Problems with Compensation and Accommodation

© 2002 by Larry R. Naylor All rights reserved

All of us have compensated for shortcomings of intonation on our instruments. If the instrument's quality is world class, then the amount of compensation should be slight, but a poor quality instrument can be miserable to play in tune. If a person plays a favorite instrument long enough, then any compensation for the instrument's shortcomings becomes automatic; the player compensates for intonation and timbre without really having to think about it. At this point, the player has completely accommodated to the current playing qualities of his instrument.

What do you suppose would happen if an instrument began to leak a little here and there and that the leaks slowly got worse? One thing the player often does without thinking about it is to press the keys harder to get the pads to seal. Leaks will also affect the intonation of the instrument and an experienced player will automatically compensate for the leaks and changing intonation without realizing that he is doing it. This situation can go on for months or years before the player finally realizes that something must be seriously wrong with his instrument. This situation is common with saxophone, bassoon, and flute players.

Unfortunately, something even subtler occurs with wooden instruments. They eventually shrink, thus changing bore and tone hole dimensions. This shrinkage usually happens over a period of months to years. When an instrument shrinks dimensionally, the scale, tuning pitch, and timbre, for example, may change in unpredictable ways even though the instrument has no leaks and is otherwise in good mechanical playing condition. Because these changes happen slowly, the player usually compensates for them without realizing what he is doing and without realizing that his instrument is deteriorating.

Here is an example of a fine clarinetist who had accommodated to an instrument that was in the final stages of being “blown out”. After receiving Steve's clarinet, I performed an organic oil immersion restoration of the body and rebuilt the keys (cleaning, re-fitting, and re-padding). When I finished my work on the instrument, I found that it played very well and that it had an even scale and a rich timbre. I shipped the clarinet back to Steve in New York. After about two weeks, Steve called and said that the clarinet had an almost metallic buzz in its timbre on certain notes. He shipped it back and I took it apart and reassembled it. I really could not find anything to account for a metallic buzz. When I played the clarinet again, I could not hear the buzz he described so I returned the instrument.

Several weeks later, Steve flew to Denver to enable us to work together to find the problem with his clarinet. When he played it, I could hear the buzz, but when I played it, the buzz was gone. I went in the restroom and experimented with my embouchure while playing his clarinet until I was able to reproduce the buzz. After demonstrating this to him, we both realized that he had accommodated to his blown out clarinet to such an extent that, after the restoration, he was overcompensating when playing it. Realizing what had been happening, he again played it, and the buzz was gone. It is fun seeing a client with a huge smile on his face. He then left his A clarinet for an immersion rebuild.

Many years ago, I had a young client who was becoming a very talented sax player. His horn was a King Super 20 alto that needed some serious work. The sterling silver gooseneck had a nasty bend in it and, of course, I restored the neck to its original shape. When Bob picked up his sax, I had him play it and then we talked about using light finger pressure and relearning how to play the sax in tune.

He came to my shop about a week later and told me that the non-standard fingerings he had developed for the altissimo register no longer worked. He loved the way his sax played, but he wanted his altissimo register back. Sadly, I had to bend his neck back to its old shape for Bob to get his altissimo register back.

Obviously, he had accommodated to a sax where its bent neck had compromised the basic acoustics of the horn. Since he was self-taught, he did not have a teacher to advise him to get the sax neck repaired and he was unaware that it would affect the sax acoustically. There is also a moral here: to avoid accumulating bad playing habits, find a good teacher.

It appears that many musicians do not really know how well their instruments can play because the instruments have not been in good repair for a long time. Typically, a client will play his freshly rebuilt instrument only to realize how hard he had been working to play it when it was in disrepair.

If you find that your instrument is not a pleasure to play, do yourself a favor, find an excellent repair technician, and work with him.

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Naylor's Custom Wind Repair
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Centennial, CO 80122    USA
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