Design Oriented Thinking in Early Music

Design-Oriented Thinking and Early Music. 

Uneasy bedfellows? A match made in heaven? A bit of both?   

I think the relationship between the two paves the way for a richer, more inclusive future for the early music industry at large. As we near the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, the connectedness of the world at large is making it possible for smaller "players" in our discipline to find a voice among an incredibly large and diverse audience. I do see many individuals and organizations failing to make headway, and often due to the lack of design oriented thinking. However, this isn't a discussion about how something looks. It isn't an article regarding how to transform something stodgy and outdated (a website? brochure? an entire segment of the music industry?) into something sexy and alluring for the "younger folks".

It's about what is possible and how it comes into being... and, maybe most importantly, how it has the chance to find a voice that connects with people across the globe and, by extension, improve the lives of all involved. 

Design oriented thinking allows this. 

Hang with me for a paragraph or two. I'll get back to early music shortly.

Loosely, design oriented thinking (DOT) is a process that takes the possibilities of a situation as a starting point. That starting point is also explicitly human centered. While one might be dealing with the design of a new product... or of a social organization... or an early music ensemble... or marketing materials, the "object" of design isn't the emphasis. The possibility of it's usefulness in the world and its ability to improve lives of those it touches (human centered!) are of prime importance.

An aside: I don't take "human centered" as meaning "humans are most important." Human centered generally means that humans will be the implementers/users of the end result, and should be the starting point. Alternatively, product centered design takes the "product" as a starting point and then attempts to find users/markets. IMHO, this type of thinking doesn't take the greater good of the planet and it's inhabitants as a starting place... and, as such, has a much greater chance of missing a chance to improve the condition of the planet and its inhabitants.   

The process is also very much unafraid of changing its scope if its research and prototyping prove to miss the final end goal. 

If it were to be summarized: You start with a human centered outcome for the creation of something (organization, product, curriculum, ensemble, you name it), followed by extensive and open minded research. This should generate multiple options for our proposed outcome. That research speaks directly with populations hopefully that will reap the positive effects of these outcomes. Adjust the scope/direction of the design is need be. Prototype (even an ensemble!) and test the "product", and then continue iterative testing in order to learn from the situation, and hopefully inform further action.    

So how is this, in any way, connected to early music?

Including myself as a guilty party... I wish I had a dollar for every person I've talked to that's said "We need to start an early music group in (insert city)!" or "What the trumpet really needs is (insert product idea)!". The list is a long one... and these statements are almost always made from a place of genuine excitement about our field. What's missing is any design oriented thinking. 

Missing is any language that implicitly/explicitly states the idea that anything is possible

A hypothetical "product" example: Encouraging orchestral trumpeters to use period brass occasionally.

I would start with the question: What might be a barrier to modern orchestral trumpeters using period instruments on, say, simpler classical era repertoire? Off the top of my head, these things come to mind:

  • Learning another instrument (x2 for the section)
  • Cost of buying another instrument (x2 for the section as a whole)
  • Preconceived notions about period brass performace in the larger orchestral world
  • The headache of carrying yet another instrument/case to rehearsals and performances

Relatedly, the neophyte trumpet maker might simply say "I want to copy a classical era trumpet by Saurle and find someone to perform on it!" (points at self guiltily). The lack of DOT in this statement shows a product oriented focus. BUT, looking at the list of misgivings above, a DOT approach could be applied to the possible construction of a trumpet that might produce an instrument that is helpful to both the established orchestra trumpeter and the instrument maker's business. 

So, IMHO, the human centered objective (DOT) here would be: How does one produce a period-centric trumpet that is more closely aligned with the orchestral trumpeters daily life but still allows them to successfully (and enjoyably) dip their feet into the world of period performance?

How might I approach this?

Firstly, and this may sound trite, orchestral trumpeters often prefer to  limit the number of cases/horns taken to a rehearsal... especially if they fly a lot. In support of this, designing an instrument as a corpus (body) and a huge number of crooks would not be advantageous. Designing a simple, natural, "Classical Trumpet in C" or "Classical Trumpet in D" might be a starting place. No large case. No multiples of crooks and leadpipes if possible. A smallish natural trumpet (maybe a single vent hole for written F) that would be similar in size to a modern C or Bb trumpet. The idea would be to copy the bell profile, instrument bore, and physical detailing and layout of a historic trumpet to a degree that a nicely playing period instrument could be produced. Would it be completely "period". No, of course not. BUT... you would be introducing period performance to orchestral trumpeters while also meeting the specific needs of particularly large population of professionals in our field.

