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