Tools We Love

In 2003, the Scottish snooker player Stephen Hendry arrived in Heathrow Airport from playing tournaments in Asia to discover that his cue had been broken in the plane’s baggage hold. Hendry had used the cue since he’d first got it as a gift from his parents 20 years before, and with it had won 34 world championships. After it was broken, Hendry didn’t win a professional match for two months. He described the psychological and emotional loss painfully: “You cannot underestimate the body blow for a snooker player of having your cue broken, after all it’s an extension to your arm.”

Any professional’s tool is an extension of her body. And of all the relationships that exist between workers and their tools, one of the closest and most complex is that which exists between a musician and her instrument. An instrument is many things to a musician: a flexible, intricate device; a beautiful object; a lifelong companion; a conduit for communication. Musicians spend hours with their instruments every day, learning the touch, the action, the glide, the exact technique needed to produce subtle differences in tone—everything that makes their instrument make the sound they want it to make. They know their instrument’s strengths, weaknesses, and flaws.

A few years ago, I had a piano with a faulty E. It produced a note, but required considerably more pressure than the other keys. I paid it little heed and practised on, straining for sound on the E so that it fitted better with whatever I was playing. I barely noticed I was doing it, and it quickly became a habit. Only in a lesson, on my teacher’s piano, did I discover that I was still applying the extra pressure, hammering out that E because I subconsciously expected it not to work.

The piano is an unusual case. Most pianists have to arrive at the concert hall and take what they’re given for their performance. Good halls will ensure that their piano is perfectly tuned and maintained, but different pianos have different characters. A piano with a fuller, more resonant bass might work wonders with a rich, sonorous Debussy prelude, but need careful control to keep Mozart light and clear. One with a more naturally dry, crisp sound will suit Haydn better than it suits Brahms. It’s like poker: you play the hand you’re dealt. Pianists have to adapt, in the space of a rehearsal or two, to the instrument they perform on.

The only pianists I know of to buck this tradition are Glenn Gould and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Michelangeli was a notorious perfectionist, said to be so concerned about achieving the exact right acoustic quality that if it would help, he would remove every chair from the auditorium. And so particular was he about the instrument he used that when he toured, he liked to take not only his piano with him, but also his tuner, Ettore Tallone.

Gould, after he’d found his perfect piano, stopped performing publicly and worked solely as a recording artist. In this Rolling Stone interview, he described the only way he could psychologically recover from an experience rehearsing on a piano that didn’t agree with him. After the disastrous rehearsal, Gould got in his rented car and fled to a sand dune:

So I sat in my car in the sand dune and decided to imagine myself back in my living room…and first of all to imagine the living room […] and I tried to imagine where everything was in the room, then visualise the piano, and…this sounds ridiculously yogistic […] but so help me it worked.

Anyway, I was sitting in the car but looking at the sea and got the entire thing in my head and tried desperately to live with that tactile image throughout the balance of the day, got to the auditorium in the evening, played the concert, and it was without question the first time that I’d been in a really exalted mood throughout the entire stay there.

It was only by recreating, psychologically, the feel of his own trusted piano that Gould was able to tame the one on which he performed that night.

But where pianists (and organists, and a few others) are unlucky, most other musicians are fortunate. A trumpeter, or an oboist, or a guitarist, plays on the same instrument at home and in performance, and so can develop a deep trust in her instrument. Where Gould carried the memory of his piano onto the stage that night, most other musicians will carry their instrument itself, and with it their awareness of how to use it.

At the opposite extreme to the piano, at least amongst musicians I spoke to for this piece, lie string players. I asked some how they would feel if they were put in a pianist’s situation, and asked to play on an instrument that wasn’t their own. Kevin Ng, a violinist, said that it would be fine if he had “a week or so beforehand to get comfortable with it,” while the cellist Corrina Connor expressed a sort of resigned acceptance, saying, “I would just have to get on with it, and do my best.”