Including a modern mouthpiece adapter, or simply designing the trumpet to take a modern mouthpiece, would also be advantageous. I know very few trumpeters willing to change mouthpieces mid-concert.  

Granted, this is a very brief and superficial woking-out of a problem... but the process offers benefits to all involved as opposed to simply designing an early trumpet and then forcing it on a market. In the end, the trumpeter ends up with an instrument more fitting for a specific repertoire and the maker ends up furthering both his career and the industry in which he's employed. Both stakeholders end up with lives further enriched by the process used to solve a "problem". 

How might this type of thinking apply to an ensemble or organization?

A hypothetical organizational example:  An organization championing environmental sustainability in the early brass instrument making field.

I would start as I did before... with a question as to why an early brass maker wouldn't seek out environmentally sustainable working methods.

Making brass instruments is an inherently unhealthy and unsustainable craft as currently practiced. We mostly use fossil fuels to power torches that are used for soldering, melting, and annealing the metals with which we work. Toxic metals are common in our materials (Lead especially, but toxicities can be found in brass, bending alloys, solders, and so forth). Those makers who aren't inclined to recycle ardently also inadvertently help to prolong the mining of recyclable resources along with the destruction of forests. At some level, some things need to change.

A non-DOT solution might be to simply start an organization aimed at forcing brass makers to become more sustainable through legislative change (lobbying) and social pressure. This, however, doesn't address the whole picture... and, if "successful", would actually limit early brass makers and the larger early music field. A DOT solution would look firstly at a potential solution that aimed to allow makers to continue making while reducing/eliminating environmental damage brought on by the craft. 

How might I approach this?

Firstly, propose a human/planet centered solution. Remember, this is the time to think ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

To keep this from getting more pedantic than it already is.... let's ONLY look at soldering (Brazing) brass tubes together; an small but important part of making brass instruments. 

What tools are generally used?

  • Fossil fuel based torches and silver/brass solder ... torches often being propane, propane/oxygen, or oxy-acetylene variants.

How might these torches be replaced? Taking a step back; the process of soldering doesn't seemingly lend itself well to torch-less workflows these days. If we look back to the 16th-18th centuries, we see a process where a seam, before being soldered, would be set on/near a bed of coals not quite hot enough to melt the base material. Flux and Solder would be applied to the seam and then a tube would be used to direct mouth-blown airflow near the seam.... stoking the fire enough, just near the seam, to melt the solder so it would flow and braze the seam together.

Taking this process as a starting point, how might we revive it, but use an electric heating element to do the work? Unfortunately, that doesn't really work well, honestly. One could potentially "forge braze" tubes together by putting them in a kiln set to a temperature whereby solder flows but the brass doesn't melt. But, you run into real problems with flux and solder behavior when heating up things so slowly. You also waste a lot of electricity on what should be a fairly quick process. 

So, firstly, we might begin simply working on alternate ways to electrically braze (solder) together simple brass tubes. Induction brazing might be an alternative. It uses a coil and electromagnetic induction to "solder" tubes together by heating only the portions of the tubes held within the generated magnetic field. This might be advantageous to older methods as temp control is much tighter... only the portions being brazed get heated... and clamping fixtures aren't exposed to heat. Solder doesn't tend to flow to other parts of the instrument either as they stay cool. The work also ends up being tidy and consistent. Take a look at a few seconds of this until the silver solder melts:

Smaller machines are available at around $1000(USD).

There are even DIY solutions available. A short tutorial here for the electrically inclined: 


So a DOT solution to the overuse of fossil fuels in brazing/annealing could potentially improve workmanship as well. 

The important thing to remember is that we are searching for a solution that primarily deals with designing a human centered solution to a problem that improves the situation of all involved... with an overarching goal of improved environmental sustainability. 

