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 It isn't an article regarding how to transform something stodgy and outdated (a website?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