The working lives of instruments

Seeing an instrument behind glass is, for me, a distressing experience. These objects are designed to be played, they’re alive: whether they are interesting is beside the point.

There has been a lot of coverage in recent years of the ever-inflating market for high-end instruments. Italian violins fetching millions of pounds, historical pianos covered in tabloid newspapers. But even among musicians and journalists there is a lot of confusion about how instruments are handled and used in day to day life. They were built as tools, and to maintain their quality they have to be cared for – and used.

Explaining why some instruments increase in value, while others go down, is counterintuitive. Even when we move out of the modern budget consumer market (where things almost always reduce to charity shop prices in a matter of years) some good quality instruments will skyrocket and others will be passed on at student-friendly prices. They can be compared to cars: some instruments are classic or collectable models, others are good cars but halve in value the minute you drive them out the music shop. Occasionally these will become ‘classic’ and increase in value again (as is happening with analogue synths today) but usually the investment potential is reasonably predictable.

A big part of it is materials: string instruments and some woodwind have very few moving parts, whereas pianos, harmoniums, harps etc. will wear out in decades if not maintained and replaced. Then there’s the quality of the materials: one piece of metal is chemically identical to another, whereas every tree is different and creates a slightly different tone. Industrial processes vary too: high-end violins are individually made by craftspeople in small workshops, adjusting very little as processes and materials are passed down the generations, while brass and some woodwind were developed in the industrial revolution and are made using lathes, drills and templates.

With most modern instruments quality is determined by precision and build quality, and instruments are able to be sold by make and model, knowing that if a trombone, say, is in good condition (after all, metal corrodes with time and sweat) it will have similar value to other trombones of that model in similar condition. There is more variation in string instruments, and so a good quality instrument could range easily from £12k to £1.2m.

Given the eye-watering value of some of these instruments, technicians, roadies, and repairers cannot think of the cost of what they are handling. In my working life I’ll be dealing with a £12 recorder or a hugely valuable harp, I’ve worked around multi-million-dollar pianos and road-cases with 16 individual violins in them. We are often not told the value of what we are working with, and there is a huge amount of trust placed in people like me by musicians. Every instrument is equally valuable to the person who plays it and looks after it (if not to the insurers), and if you start thinking of the absolute value you’ll never get anything done!

There are hundreds of articles exploring the differences between these high end instruments, blind testing, and discussions of whether there is innate value to certain makers. I won’t go into that here, as it’s well covered, but I will talk about two things: these instruments are becoming increasingly unaffordable for the kind of musician who can use one of these instruments (tied up as they are now in investment trading), and none of these working instruments are static objects.

Instruments are being repaired and upgraded all the time, as an army of technicians and luthiers restore instruments to working order using ancient methods and modern precision. Modern luthiers easily adjust their instruments with tolerances of less that 1 thousandth of an inch with no specialist tools.

Pianos in particular have undergone a constant stream of innovation and development since Erard introduced the double escapement in 1821. Modern instruments are designed in computer software and made using the cutting edge of material science, so an instrument made today will be a very different beast to one from even 40 years ago, and much more controlled and versatile.

With maintenance we might expect strings to be replaced and felts and leathers to be reworked, but even old instruments have undergone major surgery in their lifetime. Stradivariuses and Amatis are usually hyped as pristine artefacts of the 17th century, but most of these instruments underwent major structural change in the Romantic era. Necks, scrolls, fingerboards and tailpieces (basically all the bits you can see other than the body itself) have been reshaped or replaced, and extra beams added on the inside to change the tone and enable them to be strung with the latest high-tensile steel strings. Pianos have had celeste rails added, organs upgraded with extra ranks of pipes.

All of these changes, updates, and reshapings, as well as repairs and maintenance, are to keep these tools in the best condition, like sharpening your knives or trimming a paintbrush. If musicians need their instrument to respond a certain way, or there are issues with a particular function, specialist craftspeople can make those tweaks. The adjustments are small, but precise and crucial.

None of these instruments are fully original, but that doesn’t really matter. The instrument had a soul and a sound when it was made, and every alteration, addition and repair has been done to keep its soul intact and to bring out the quality of the sound so it can shine. Originality and provenance matter to museums, but instruments belong in the hands of artists.