A Conversation With Alumna Melanie Ditter, Founder of Rogue Repair
Alumna Melanie Ditter (BM, horn performance, 2012) created Rogue Repair, a new instrument repair business serving the Twin Cities area. In recent months, she has grown the business from a small side job to a full-time job. Ditter recently discussed her experience leading this new venture with us.
What initially brought you to the School of Music? What was your major and program?
I came to the School of Music to earn my Bachelor of Music degree in Horn Performance. I was excited to study with both of my teachers, Caroline Lemen and Michael Gast. My original plan was to pursue grad school, then become a freelancer and orchestral musician with a side gig as a private teacher. I enjoyed being so close to Minneapolis while at the U, and having the opportunity to play in ensembles alongside grad students and people who were farther ahead in their musical development. The most fun experience of music school (besides the friends that I made along the way) was playing in ensembles--Brass Choir and Symphony Orchestra were two of my favorites.
Tell us about your instrument repair business.
Rogue Repair is a brass and woodwind instrument care shop that specializes in exceptional quality repairs and exemplary communication for every customer. I believe no one should ever have to second guess the level of care and quality of service they will receive when their instrument is entrusted to us. Our customers include students and professional musicians from the Twin Cities area and beyond.
What inspired you to start Rogue Repair?
I had previously been working at a larger local repair shop. I saw that my opportunities there were going to be limited in the long term. I gained a lot of valuable experience while working there and formed lasting friendships with my coworkers. My gut told me I could do better, and it would be a missed opportunity not to try. I had set up a small shop once before, right out of repair school, and had some of the tooling I needed to get started. I got a day job to pay the bills and started the shop as a side gig.
How did the demand for your services change during COVID-19?
I was very pleasantly surprised at how much work I was able to get done last year. My expectations were definitely low, especially after having to stay closed to customers for around six weeks, like a lot of other customer-facing businesses. Once I was allowed to start curbside service business steadily increased throughout the year, which I am very grateful for.
Why did you transition to making Rogue Repair your full-time job?
Before leaving my last repair job to start Rogue Repair, I made sure I had a full-time job lined up that would enable me to work nights and weekends and put all the money I made from repairs back into the business. That job was at Discount Steel (now Coremark Metals) in Minneapolis, which was probably the best day job I could have asked for. It was a fun place to work and they treat their employees well. I got to use power tools, carry around heavy stuff, and learn about metal! In 2019 I had already cut my hours down to part-time so I could focus more on repairs, and in March 2020 I was first to be laid off when things were shutting down since I was the only part-time employee there. I had already been planning to make the leap to full self-employment so it was a good kick in the pants to finally go all-in and make Rogue Repair my full-time job.
What is it like to be a female business owner in this field?
If I'm honest, it's not something I consciously think about very often. I'm grateful to have a strong network of friends, loved ones, mentors, and repair colleagues (including some other female shop owners) that support me and can be direct with me. I also appreciate the customers who recommend my shop through word-of-mouth! I can't overstate how important they are. That network is one of the things that helps give me confidence in my skills and knowledge, and it helps me feel like I'm not alone in facing whatever challenge the day presents. If I run into the very rare person who thinks that my gender or age has more of an impact on my work than my skills and experience, I feel like I can confront them about those assertions professionally and directly, and then move on.
What are your future plans for Rogue Repair?
I think there is demand for more high-end brass repair in the cities, and I want Rogue Repair to step into that role. I'm capable of a lot in my shop as it is, but I'd really like to get into more restoration, overhauling, and customization of brass instruments, especially valve rebuilds and lacquer work, in the next year or two. Part of that means making the move from working out of my home to a commercial location somewhere in or near St Paul. I'm currently saving until the time is right and a good opportunity presents itself. While I love working on woodwinds, I think to run an efficient shop that is also profitable and delivers exceptional-quality work means there has to be some specialization on the part of the technicians. I will be looking to hire my first employee sometime in the next year or so once the shop moves, which is very exciting and a little nerve-wracking!
Do you have any advice for current music students who may be interested in opening their own music or instrument repair business?
Yes! I would recommend that they check out one of the repair schools around the country. I went to the one in Red Wing, MN, only an hour away, which also offers a violin or guitar luthier program too. I'd also recommend visiting your local shop or repair tech. Repair schools give a good general introduction for band instruments, and you leave with a solid set of basic skills that you can grow over time once out in the "real world.” I recommend working for someone else before striking out on your own because it's so valuable to have someone else to guide you. Setting up a shop and running a business is another job on top of repair, and if you can get started somewhere that already has the tools and supplies, it'll enable you to focus on growing your skills first. Don't be afraid to cold call or email a shop you are curious about! The worst they can do is say "no". I love how repairing has kept me close to music and performance while enabling me to put my mechanical aptitude and crafty skills to good use to help other people make their art! I can't recommend it enough as a career, especially if you are somewhat mechanically inclined and like to know what makes things tick. I love my job!
If you’re interested in learning more about Rogue Repair, you can visit https://roguerepairs.com/.