Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
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Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

Inspiration



Every now and then I find myself persuaded to undertake an OTS job - an On The Spot job.
I probably do a fair few minor repairs on the spot, but every once in a while I offer to undertake a reasonably large job while the client waits in the workshop. This could be for a variety of reasons - mostly it's down to a need for an immediate service pending a gig later on that evening, but there are times when I schedule such work simply because I'm in the mood.

This means sharing an hour or so with a client, during the course of which many topics come up for discussion (usually starting off with the fascinating range of clutter in the workshop). Given a long enough job the conversation often drifts from the practical to the philosophical, and it was in the course of one such conversation that the subject of inspiration came up.
The question was simple enough - where do I, and other musicians, draw the inspiration from that forms part of one's individual style.
Simple question - but so very hard to answer.

It set me to thinking about the concept of inspiration.
In essence I feel that inspiration is a product of both nature and nurture. Nature in the sense that who we are largely determines what might influence us, and nurture in the sense that the combination of life experiences and emotions has a significant part to play.
It's often said that you can't play the blues until your heart's been broken (and your wife/dog/car has been taken away - though I wouldn't put too much money on the first example being a dead cert for giving you the blues), but I've met plenty of very fine blues players who've barely dealt with anything more gut-wrenching than a parking ticket. So it follows that whilst you can undoubtedly draw from life experiences, it doesn't always have to be the case.

Perhaps inspiration comes through imagination - a sense of being in touch with the 'inner you'.
It's quite feasible to suppose that the blues require you to have touched despair - but then we each have our own threshold. One person may have to lose everything to cross that threshold, another may have only to order the wrong pizza.
Whatever the influences it seems clear to me that the one thing that's needed is an awareness of self.
It's practically a constant among the legends that reside in the halls of fame - in every genre from academia to zymurgy (OK, I admit I had to look up a Z word in the dictionary, not being able to think of a genre that would give me a nice A to Z - and that's all I could come up with. It's a branch of chemistry that deals with the fermentation process in brewing...and if that means I'm endowing the creators of Abbott Ale with the status of genius then so be it! Fellow quaffers will no doubt concur.).
That's perhaps why the rest of us are so fascinated by the life histories of these people; they're complicated, controversial, contradictory - and yet they all seem to be somehow larger than life itself. Their achievements stand as a testament to their artistry and skill and yet it's obvious that there comes a point where skill stops and artistry begins - and that's where we, as an audience, are able to share in the depth of emotion (whatever it might be) and wonder that serves as the gateway to the inspiration within.

Yet there always seems to be a dark side to them.
How many have met with tragic self-inflicted ends? How many have suffered from their own internal demons? Why are there so few giants who lived ordinary lives?
I feel the answer lies in the sheer power and magnitude of the collection of influences that make up the inspirational muse. The only way you can feel it is to wholly embrace it, and in so doing you become irrevocably tied to its eddies and currents.
It's like the sensation of extreme speed - you can't describe it, you have to feel it - and the only way to do so is to expose yourself to it, and thus the inherent dangers. That in itself isn't so bad - but the thrill and excitement of it tends to be transitory, and in order to experience the same thrills time after time you have to increase the speed, and the danger.

It's because of this that so many turn to other methods to break down the barriers that prevent them from touching the heart of their inspiration. Drug abuse is by far the most common method - and the most common killer.
Perhaps it seems hard to understand why someone who appears to have so much talent and so much going for them should resort to something that will surely destroy them in the end - but then to really understand I guess you have to have touched your own inspiration and felt the need to go further and feel more.

And you could wonder at which point you lose the person and see only the result of the influences. There's no doubt that there exists a sort of Jeckyll and Hyde parallel, whereby the 'good' person becomes so consumed by their passions and craving that the 'bad' person becomes all that's visible. OK, so the good/bad analogy is simplistic - and not necessarily indicative, but it serves to point up the sense of two beings in one person.
I think we all of us experience this to a greater or lesser degree - even a complete beginner knows the feeling of triumph or the frustration of failure. It's what makes you turn down a night out with the lads just so's you can run through a tricky set of exercises, or what makes you get up in the middle of the night to jot down a few notes. The truly inspired feel exactly the same, but magnified by an order of magnitudes.

Surely that's bound to change a person.
The drive to succeed or to reach a high becomes all-consuming, and it must be so easy to relinquish those parts of you that appear to get in the way of your goals - and once you reach that point how can you consider turning back? There has to come a point where you have to let go of yourself and throw yourself on the mercy of the forces that drive and control you if you want to experience the spiritual rewards that devotion to your own emotions can bring.
It's easy enough to see - take any truly inspired person and look at their life over the space of a few decades and you'll see the changes wrought, but you'll also see the rise in artistry and commitment.
And that's an important distinction. There are plenty of people who're driven, ambitious even - but perhaps for material things. Take away the goods and you have nothing left - the artist has nothing to take away, and everything to give. You'll also see that these people really had no choice either. Inspiration has all the characteristics of a drug, an addiction. It has the same drive, the same all-enveloping tentacles that wrap themselves first around your ideas and then your heart, and the same hunger for yet more of the same.

It all sounds rather bleak, doesn't it, and yet it doesn't always have to end in tragedy. There are countless examples of magnificent inspiration that have left their recipients relatively unscathed - and perhaps you could argue that some people are simply better able to handle themselves at such a pace, or perhaps they found the holy grail of inspiration that allowed them transfer every last drop of it through their chosen craft. If the latter is the case then you can only wonder at what those who never quite managed to do so might have achieved had they been allowed to.

I feel I have my own inspiration. I doubt that it's anywhere near the strength of the greats (otherwise I'd be elsewhere right now), but it's there nonetheless. I have felt the changes it's made of me, and I experience the highs when I can embrace it and the lows when I fail to find it. I have also learned not to be afraid of it, to be able to let go and let it guide me, even when I think I don't understand the direction it takes me.
It has its price sometimes - the need to fulfil it often means that seemingly less important tasks fall by the wayside, and yet how can they possibly hope to compete when they can't offer the potential to experience new thoughts, experiences and emotions? But then the reward is yet more inspiration - and once you're on that path there's no getting off.



Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015