The relationship between string players and their instruments is so close that it’s not uncommon for them to ascribe personalities, and sometimes even names,[1] to their instruments. Kevin Ng calls his violin “a temperamental Italian asshole at times.” And in 2013, Tom Service wrote for the Guardian about Jordi Savall, who plays viola da gamba:

[O]ne day, if it’s feeling unloved and if Savall hasn’t given it his full attention for a while, the gamba will take time to warm up, being at first obstreperous and unyielding and only complying to his touch and his musical will after a few hours.

Between the extreme cases of pianists, who must always adapt to new instruments, and string players, who seem to develop particularly close relationships with theirs, lie musicians who, for one reason or another, regard their instruments in more practical terms. Instruments like the recorder and the harmonica have more restrictions in range and available notes, and wear out quickly, so players will typically own a collection. For recorder players, Laoise O’Brien told me, playing on unfamiliar instruments and even swapping instruments is normal “because we need so many types of instruments it is difficult to have absolutely everything.”

Eimear O’Brien, a French Horn player, compares swapping her instrument to driving. I could almost read the shrug in the email she sent me: “You love your own [car], but if you have to you’ll drive someone else’s.”

Brand names come up in discussions of instruments almost as frequently as they do in discussions of cars. To O’Brien, the Alexander 103 is “the Mercedes of French Horns”, while flutists will brag about upgrading to a Nagahara from a Yamaha. Most pianists will develop an enormous preference for either Steinways or Kawais. (I’m a Kawai guy.) Then of course there’s the elephant in the room.

Niccolò Paganini, probably the greatest soloist of the early nineteenth century, played a Stradivarius violin. According to one of the many half-myths he nurtured about himself, or that have sprung up since his lifetime, he disabused one concert audience of the notion that he was a mediocre violinist playing on a great violin by suddenly smashing his instrument on stage. He then, so the story goes, revealed that he’d been playing on a cheap violin for the first part of the concert, and finished on the real Strad.

But the idea of an instrument that can produce perfect sound with minimal effort is nuts anyway. Roman Totenberg, whose stolen Stradivarius was recently recovered, spoke of his loss as of a beautiful relationship which took decades to develop, and was lost after precious little time at its prime. From the New York Times’ report on the recovery:

Mr Totenberg […] told CBS News in 1981 that it had taken two decades of playing the instrument before it reached its potential. “It took some time to wake it up,” he said, “to work it out, find all the things that it needed, the right kind of strings and so on”.

This is the balance that comes from owning an instrument, the mesh of practical and emotional considerations, of knowledge and understanding, of knowing the sounds your instrument can make and how to make them. You can approximate on another instrument—you may have to—but your own instrument is your home. It’s interesting that Gould, sitting out in his car in that sand dune, didn’t try to summon up his memory of his piano’s touch ex nihilo. He recreated his home first, and his piano as part of it.

The most profound art form surely would be one that allowed direct communication, mind to mind. Such a form doesn’t exist, because we’re not psychic, but of all the arts, music comes closest. Musical instruments are the bridge that make that connection. When a musician performs well, the effect is a paradox of consanguinity and solitude. She can make you feel at once like the only person listening, and like a part of something grander. Between the musician and the audience, there is only the instrument.

So it’s no surprise that some musicians come to love their instruments. It’s a love, too, that transcends musical boundaries. Amy Winehouse felt she drew a masculine power from her guitar. Miles Davis felt isolated without his trumpet to hand. Taiko performers speak of harmony with the souls of their drums. A musical instrument is a companion in training and a partner in performance, an intimately-known tool, a vehicle, a friend, a nemesis, a coach, a drug. That we can develop an cherished relationship with something of wood, gut, steel, and plastic is peculiar, but in that peculiarity is humanity. People can make these connections with objects because the objects were made by people, and because they connect people to each other, and because they have strengths and flaws and intricacies just as people do. And, though they are ultimately only tools, the relationships musicians develop with them are as complex and deep as any love.

  1. I spoke to several musicians for this piece. Some of them—string players and others—had named their instruments. Those names, in no particular order, are Isabelle, Gertrude, Gerald, and George. ↩