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

Perfection



I'm considering a spot of decoration at the workshop.
"What??" I hear you cry, "Never mind a lick of paint, how about tidying up??!" Ah, but I wasn't thinking in terms of a couple coats of emulsion and a few pot plants - or even a trompe l'oeil on the rear wall, oh no, rather I was thinking in terms of a couple of comfy wing-back chairs along with walnut-veneered coffee table.
Aside from giving me somewhere comfortable to sit while I take lunch and browse through the latest issue of "What Pull-Through" monthly, it'll provide a place where clients and I can sit in comfort while we discuss the various philosophical issues that surround the business of playing woodwind instruments.

It might appear extravagant but some of those issues require a good few hours of thrashing before reaching any sort of conclusion, although I have to say that the conclusion is nearly always something along the lines of "Ah well, whaddya gonna do?".
What prompted this sudden urge was a lengthy conversation with a client who dropped in for an on-the-spot service to his tenor, en route to temporary engagement covering for a fellow musician who'd come down with a dose of peccary flu - apparently it's a bit like swine flu, but less of a pig to shift.
While I made myself busy removing various keys and suchlike he spoke at some length about the various horns he'd owned down the years and what had led him to choose and settle on this particular one, ending up with the claim that he'd finally found the perfect horn.
Now, what with having a rather busy schedule and a hell of a lot of catching up to do all round, I should have smiled sweetly and said something like "It's nice when it all comes together, isn't it?" - but I just couldn't resist and instead said "Is there such a thing as the perfect horn?".
That tore it.

It didn't take long for us to agree that the term 'perfect' was open to a lot of interpretation, and that the human factor meant that the definition of perfect was likely to vary widely even if the physical structure of a horn could be perfected. It took rather longer to hammer out the tricky business of how you would know when you'd made a perfect horn and how you'd deal with people who didn't like it (assuming the death-by-Ninja-in-the-night option wasn't a goer).
The discussion was in full flow, but at around my third mug of tea the client began to reel off a list of things he didn't much like about his own instrument.
"Hang on a mo, I thought you said it was perfect!".
Apparently not. It was perfect, apart from a very slightly dead low B, and some tricky tuning around the low D and C, and a tendency to break up around the top C, and the crook angle was a little low...and so on. He ended up with around a dozen 'niggles', any one of which would disqualify the horn as being perfect.
I then nodded towards a cheap Chinese tenor lying on the workbench and pointed out that it had none of the problems his horn had, and although it had other problems of its own it would nonetheless win out on points in a direct comparison - but neither of us would ever consider calling it perfect.

So then the debate turned towards those issues that could be made to be perfect, and those that couldn't - such as the quality of the keywork versus the tonal qualities.
This too was fraught with difficulties. Whilst it was possible to say that a perfect key should be built in such-and-such a fashion, it was nigh on impossible to define what constituted the perfect placement of that key. A millimeter too high or low, left or right, and straightaway there'd be thousands upon thousands of players who would consider the keywork to be imperfect.
We were getting nowhere, and I hadn't even begun to talk about acoustics and truncated cones etc.
I put forward my own viewpoint that says that as long as a horn is well built and is accurate in tuning (or as accurate as it can be - keep reading), then the notion of perfection lies solely with the player - and that notion will be based on such ideals as the feel of the action and the tone and playability of the horn. This seemed to draw agreement, but then I ruined it by playing devil's advocate and suggesting that as a player's needs and tastes changes over the years a once previously perfect horn could very easily be usurped by a horn that turned out to better meet the new needs, and thus would be more perfect. But how could you have more prefect than perfect?

The big problem is that the saxophone, like just about any other musical instrument, is built around a set of compromises. Even before the sax designer's pen hits the paper there are compromises that must be adhered to - such as the modern tempered scale.
If you disregard that you then have to deal with the fact that the saxophone ought to be a collection of individual tubes, each one dedicated to a single note. If you limited the range to a single octave you'd still have thirteen tubes to contend with - clearly impractical, and a bit of a bugger to carry around.
So yet another compromise must be made, and, to keep it short, so on and so on.
So before the poor old sax even gets off the drawing board it's riddled with flaws.
Perfection? Not a chance!

But who really needs perfection? I pointed out to the client that he was happy with his horn (at least he was when he came in) in spite of the niggles he listed, and whilst he had evidently played other horns that didn't have those niggles, none of them had that certain something that 'hit the spot'.
And this is the crux of the matter - none of those horns had the right flaws, in the right places, that made his current horn 'perfect'.
Why do so many players still favour vintage horns, in spite of their often clunky action and their sometimes quirky tuning? It's the tone - but the tone is nothing to do with 'old brass' as so many people are inclined to believe (there are just as many mediocre vintage horns) - it's all down to the design of the bore and the means by which the inevitable compromises were distributed around the instrument.
It's all very technical, but to simplify it considerably you can think in terms of having to choose whether a particular note plays bang on in tune or sounds better. Or perhaps a bit of both.
Undoubtedly, modern horns are extremely well balanced in terms of these compromises - but even as a confirmed fan of modern horns I willingly admit that the price for such precision is a loss of character tonally, and that's acceptable because I, and many others, don't find that character particularly appealing. Many do though, and would quite happily buy a brand new horn with a super-slick action if only it came up with the goods on the tone front.

So the question isn't so much 'how perfect is a horn' but rather how flawed is it...and where are those flaws placed?
it seems to me that for some players, and perhaps for all of us to some extent, the more perfect a horn is the less likely it is to appeal to us - and that should anyone ever build a completely perfect horn one day there's a better than even chance that it would be so incredibly dull that no-one will want to play it.
Mind you, the flip side to that is that if someone built a horn that, say, duplicated the flaws of a certain well-known vintage horn and deliberately pointed out those flaws in the advertising blurb - no-one would buy it. In other words you just can't win.

Ah well, whaddya gonna do?

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015