Beyond suggesting equipment, a DOT solution might also investigate offering assistance in grant writing or crowdfunding in order to procure funds to purchase the induction brazing equipment. But this still uses a lot electricity, right? Yes. A DOT solution might also include consultation for sourcing energy to the trumpet maker's shop from sustainable sources... including the idea of setting up solar panels on premise to offset the increased electricity usage. These improvements, brought about by the consultation, might also bring about cooler workshop from not running an open flame all the time... consequently offsetting a portion of increased electrical energy usage by not running air conditioning as much. In addition to this, a DOT solution would also add consultation regarding sourcing recycled content for making trumpet components and outlining a plan for the conversion to renewable energy over a sensible timeframe. 

Where real work would need to be done is in dealing with the dogma surrounding historical working methods. At some level, historic trumpets almost beg to be built with historic working methods. I admit to being torn regarding this. Yet, given the survival of the planet at stake, I think a compromise can be made whereby the physical work of shaping bells and bending tubing can still be accomplished with updated working methods being confined to brazing/annealing. 

I think a solution born from a design oriented thinking workflow offers real hope. 

Lastly, this type of thinking could be applied at all levels of a career in early music:

Creating a new early music ensemble with an expressed human centered purpose. Designing a video production that has the end viewer at heart. Designing a concert season based upon bolstering social movements... the possibilities are endless.

Where early music has seriously missed the boat, IMHO, is also where its strengths lie: ie., in its championing of old things made beautiful again. There is a seriousness to the discipline, born from its love of the music and art of the 17th/18th centuries, that can be mistaken for elitism. I'm led to believe that this seriousness has more to do with an underlying respect for the art and music. Yet, that seriousness... and its reason for existence... is not often utilized in a way that touches the lives of the greater humanity. The attitude is often "Build it because it's beautiful and they will come" as opposed to "How can we take this thing that we love so greatly and find a way to use it, beyond just playing a concert, as a force for the betterment of the folks we for whom we play?" There's a subtle difference, and I would argue that approaching the problems we set out to solve, alongside the art we are tasked to make, with a DOT mindset would be a significant force for change in our individual purviews. 

This already long article could continue with examples outside of early-trumpetdom, but hopefully this is a beginning. What are your thoughts on these matters? I'd love to hear your comments. 

Cheers, Shelby



The 10,000 Hours Rule and Natural Trumpet Making

Malcolm Gladwell posited that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master at a chosen discipline. Some have come to see this rule almost as a law of nature.

It's not.  

The underlying premise (hours of deliberate practice = movement towards mastery), conscientiously applied to the study of performance, can lead to incredibly positive outcomes. Broaden the study scope to disciplines seen as less "stable"... business startups, careers in popular culture, TV, and so forth... and the meaningfulness of deliberate practice upon results is lessened.

This is, I think, an important lesson. 

I had a brief talk with another fledgling instrument maker yesterday... like me, a performing musician who has a great interest in making instruments and accessories. We talked about various hand tools. Machinery. Workshops. Startup costs. Measured drawings. Retirement (or lack of hope in one). Eventually the discussion turned to the question: 

Can we have performing careers and put in enough time (10,000 hours?) to become competent enough to augment our performing wages with income from our maker exploits. (and still be happy?) 

I think the answer is a resounding yes. 

There is a growing "maker" movement across the globe. Where this movement is, at some level, different from past movements is in the democratization of manufacturing. It's a movement more grounded in design and less in production. Given a small amount of capital and a liberal dose of creativity, design based thinking can be translated into tangible goods in a myriad of ways.

How does this apply in the construction of historic instrument? Take a look at this photo:

Baroque Trumpet by Egger based on an original by Johann Leonhard Ehe, II, Nuremburg, 1746

Baroque Trumpet by Egger based on an original by Johann Leonhard Ehe, II, Nuremburg, 1746

Take notice of the round "Ball" or "Boss" at the righthand side of the photograph. These were/are made several ways. A few common ways included (but were not limited to):

  • hammering 2 small round, flat sheets of brass in a half-sphere die and then soldering together to make a sphere.. then turning the decorative bands on a lathe.
  • Spinning the sheet brass "halves" on a lathe, over a wooden mandrel, and soldering together to form a sphere. 
  • Hand carving a wax model of the ball/boss and then casting (lost wax/Investment or green sand process) a metal version and then, if needed, reaming the bell tube diameter out of the middle. This was especially common if the ball were going to have ornamentation in high relief.

