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
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
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
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
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?