Backwards Innovation

By Mark Van Cleave
©2014 MVC

I just had a wonderful phone call/discussion with another instrument designer (who will remain nameless) of brass instruments and trumpets.  This gentleman has worked for decades with some of the largest brass instrument manufacturers in the USA.  He knows what he is talking about!

It was strangely funny (and also disturbing at the same time) to hear his stories (from an industry insider's point of view) of the lack of inventiveness and innovation in the musical instrument manufacturing industry today.  He mentioned how many of the "newest designs" were throwbacks designs that were popular in the 50's and 60's.... backwards thinking for "new and innovative” designs.


I refer to this phenomenon that manufacturers have as "Bach-itis".  What I mean by this is that Bach trumpets have been the industry leader for decades.  If you do not play a Bach, you probably play on a horn that was copied from a Bach (which makes it also a copy of a pre-WWII French Besson).  

With so much at stake, these manufacturers are scared to death of changing ANYTHING with the fear that they may lose EVERYTHING. This short sighted corporate logic is what has opened the door to the boutique trumpet industry in the past several years.  This lack of innovation with the name brands created a niche in the marketplace that they did not want (or were scared) to fill.  It is being filled now.

Many of the name brand instruments that were designed years and years ago were very good for the music that was played when they were originally designed.  In the past 25 years or so, there has been a shift from primarily orchestral type playing to more commercial type playing.  Trumpet players are now having to play all the roles of a trumpet section by themselves.  Soloing, playing lead, etc.  and all at much louder volumes to compete with electric guitars and other amplified instruments.

The industry has changed, yet the designs of the tools we have available have not.  Playing requirements are always changing and so should the designs of the instruments we play on.


With a LARGE percentage of professional trumpets coming from the BACH/BESSON design tradition, they also end up having many of the same inherent “flaws” in their designs.  As it is mathematically IMPOSSIBLE for any three valved instrument to play in tune, there are always compromises to be made with any trumpet design in order to manufacture the best trumpet possible.  These “flaws” end up having to be fixed by the player.

I refer to this phenomenon as having "Bach Reflexes".  What I mean by this is that Bach trumpets have been the industry leader for decades, so most players end up learning and then memorizing how to physically correct for these “flaws” in the Bach design (no horn is perfect) in order to play well.  This ends up creating a player that can only play well if the equipment they are playing (or trying out) has the same design "flaws" as did the equipment they learned and developed their trumpet playing reflexes on.

A player that is used to accommodating specific “flaws” will continue (because it is a developed reflex) to make these adjustments no matter if the instrument needs them or not.  If the instrument has an improved design and does not require these learned physical adjustments, the player will crack notes and have all sorts of other problems when making adjustments for “flaws” that are not there. When this happens, the player will almost always blame the instrument due to a basic lack of understanding and inability to properly discern what problems are the instruments and which are their own.

Most trumpet players are unaware of this phenomenon and thus do not like instruments that are different and that do not require the same physical adjustments or corrections they have learned and used throughout their playing career.  This also includes trumpets that may have design IMPROVEMENTS. 

These “improvements” will go unnoticed by almost all players when trying a new improved design.  In fact, most players will see these possible improvements as “flaws”.  Thus, they do not buy it and the manufacturer stops making it.

It is difficult to turn off learned reflexes while trying out new instruments.  But if you can, you will be able to discern how the instrument truly plays independently of how your chops feel that day (good or bad).

Like Obi Wan once said: "Let go Luke.  Use the force". 

Learning how to adjust to the acoustic properties of the horn you are playing instead of using the playing reflexes that you developed on and for another instrument will always give you a clearer picture of what the horn you are playing is truly capable of and how much (more or less) efficient it is.  This is harder to do than you might think.  Reflexes (good and bad) are VERY hard to change, but once you can play the horn in your hands, you can make a much better evaluation of the trumpets design and true playing capabilities.

In the past, there have been companies that were truly trying to improve the trumpet design and were heading towards positively evolving the trumpet into a more acoustically efficient and superior instrument.  It is my belief that the lack of understanding (Bach reflexes) by trumpet players and the “Bach-itis” of the manufacturers have inadvertently sabotaged any hope for new improved designs. 

Don't get me wrong... Bach makes a good horn and their instruments have no more "flaws" than any other brand... probably even less ( I own 2 Bachs!). But, like most companies today, there are very few NEW designs coming from these big manufacturers.  Many of what are advertised as  "new" designs are merely re-manufactured versions of designs/models from the past.   Vintage "designing" if you will.


As you go forward in your personal pursuit of the perfect trumpet and mouthpiece… Try to be truly objective and give new designs a critical and honest critique before judging too harshly.  Also, encourage manufactures to really start designing again and pushing the envelope.  Not just in manufacturing techniques, but in the actual DESIGNS!




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