The amount of practice needed to accomplish the above tasks (well) is extensive and might includes skills such as metal shaping, annealing, engraving, casting, forging, plating, and so forth.

Yet, today, several new processes could be applied to the manufacture of our hypothetical Ball/Boss in the home workshop. The addition of the computer makes this possible. To name a few alternate processes:

  • modeling up the part on the computer (in Sketchup, Fusion 360, et al.) and having it CNC turned/machined by a rapid prototyping company and then delivered to you. (my least favorite option)
  • If you own an inexpensive 3d Printer: modeling the part on the computer and printing it to be used as mold for outsourced sand/investment casting. There are many cast-able resins available these days. (also not my favorite option)
  • If you own an inexpensive desktop CNC router: model the part up on the computer and route it from wood in two halves... and then have it cast.
  • Model it up and have or similar make the part for you. 
  • Go to, learn how to investment cast or greensand cast on a small scale (actually not that hard), and 3D print/CNC Route a form to use to make your own. (I'm not joking about casting. Go to youtube and be ready to be amazed at the number of people casting objects in their backyard on charcoal or propane forges).
  • A combination of several of the above

For wooden products, there are also many alternative processes. Implied in my list is the willingness to put effort into learning a few computer programs, and also that a small amount of money (when compared to most biz startups) will need to be spent on a 3D Printer or CNC router if you plan to produce in your own workshop (which I recommend). All of these can be learned with FAR fewer than 10,000 hours of practice, although the goal of them isn't to avoid prolonged practice and dedication to a craft. Their purpose, in my shop, is to tilt the balance of the making process towards design.  

These processes aren't necessarily better. They're different. They're also somewhat at odds with the whole gestalt of the early music instrument making industry... that is, companies attempting to stay close to historical means and methods when making instruments. That said, I don't know a single historic trumpet maker that doesn't use modern calipers, metal lathes, and propane/oxy torches.  

Yet, I do believe that these technologies allow for people who become interested in certain disciplines date to bypass SOME of the 10,000 hours. For me, this allows more time in a given project to be spent on artistic considerations.

Succinctly: I leverage technology because it tilts my timetable more towards design and less towards production. 

More time at the real and proverbial drawing board. 

That's a personal choice. I enjoy time in the shop at least as much as I do in the design phase. Personally, though, I don't enjoy spending all my time in the manufacture of a copy of something old only to find the original design could have been improved upon... especially, for me, aesthetically.

An example: Natural trumpet mutes. There are a dozen or so wooden mutes from the 17th/18th Centuries still surviving today. Most commonly copied are specimens from Prague and Nuremberg. Now, take a look at this:


These are computer models of a few existing natural trumpet mutes. The model above was created on top of a dimensioned CT Scan of the original. This specimen from Prague is a nice one... but notice the lighter colored mute in the menu to the left of the photo. 

It's just ugly.

Recreating it would be interesting (I plan to), but I don't think folks would find it beautiful. The main mute in the photo could also be massaged, aesthetically, without changing it's sonic character.

I say "Go for it!"

This brings me to one of the reasons I appreciate some of the things modern technology brings to the table when applied to making. The ability to model an object on the computer and inspect it not only for dimensional accuracy but for beauty is invaluable. Seeing a "finished" version on screen is illuminating. Tech can allow for rapid iterations of a design followed by dimensionally correct prototypes. Multiple iterations in short succession allow for meaningful time to be leveraged in decision making processes.  

I'm not spending my 10,000 hours figuring out how to carve wax well enough to make a cast-able prototype. I'm using it to refine the actual design of the instrument/object.

Well, I do plan on learning to carve wax really well for casting... but I don't plan on relying on that skill to keep my business afloat. 

The idea that I lament the most in early trumpet performance world is that modern makers don't bring much to the craft that augments/supersedes the 17th- and 18th century makers. This isn't a universal sentiment among builders at all... but there still is a strong tendency to adhere to historic models first and foremost. 

Devil's Advocate time: How many more J. L. Ehe-based trumpets (or Haas or...) need be made? More? Fewer? Shops copy these instruments because they still survive and were seemingly plentiful... and we assume they were good instruments. (They also didn't have vent holes.) By extension, do we ever truly question whether they are the best examples to be copying? Should we be copying at all? There actually isn't much documentation, nor anecdotal evidence, as to whether they actually were. You can still find an occasional Datsun B210 on the roads here in the states. They still survive. They were plentiful. Should we make more? I'm being cheeky, at some level... 

