Hannemann’s Music Corner: And Now, A Word From Your Instrument
By RICHARD HANNEMANN
First, for purposes of discussion, there are five levels of instruments, to wit: beginning, student, intermediate (also referred to as step-up or performance), professional and custom.
Generally, the first three are “production” meaning that they are manufactured to consistent specifications. They are essentially supposed to be peas in a pod with no difference one from the other (within the level category). If you recall our earlier discussion on how innate differences in material effects the instrument, then you will realize that there will be some difference in each instrument. Usually, these differences are not noticeable at these playing levels.
Professional instruments can also be production or they can be hand-crafted. Though the hand-crafted instruments are also made to specifications which are standard to the craftsman’s “brand”, there will be a greater degree of variation one instrument to the other … a variation which will be noticeable to a player at this level.
Custom instruments are hand crafted based on the player’s unique approaches to the instrument. Again, there is a “standard,” which is specific to the craftsman, but that standard is then altered to the player.
There is a thesis that you should be playing an instrument which is better than you are; that, indeed, a student should be playing a top-of-the-line instrument. The theory goes that the student will “grow into” the instrument and that the high level of the instrument will encourage the student to rise to the challenge of playing a top-of-the-line instrument. The corollary to this is that a player can become better than the instrument is capable of and when that happens the instrument becomes a deterrent to further development as a player.
The corollary is offered as “proof” of the thesis, but this is ex post facto logic which is faulty. While there is just enough truth to the corollary as to make the thesis seem plausible, there is not enough truth to the thesis to offer controlling guidance on what level of instrument you should have.
The capabilities of an instrument are based on the instrument’s range of 4 sound qualities:
Timbre – the tone color palette of the instrument which is described as “darker” or “mellow” at one end and “bright” at the other (think of the difference twixt playing your radio on full bass or full treble);
Dynamic – how loud or soft the instrument will play;
Responsiveness – the degree to which the instrument does what the player asks it to do when the player asks for it; and
Projection – basically how far will the sound carry, this will also include how the sound develops as it leaves the instrument and travels outward to the listener. These qualities combine as the instrument’s capability of expression.
Instruments in each playing level have a certain corresponding level for each of the 4 sound qualities listed, both on the average and across the range of each quality and combination thereof, establishing that instrument’s level of expressive capability.
Remember that sound is vibration. Here we need a working understanding of what is called the harmonic series. When you hear a tone you hear more than you think you do. For every tone there is a fundamental and a harmonic series. The fundamental is what you think you hear. The harmonic series, sometimes called the “over-tones”, are a 3 octave sequence of higher tones associated with the fundamental that you hear without knowing you are hearing it. Think of it this way: the fundamental is the initial shock of an earthquake – the over-tones are the aftershocks. You can best hear them when you hear a bell. Without those over-tones a fundamental would sound dead, flat, and lifeless. It would just thunk and die. Musical road-kill.
What an instrument does is shape that vibration by effecting the over-tones across the 3 octave range emphasizing some, de-emphasizing others. One instrument may tend towards the lower range of the over-tone series, while another may tend toward the middle range and yet another will tend toward the upper range. Or an instrument may tend toward certain intervals of each range while tending away from other intervals across the range.
But the vibration must first be created and so an important aspect to the instrument’s over-all expressive capabilities is the part of the instrument, which creates the vibration in the first place – the string, the reed, the mouthpiece, the bow, the hammer – each to which there is a wide variety, each variation emphasizing some quality or qualities which the instrument then shapes. Hammers and reeds can be firm/stiff or soft or anything in between. Mouthpieces have differences in their chambers, which first effect the shape of the vibrations. Strings come in a variety of thicknesses, tensions, and materials. For any given specific instrument, a difference in any of the vibratory parts will give a difference in what that instrument will do with the sound qualities.
Each variation in the vibratory parts will have its own effect on the over-tone series. For instance, a low tension gold wound guitar string tends to emphasize the lower range producing a darker, rounder, more mellow tone for every note while a high tension nickel wrapped string will tend to emphasize the upper over-tones producing a bright, sometimes “tinny” tone for every note. What the vibratory part of the instrument does is then modified and shaped by the instrument and how it responds to the over-tone series.
But – the vibration has to be started in the first instance and that first instance depends on the player. Bowing technique, plucking technique, lip technique, finger technique all determine what the vibratory part of the instrument does which vibrations are then shaped by the instrument.
A player can get a lot of mileage out of each level of instrument, for there is a lot for the player to learn about the technique of playing and choices of vibratory part before getting to the point where the instrument has been stretched to its full capacity. A really good player will make a mediocre instrument sound wonderful, but a really good instrument will not make a mediocre player play any better.
So how do you know when to get the next level of instrument? Well, first you have to learn the difference between “want” and “need.” If you want a better instrument and can afford it you could get it. But if you are going to get a Ramirez just to play 3 chords and sing songs around the campfire, you might want to question your own motives.
When do you know you need a better instrument? You’ll know. You’ll feel it. You’ll start to feel a reluctance to part with your instrument because you will start to get the feeling that it is getting on to time to part with it. One day you will find yourself thinking, “I really love my instrument, I wouldn’t want to part with it.” And you will think this because your instrument will be softly saying:
“We need to talk. You have gotten really, really good at this and quite frankly I’m working really hard to keep up with you. I’m getting a little tired and a bit cranky. I’m sorry, we’ve been close friends for a long time, but I just can’t do it anymore. We can still do sing around the campfire together and I can be there for you as a back-up, but you’ve got me working way beyond my pay grade. Look, you know that young player who goes google eyed every time he/she sees me? I would love to teach that kid everything I know, just like I taught you. So how bout you give me a break here. Get yourself the superstupendous-anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better model and start to soar. And let me do what I’m good at, teaching young players how to be really good.”