Death by Oboe

How acoustic instruments torment their players.

An acoustic guitar

Years ago, I heard a lovely evening of South Indian music that involved a double-headed drum called a mridangam. Afterward, somebody asked its player what the stuff he’d been smearing on one of his drum heads throughout the performance was.

“Cream of Rice,” he replied.

“You mean, like in the supermarket?”

“Indeed, yes.”

Turns out, breakfast cereal is just the thing to keep the head of your mridangamsmooth and supple. While pop musicians and classical composers alike are always going on about computer software, acoustic instruments and the people who play them are a far more cultish affair. They’re still doing things by hand in traditional, sometimes outlandish, sometimes messy ways.

I spent some years of supposedly being a musician, but the beginning of my education in the low-tech and faintly mystical endeavor of creating acoustic instruments came when I interviewed a well-known stringed-instrument maker. When he told me his instruments were based on close study of Strads, I asked, Why not use modern technology to duplicate every millimeter of, say, a Stradivarius violin, chemically analyze the varnish and duplicate it, et voilà: great violin. He sighed, having heard that one before. “You know, every piece of wood is different,” he said. Every piece of the six kinds of aged wood in a violin has to be shaped according to its particular resonance, elasticity, and function. And the varnish? “Don’t get me started,” he said.

Violin makers do a lot of tapping and flexing as they create an instrument. The overall shape and proportions are traditional, but to find the unique texture and resonance of a particular assembly of wood, especially for the front and back plates, you gouge it, measure it, plane it, tap it, plane it, tap it some more, flex it, plane it, scrape it, tap it, and so on for hours, if not days. An ordinary person would go insane. Many makers have a private formula for the varnish, and rumors about what goes into it have Macbethian overtones: eye of newt, toe of frog? At the end comes the mystical part. An instrument takes years of playing to break in. So when the maker first bows the strings of a new violin, what the maker is listening for is not what it sounds like now but what it’s going to sound like five years from now.

Look into the rearing and feeding of any acoustic instrument and you’ll find its own frustrations, its own weirdness, its singular history and artistry. Behold the ubiquitous cymbal: the flash of marching bands, glitter of rock acts, clanging rhythm of jazz drummers, sparkle on the climax of a thousand classical pieces. Worldwide, any number of companies make cymbals according to myriad traditions. Percussionists, who are typically fanatics, each have their kit of favorites: This one has a set of Chinese cymbals, that one loves Javanese gongs. All of them love brake drums, which have to be secured from an auto junkyard where they are kept in rusty piles. Says a percussionist: “You go to the junkyard and hit brake drums for three or four hours till you find ones you like.”

For your basic cymbal in the Western world, there has never been much doubt about who makes the most distinctive: the Zildjian family, once of Turkey; since 1928, of Quincy and Norwell, Massachusetts. Whatever it is that gives Zildjians their unmistakable frisson is a secret alloy known only to an unbroken line of family members since being discovered, in 1623, by the Armenian alchemist Avedis Zildjian. At the time, Avedis was trying to refine base metals into gold rather than into a not particularly profitable musical instrument. His alloy is still created in deep secrecy in the Zildjian factory. Invent your own rumor here; they’ve all been heard, some of them including asparagus. Many Zildjians were made by traditional hand hammering until 1964, when Ringo Starr played them on The Ed Sullivan Show with the Beatles.

Next, consider pipe organs. When it comes to the metal pipes, every maker has a preferred alloy. The main ingredients are tin and lead, the latter composing up to 25 percent of the mix. All that lead can’t be good for the brain cells, but it’s what you do. After you’ve made a large organ’s 4,000 or so pipes, ranging from peeping pencil stubs to apocalyptic roarers up to two stories tall, every one of them sounds like crap until it has been individually voiced by hand: filed and crimped and tapped with a collection of little thingies. You blow through the pipe, fiddle with the opening, blow through it, fiddle with it, and so on roughly 10-by-4,000 times.

If you spoke with makers of any instrument from flutes to flugelhorns to didgeridoos, you’d hear a similar tale of struggle with nature, which is indifferent to perfection and loves mediocrity. When you get into the musical usages of living organisms, things get only stranger, and not just with wood-bodied instruments like guitars and cellos. Stringed-instrument bows, for example, have their own lore and history, all of them at the service of hair from a horse’s ass.

Mozart once wrote his father that his favorite piano maker would leave his soundboards outside through a whole winter; the ones that didn’t crack apart were the ones he used. During the Renaissance, lute players were advised to put their instruments under the covers of their beds in the morning to keep them moist and calm. Your lute was like a mistress, best residing between the sheets, adorable but fickle and hard to keep in tune.

In the modern world, nothing in music is more tragicomic than the subject of double-reed instruments like the oboe and bassoon. If you’re an oboist or bassoonist in a high-school band, you buy ready-made reeds. Otherwise, you make your own from scratch, using expensive aged cane from particular terroirs, preferably in southern France. Cutting and trimming and binding and shaving reeds consumes a good deal of your days, while other musicians are practicing and regular people are having fun or making love. If you play the oboe seriously, much of your free time is spent making reeds, not love. Besides being ridiculously fragile, reeds are also sensitive to humidity, which on a soggy night can turn an orchestral woodwind section into a squawkfest.

A professional oboist will tell you more than you need to know about what constitutes a Mozart reed, a Mahler reed, a Stravinsky reed, and so on. If he plays in a pops orchestra, there’s probably a Lennon/McCartney reed. If he wants to show you his reed knife, which is razor sharp, you should keep an eye on the exit. Reed making and the pressure on the brain that comes from blowing into an oboe can do unpredictable things to a person.

Actually, every instrument does you harm in one way or another, physically and mentally. Violinists and violists have a permanent bruise under their chins from the chin rest; clarinetists have receding jaws; piccolo players tend to be hard of hearing (likewise any orchestral players sitting in front of the brass or percussion sections). And whether they started that way or got that way en route, a certain percentage of drummers are simply nuts. Which is all to say that acoustic instruments are living things, as we say of wines, violas, lutes, and mridangams, and living things are always messing with you, though they can also be quite lovely some of the time.