Modern processes can allow for more time to be spent in the design and simulation phases... and still be part of a primarily hand built workflow. CNC can produce mandrels for bells while still having the bells produced by hand. 3D printed cast-able resin molds for decorative parts (Ferrules, bosses, receivers, and so forth) can be produced at home. Home much "tech" one wishes to inject into the building process is a personal decision. There are no rules. 

So, do you have thoughts about the inclusion of technology as a short circuit of sorts for the 10,000 hour rule... here specifically applied to instrument making? Are these new technologies valid in an old-wave discipline? Does greater design time on the computer and less time in the shop equal an instrument with no soul? My feelings are somewhere in the middle, but I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

Cheers, Shelby

Historic Trumpet Dogma (and Friendships)

For the non-early-music crowd: Explanation for the terms "vented" (holes) and Ventless (no-holes):

I work in the music industry as a performer, maker, and scholar... but mostly as a performer.

Most of that time is spent behind a trumpet mouthpiece: I split my time between modern instruments and historic instruments. I pay the bills behind the trumpet, so I generally play whatever comes along as long as the pay is worth the time commitment. On some nights, it's Tower of Power or Motown charts in a horn band.

Or section trumpet in a regional orchestra. Wedding ceremonies. Brass Quintet. Mardi Gras Krewe Balls. Musicals.

On other nights (like last night), I play early music. Bach. Handel. Vivaldi. Bieber Biber. Last night happened to be Handel's operatic take on the the story of Partenope. I played on a Egger MDC baroque trumpet with Egger's take on an 18th century mouthpiece by (or not, probably) William Bull.

To support my career, it generally takes a lot of gear to survive. A generic gear list for a freelance "do-it-all" trumpeter might look like:

  • Modern piston trumpets in varying keys (Bb, C, Eb/D, Piccolo)
  • Modern rotary instruments in varying keys (Bb/C)
  • Period Instruments (Baroque trumpet in D/C at "modern" and "low" pitch)
  • Mutes
  • Mouthpieces
  • Cases (Single and multi-instrument)
  • iPad/Laptop
  • Accessories (lubricants, stand lights, metronome, etc...)

Whether one talks of trumpets, mutes, stands, mouthpieces, leadpipes, horn mods, music editions (you name it)... everything seems subject to a rigorous amount of discussion about what is "best". Even within these categories... take harmon mutes for example... debates rage about the relative advantages of one material (or brand... or shape... or... or...) over another.

These discussions, specifically online, are seemingly released from the civility required during face-to-face encounters. Their tone often borders on the political.

This is an old topic. The old "Would you say that to my face?" discussion. This post isn't THAT discussion. This post is about general perceptions and ramifications with regards to early music gear... and, at some level... about how musical tastes/decisions sometimes can interfere with friendships and professional relationships.

The early music world for trumpeters is a relatively small one. In the USA, there are a handful of individuals each in the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, West Coast, Deep South, and Southern East Coast that have gigging territories of sorts. I use the phrase "territory" kindly. It's mostly a reflection of where we work most often, not generally a boundary erected to keep other trumpeters out. We all cross in and out of the other territories from time to time... but there certainly are fairly entrenched regional professionals. I'm in the deep south, playing in Houston and Austin a lot while also crossing into Nashville and Kansas City with some regularity. I play less regularly, though, in New England. Maybe 4 or 5 times a year. This week I'm in San Diego (which generally only happens once a year). Other cities come along as I'm needed.

In each of these regions, the trumpeters tend to have a fairly noticeable professional "personality". I think, maybe more than any of the other regions, those of us in the deep south are "doublers" on both modern and historic instruments. There just isn't enough early music work in our region to support full-time historic trumpet playing. All of my early music employment is on the road. For a few folks in other regions, this isn't the case.

Musically, individuals in these regions can differ as well. Sometimes wildly. If I were interviewed and asked to describe my artistic intent as an early trumpeter in a few sentences, I'd probably say something like: "I aim to be as historically informed as possible from a musicological standpoint (articulation, tuning, etc...) and, from an equipment standpoint, I attempt to play equipment that keeps me as close to the original equipment without compromising my standards for musiciality, technique, and listenability".

