In music schools, people spend a great deal of time in practice rooms pursuing mastery of their chosen instruments. Many people who aren’t in music school do the same thing in their bedrooms or living rooms. As a result there are a lot of astonishingly skilled instrumentalists in the world, and we all get to enjoy the music they produce. 

The idea of musical mastery, the pursuit thereof and the admiration thereof, is a well established cultural norm. That’s a mixed blessing for people interested in designing new types of musical instruments. For some makers of new instruments, this orientation fits well with their work. The idea that someone would devote the hours required to develop virtuosic skill on a particular instrument, learning to bring out its most exquisite sounds, achieving complete control over it, developing the ability to play any chosen repertoire on it … that’s a pretty heady notion for the maker of the instrument. 

On the other hand, for many builders there are important aspects of new instrument design that don’t sit well with this model. For one thing, many makers are committed to the idea that music-making can be made more accessible to all by creating instruments that require little or no training to play and enjoy.

Equally important: when it comes to exploring new sounds, there’s a problem implicit in the word “mastery.” If the player has complete control over the instrument, with the ability to manage precisely what it does at all times, this tends to limit the musical adventuring to what the player already knows. There’s not much exploration there. For many new instruments, upon first meeting, it’s more fun to forget what you already know and, rather than imposing one’s will, just try to see where the instrument wants to go. Admittedly, this may be difficult for people heavily invested in practice room skills. But if only to make some instrument inventor happy, I encourage people to try it!

Especially wonderful in this regard are instruments which are just not very controllable in the first place; instruments which seem to have a mind of their own and are prone to take off in their own direction when you try to play them. Excellent examples of this, I’ve found, are instruments having sheet-steel resonating surfaces that are flexible and floppy and non-rigidly mounted. You may have seen — or you may wish to look up — instruments of this sort made by Tom Nunn, Neil Feather, Robert Rutman, Constance Demby and probably others. Tom calls these instruments “space plates.” In his hands they take the form of large, flexible stainless steel plates, typically about two or three feet across (the bigger the better), resting on balloons. For the primary sounding elements they have bronze rods brazed to the surface, usually sounded by bowing or percussion. The balloon mounting is extremely compliant and flexible, leaving the plates free to oscillate like crazy and sustain seemingly forever. The other makers mentioned above have done instruments in which the initial vibrators are strings, with sheets of flexible steel suspended non-rigidly on separate mounting strings. When you play these things the flexible plates have a way of getting going, perhaps slowly at first, but eventually really taking off. The player can coax them in one way or another, reigning them in a bit or urging them into ever more manic surges, but if your goal is to micromanage, you’re likely to miss out on most of the fun. With time, you may become adept at riding the wild horse.

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