Yet more Jeff Schmidt, and observations on the resistance to inlays

Until You Don’t by Jeff Schmidt, another one, like Keating, I can’t keep from talking about

This particular musician’s work is a big part of why I can’t accept the validity of classical string players not putting inlays on their fingerboards. Clearly, he doesn’t place his fingers dead-center on the inlays while he plays this, he shouldn’t, and he is not rule-bound to do so. Equally clearly, his inlays don’t have little pink circles on them that say “F#.” They can’t. He uses scordatura on almost every piece, differently for each one. Kindergarten pink and blue circles would do him no good.

But — and this is such a fundamental truth that I think it escapes people a lot — one does not have to put one’s fingers down exactly on the inlays. They are suggestions, not rules. They are not frets, nor are they tapes.

Part of the reason why inlays are (barely) acceptable in his world I think is actually the predominance of scordatura, and that he works in a genre that doesn’t rely on sheet. Sheet and notation frequently become fraught when one uses cross-tuning as a matter of course.

Nevertheless, it is still so crystal-clear that inlays are not equivalent to pink and blue circles with notes written in them, and are not going to prevent one from using one’s ear unless one has no free will whatsoever. They don’t suck your free will out through your eyeballs, and they don’t demand that one put one’s finger directly on top of the inlay, even though one’s ear says, “Hm, better move that E down a titch, you just modulated.”

A big advantage of pianos in general is that they were deliberately created to be easier to play at any level and much more ergonomically friendly. They are and always have been unashamed children of the industrial revolution, constantly being upgraded and changed in ways that made them smaller, easier to handle, and friendlier to users, as well as constantly being upgraded for superior sound. The fact that it is relatively idiot-proof at beginner levels has only pushed the standards of advanced play much higher; if you can play three notes in tune without thinking, composers simply give you 16 of the damned things to play at once, and you wind up back in low Earth orbit in terms of technique anyhow.

But an awful lot of instruments, and strings are the worst offenders, seem deliberately to be held back in a less evolved state. Bowed strings are maximized for sound yet kept in their least playable, most ergonomically damaging states, to enable as few people as possible to play them because of some “many are called but few are chosen, and we’ll do everything we can to keep it that way” attitude.

They will always be hard to play. It will never be easy to get a good sound out of any instrument, pianos included once you advance past a certain level. One will always struggle to keep an instrument from sounding bad, at times expending the majority of one’s effort in that direction before musicality can even come into play.

But what is wrong with making a device more user-friendly? Is there really a difference between resisting inlays on string instruments, and deliberately putting 58 buttons on a TV/cable remote control because the techno-weenies that design these things get off on making it harder to use them?

All of these devices are machines. They should be designed to make them user-friendly. Getting good sound out of them, learning music, and figuring out what one wants to say on them is already extremely difficult. Electric basses already make people’s fingertips crack, bleed, and go rock-hard. Why not develop instruments, as pianos have been developed, to keep physical damage to a minimum and maximize ease of play? My viola teacher used to tell me to use my eyes and look at the fingerboard anyway. And as I stated above, just because the inlay is there doesn’t mean you’ve gone deaf and have to put your finger right there. If your free will is so fragile that an inlay will suck your fingertip to it like a magnet despite your ear telling you that that E sounds sharp in its present context, you have a bigger problem on your hands.

It’s interesting that three of my favorite musicians, linked to the right, are all either content to use updated instruments that make playing easier (Jeff Schmidt), or else are outright evangelists on the topic (Mark Wood, Cameron Carpenter). Carpenter in particular can be more in-your-face about this than a Jehovah’s Witness on speed; he is happy to bang on for hours, and with justification, about how sick he is of playing devices that can’t be kept in tune and, with tens of thousands of moving parts under the hood, do nothing better than to break, and at the worst possible moment. Wood has single-handedly revolutionized bowed string instruments and encountered no small amount of resistance.



One comment on “Yet more Jeff Schmidt, and observations on the resistance to inlays

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