Translated: I learn as much as possible about my repertoire/instruments from a scholarship standpoint and then choose performance equipment that gets the job done and sounds as good as possible.

Other folks in other regions might say something completely different.

Where the early trumpet world sometimes struggles is in the acceptance of the idea that there are currently multiple ways to approach the performance of our repertoire... even from an equipment standpoint... and that there are very real ramifications to choosing differing approaches. At one level, there just isn't a "safe space" for experimentation in our field. The public has modern sensibilities when it comes to performance expectations. Perfection is (unfortunately) the standard and there just isn't enough horsepower in the early trumpet field (nor ensembles willing to create a safe space for experimentation with truly old instruments) to currently overcome this. This is unfortunate, IMHO.

Some will read this as vents (holes) versus ventless (no-holes) post. It's not. This post could apply to 3-hole system versus 4-hole system. It could apply to the decision to use a historic mouthpiece or a modern one. It could apply to seamed tubes versus seamless tubes. The list could be a mile long. I actually prefer no-holes but never get to do it professionally. I'd get fired.

(But isn't this early music?)

Let's face it. Ignoring listener expectations can be dangerous in such a stable and established repertoire. We all do it at our own peril. I've played one performance of a truly major work (B Minor Mass) in a trumpet section utilizing period instruments without the aid of modern vents. I was the lowly third trumpet... but it was truly a revelation and I learned more prepping for that performance than just about any other. I'd love to do it again.

Yet, years later, I still run across folks who still volunteer some rather pointed commentary about the trumpets on that performance. At our own peril, we did not meet folks' modern sensibilities.

By itself, that might not be a bad thing.

Where it continues to cause me troubles to this day is in trumpeters' lack of willingness to see different modes of performance and/or equipment choices as valid. The "venters" talk trash on the lack of musical finesse and out-of-tuneness of the ventless folks. The ventless folks treat the venters like they have no interest in truly connecting with the old music in an "authentic" manner. This ignores the sometime realities of being a professional performer of early music in the modern era. People's ears are attuned to in-tuneness. They are inundated with perfection. These old instruments are late to the game and, after a few centuries of listening to brass instruments capable of performing with a huge range of expression and dynamics (and a greatly expanded repertoire), the adjustment of the HIP movement to truly "period" performance on trumpet is going to need much more time... if it is even possible.

The truth is this: only a tiny, tiny fraction of the trumpet world, much less the larger musical world (or the world at large), understands what it means to stage a historic performance of baroque music on a truly historic trumpet. Most won't notice the difference between 3-holer and 4-holer. Or mouthpieces. Or whatever. In a world where period strings and other winds will continue to be able to play with the utmost musicality, especially with regards to intonation and tone quality, there will be precious little space for truly historic trumpets that can't match them.

I still think we should go for it. How we do that is another post though.

Yet, for me this is most important:

The choice of gear isn't a reflection of moral character. (Dammit!)

And, just as importantly:

We exist to bring an experience to the listener.

There is a place for all types of early trumpets currently... but the listener should be to whom we look for advice. As it currently stands, I can't think of anyone stateside (maybe anywhere) that can pull off "Eternal Source" with no vents and have it sound truly beautiful to modern ears (someone PLEASE prove me wrong). Vents are generally in order. At the same time, there is a lot of battaglia repertoire that would be well within the reach of me and my contemporaries. It's this attention to detail when deciding which repertoire we decide to tackle with authentic means that is sorely needed today. Instead, folks stick one way or the other... and a chance to grow a larger, more inclusive, early trumpet community is stifled. Folks get pushed out of work on both sides. Feelings get hurt.

All over a partisan attitude towards gear.


Ensembles could do a lot to help by staging smaller, less "critical" performances that aim to create a safe space for trumpeters to experiment with truly historic gear... and be very explicit that they are doing it. Choosing accessible repertoire and flattering acoustics. La Petite Bande really pushed this at first, giving the Madeuf brothers a place to give it a go. From that, they grew into quite a force in the early trumpet world.

How do we go about working towards this goal of more inclusiveness in the early trumpet community? Is it even worth it? I think the answer is a resounding yes. I'd appreciate your comments and messages. Fire away!

Cheers, Shelby