custom Mouthpieces in 1985 on 46 th and Broadway, just a short distance from his former employer. Their first child was born only two months after the shop opened. "Thanks to my time at Giardinelli's and having been the custom mouthpiece man there, people already knew my name. We had work as soon as we opened our doors."
Early on, Stork mouthpieces were made completely by hand. Twenty years ago they transitioned completely to CNC (Computer numerical controlled) equipment. John says, "It took us a little while to learn it, but Phyllis is a whiz with it." Phyllis responds, "We have a good CAD program that made it manageable to learn," and continues,
For a very long time everything was completely hand cut. That was our big strength. John had incredible skills as a copyist and did great hand work. He made his reputation with all those players in New York, so by the time we opened our shop everybody knew his name and we had a huge client list. He'd kept names for a long time, so when we opened our shop we were busy from day one.
Today, the combination of John's skill as a craftsman and incorporation of CNC equipment allows them to produce many more high quality mouthpieces in a short amount of time, while continuing to make any adjustments needed or requested by individual players.
After three years in New York City, the Storks moved their business and family to Vermont. "Before we left New York, I spent more time talking to clients than working. Everyone who came to town would stop by, wanting some adjustment to a mouthpiece or a copy of a mouthpiece. It's fun to do, but there's a tremendous amount of time involved." Though they were nervous about the move, leaving the city allowed more time for both work and their kids. The business survived and then thrived. "We were up to two-thirds within a year. It was a really good thing for us."
Stork Custom Mouthpieces has always been a shared business between John and Phyllis. John makes the mouthpieces, claiming, "That's all I do." Phyllis is the "face" of the business, speaking with customers, doing diagnostics for players, working in the shop, handling business aspects. "She's always worked in the shop, from day one. She does a lot of handwork, and she's also picking up work on the CNC stuff." With only the two of them in the shop, CNC allows them to produce a much larger number of high quality mouthpieces. Even so, this summer they were in the process of moving the shop to a larger location and adding a couple of new machines so they can keep up with demand. CNC makes it possible for them to produce the amount that they do with only two people. Phyllis says, "The sad thing about it though is that with CNC you'll never find that magic mouthpiece, that slight variation that produces something different and special as you would with a completely hand cut mouthpiece."
Players have a much wider variety of mouthpieces to choose from today than they have ever had before, and have access to better understanding of what each part of the mouthpiece actually does. When the Storks opened their business, there weren't many mouthpieces to choose from beyond the standards produced by the large instrument makers. "Giardinelli probably had the most variety, because he had the removable rims that you could take to a different cup," says Phyllis. Players tended toward the mouthpiece their teacher played, or switched because they ran across something different that seemed to work for them.
Today there are obviously many, many more choices of mouthpieces, and custom makers like the Storks are able to make adjustments according to individual players' needs. "There are so many variables," Phyllis says. Every player's physiology and way of playing is different. "It's our job to make sure the player is playing on the most efficient mouthpiece that they can, so they're making conscious, intelligent decisions about why they're playing a mouthpiece." Even great players sometimes benefit from a change in mouthpiece if what they have been using isn't efficient for them. Embouchure issues are sometimes caused or magnified by poor mouthpiece fit. Unfortunately, with stores stocking fewer mouthpieces than ever, players have less access to try different mouthpieces except at big symposiums and workshops, which is not the best place to make mouthpiece decisions.
Phyllis is fascinated with the connection between player and mouthpiece, and is always trying to figure out how and why things work or don't work. She gets inquiries all the time from players looking for a change in their mouthpiece. "I've gotten really good at doing diagnostics, partially because we have to work remotely all the time. Players tell me what they're looking for, what their teeth and lips are like. Sometimes we'll do a Skype session to look at what's happening and how they play." John interjects, "No one does this better than this woman. We're two sides of a coin. You tell me what you want and I'll make it, and she knows what it does."
Stork does produce a regular line of mouthpieces that began with copies of the famous Giardinelli C-Series. Over time that line has expanded to include Artist Series mouthpieces for Phil Myers, Francis Orval, and Fraydis Ree Wekre. For the most part, relationships have developed after the artist approaches Stork to have a mouthpiece copied or modified. Freydis describes how she came to work with the Storks: "I was studying in Russia with Buyanovsky and struggling with certain aspects. Of course I thought I just needed more practice.
Eventually I got his mouthpiece and things got better. Then I had a copy made in Switzerland that was a little better. Every copy got a little bit better than the one before." Finally, while visiting New York City, she was referred to Stork. He made her a copy, and they made a few more refinements. At first he produced copies of that mouthpiece on request, generally for her students, but the mouthpiece proved so popular that he began producing it regularly.
Both John and Phyllis Stork radiate a sense of pride and satisfaction in their work and the business they've built over several decades. They emphasize their commitment to providing the best product for every customer. John says, "We've always believed in the Miracle on 34th Street way of doing business. If we don't have what you need and we know it exists, we will tell you where to get it. You'll always know we were honest with you. That means more to us than anything else." He expands, expressing his appreciation for Robert Giardinelli who ultimately set him on this path in life. "He was a very generous man to me. He treated me like a son. When he found out I purchased a lathe he threatened to fire me. He said to me, 'If you ever make a mouthpiece on that lathe, you're fired.' And I closed the door and said, 'Mr. Giardinelli, as long as I work for you I will never make a mouthpiece for anybody else. But someday I'll have my own shop. I'm going to start making my own tooling, but I won't make any mouthpieces.' And he said okay."
With no plans to retire, John Stork exudes a sense of wonder and gratitude for his life's work. "It's been a good run. I've had a really good life. I married the woman I love. We ran away to the woods together. We homeschooled our kids, spent time with them. It's been a wonderful, wonderful experience."
Caption: John and Phyllis Stork