Tools Of The Trade

There are many days where I envy vocalists. Singers who are born with their instruments to carry with them wherever they go and who can summon forth soul defining music at the slightest whim. Those jaw dropping MCs who have such a talent with words they can weave their way through language crafting all manner of poetry out of thin air. Vocalists turning words, even primal sounds, into melodious ballads of heartache or triumph that span generations and touch the deepest parts of what it means to be human. Unfortunately for myself, though I have learned to methodically craft my lyrics and have worked a little on improving my singing voice, I have not been so blessed with such innate talents as some around me. Instead, I turned towards being an instrumentalist and have learned to manipulate these tools in order to create music.

Some days I look at my saxophone and am amazed that such a thing could make noise the way it does. Think of any instrument you've seen for that matter. Chunks of metal or wood (or both) broken apart and mashed back together in a specific way that, when played in a manner befitting that tool, produces sound waves that our brains process as music. Whether its a trumpet fresh off the assembly line or an ancient horn discovered again amongst the rubble of a far gone civilization, when air is put through the mouthpiece they both spring to life extending the breath put through them into frequencies that are (hopefully) pleasing to the ear. The process of crafting these artifacts is astounding work in itself.

The world's greatest luthiers hone their craft over their lifetimes akin to ancient sword-smiths folding layer upon layer of metal to create blades that will carry the maker's legacy long after his last breath. Those who study the art of molding the finest guitars focus on finding the best woods and working them relentlessly until they have successfully taken life that once flourished in its forest home and transmuted it into its final form, a true reincarnation. They learn to bend the fibers almost to their breaking points, how to join the pieces they make into a whole, forcing tension unto the parts then step back to allow these separate objects to communicate with each other and find equilibrium amongst themselves, forming a partnership that will last as long as they remain intact. These craftsman are nothing more than fabricators, yet they have found a way to dabble in alchemy by taking wood and turning it into song. And in perfecting their trades have carved out legacies that become synonymous with the instruments and artists who use them. Although you may not know the life story of Antonio Stradivari, you have certainly heard of his violins and how prized they are even centuries after they were made.

Now that the instrument has taken shape, its time for another tradesmen to take and manipulate it. All the parts have been put in place: the neck is on the horn with mouthpiece attached, a reed is positioned and held tightly by a ligature, a strap affixed and lowered around the neck. This tool was expertly crafted in Mantes-la-Ville, France, at the Selmer company by craftsmen using sketches and plans dating back to 1936 as a reference. Machines were utilized, hands molded and toiled, wages were earned. It sits on my shoulders ready to perform it's task, waiting to aid me. Lifting the horn into position my muscles ready for their necessary duties, my mind going through its checklist (embouchure, finger position, breathe through the notes...), my body working as a community about to join forces with an organization of a similar nature.

The partnership between person and instrument is just that; a partnership. No more is this apparent to the human than when they attempt to impose their will upon the object without allowing for proper discourse. If I don't set my embouchure right, or if I attempt a passage without breath support then my saxophone will make me pay for it and what was once music will now deteriorate into what I affectionately refer to as "honking and squawking". The tool did it's job, it is in sound condition and held up it's end of the bargain, where as I was the one trying to assert control where there should be a peaceful union. Tyrants have no place in a democracy. And if both parties should relinquish their need for dominance and instead work together in concert towards their common purpose, then the greatest music can be made.

Instrumentalists are cavemen, we need our tools to survive in the world. Sure, many of us know how to sing and have learned the highest theory, but it's with our instruments that we are most intact. I don't see this as a disadvantage. How could it be? While it may make traveling a bit more cumbersome, once we arrive at our destination and assemble what we need then we are truly whole and poised to make beautiful melodies. Whether it's hammering out a melody, carving out new harmonic ideas, or drilling through inhibition to release the notes crowding our souls, it's the tool in which we decided to dedicate our lives working with thats helps us craft our songs. Without us, they sit on their stands or lay in their cases gathering dust and waiting until the next time their partner comes along. Without them, we pace and agonize until the next moment we have to release the pent up tunes and ideas that build inside us, pressure needing a release valve to flow freely into the air.

I may at times envy vocalists, but I imagine it to be a lonely trade.

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