By Ian Starsmore
It is said that there is a secret involved in the making of first class instruments. (It’s in the varnish or the plating or the weight of metal, the striking of the bell at the rise of the new moon etc.) Well, I have discovered Andy Taylor’s secret and I will tell you; the secret that makes him one of the best makers of brass instruments in the world, a master of acoustics, resonance and the efficient use of air, of metal balance, timbre, frequency banding and intonation. It’s this: he’s a big kid.
When I arrived, early, at his office, he was outside running up and down the road, his blue overall blowing in the wind, his arms circling, head turning rapidly, like a music hall comedian, to check the traffic in the cul-de-sac in which his workshop is situated. As well as trumpets he build half scale cars for kids, his offspring and other people’s; cars with immaculate chrome and blue paint, speedsters with 200cc engines that go like angry lawnmowers, at 35mph; skid turns, sprints and burns fuelling the grins and imagination of ten year olds. This was a test drive by one skilled and happy boy who went home with his dad, still beaming.
I wanted a new mouthpiece, custom made, for a battered old flugel I had bought in Switzerland for about fifteen quid. This tells you about me. I am not a good player. I play for the fun of it, the love of it, and have done so since I was the same age as the lad in Andy’s car. Yet playing is more than a hobby with me. It’s a passion, maybe as unwise as many passions are, given my abilities, but there is a strong feeling, wanting to play as well as possible. Seeing the flugel in the junk shop, valves stuck, scratched and spoilt, I bought is as a fellow traveller. And, back home in England, looking for someone to set up the instrument, get a new mouthpiece, in the hope that this would resurrect my find, I came across Andy’s number in the local phone book.
So, my local instrument repairer is Taylor. Surely I know that name? But still I didn’t connect it with the website, with its iconic and glamorous trumpets, flugels. Also, the exterior of the workshop gives nothing away. It’s an ordinary brick building in a row of others selling mundane products, shoes or flour or nuts and bolts or whatever, and Taylor Bellman has the least inspiring frontage and lettering of all of them. So that, when I walked into the plain entrance of the plain building and saw the photographs, the logo, the two new flugels on the bench, it was a revelation for me, like visiting a shrine.
Andy looks hard at me when we first meet; appraising I think. He does a lot of this; looking closely, more closely than most of us, but exactly in the way children do. What’s this like? What does that do? I was not joking when I said that this is his secret.
We talked at length about what sort of sound I wanted; how I played; he examined my current mouthpiece, talked about the rim shape, back bore, the fit with the instrument. I received as much attention as if I had been the star player I sometimes imagine I am, the same attention that the star players do get. What do I want in depth of cup? Do I mind about upper partials? (Me? And a 1920’s flugel made in Lausanne?). Then he’s off to fetch a billet, the solid piece of brass about five inches by an inch; then to the lathe, a 1963 Colchester Triumph. Not a computer in sight so far. He tells me he does have a computer operated lathe but it’s always breaking down. (‘I’m pissed off with it’). I begin to see what it is that he trusts.
The interior of the workshop is exactly that; benches, tables, neon lights, the dust and detritus of metal working, boxes of copper and brass remnants, walls of tools, wooden patterns all made here, all labelled cornet or Chicago or Bach, a litany of the names in felt tip on rough wood, of famous makers and types; then there are mandrels, odd shaped anvils fixed to the ends of benches like abstract sculptures. On one wall is a bench for heating and working the metal, flaming soldering torches, cans of pitch for forming and bending the tubes; blanks for mouthpieces, shelves of books about cars, a section of large pigeon holes full of original prototype Taylor trumpets, cases of other instruments in for repair. Someone comes in to collect a Tuba. Andy carries it to the car. (‘It won’t stand another polish’. ‘I know. Thanks’.) In a trailer at one end is a child’s car, blue paint, chrome headlamps; child’s heaven.
Someone is soldering a trumpet in a vice, the familiar shape of the instrument just beginning to be recognizable. Another is shaping a French horn bell. People are hitting things with hammers. Of course it would be like this. Neither of these men were makers of musical instruments before coming to work for Andy. He says he just looked at the way they did things, the way they used their hands. A judgement made on observation.
At the lathe Andy works on my mouthpiece. I watch the whole thing which takes about two hours and becomes like a kind of dance, punctuated by ironic comment.
He works first from the back end of the piece, shaving back the outer layers in a stepped formation, ‘like castle turrets’, the metal shavings fall away, curling like decorations, coronets. He cuts out the general shape of the back bore, before introducing the inside and outer taper, then turns the billet around so that the cup can be cut. He made the tools he uses, both trumpet and flugelhorn cutters, to get the depth and width I wanted, blending the two cuts, to create a smooth inner slope down to the throat of the mouthpiece, with a hand held scraper, made from an old file. The lathe still spinning furiously, he polishes the inside of the cup with his little finger held inside to a rag, whilst looking the other way, deliberately, thoughtfully, at the overhead neon light, ‘seeing’ the shape only with his finger. The rim is also shaped freeform, with a file held to its spinning outer surface.
The outside profile, the ‘tulip’ shape is the last exercise. This he does with reference to an existing mouthpiece, which is to say he looks at it, passes his right hand over it as it lies on the nearby surface, in a sort of fluttery motion, drawing the shape in the air. That’s all. There are no conjoined lathe systems to follow the shapes mechanically, nor are there computer scanners to control the cuts. He measured only once, at the beginning, with a vernier; everything else is by eye. At one point he secures the mouthpiece to a dead centre by tapping with a leather covered screwdriver handle. The comments come like riffs:‘I don’t measure it unless I have to’. ‘I’ll taper it ‘that much’; ‘feels right’. ‘I’ll take off a tiny bit’. ‘This is where it gets touchy-feely’. ’I’m a bit like a mechanic listening with a screwdriver on the engine.’ ’This lathe is too big’ ‘This is my flugelly-wugelly cutter’. ’Perhaps the customer shouldn’t see this bit’.
Out of this intuitive process comes a mouthpiece which fits the preformed mould of the rim shape and my instrument perfectly. Somewhere in Andy’s continuous commentary was a reference to sculpture, and this is what I felt I had seen; the making of a sculptural object, carved from the hard brass, the shape revealed from within the material rather than imposed upon it.
But intuition at this level, which seemed so unfettered, skittish, humorous, comes from practice, from experience and training.
As he makes the mouthpiece he talks. When I asked how Bob Paxman, the famous French horn maker, taught him, he said ‘Oh dear. He was a very good teacher with a very short temper’. Paxman would show the trainees how to do something, shape a bell for example, but only once ‘If you didn’t catch on quickly you were in trouble’.’
It seems however, that there was a further secret hidden within this harsh method. Though Paxman would give only one demonstration, he didn’t expect trainees necessarily to follow him exactly, but to find their own way, ‘use your initiative’ being a favourite phrase; Andy cottoned on, and quickly: ‘Your only chance was to go away and try to adapt it…. to whatever you might try for yourself. He never said “You’re not doing it the way I showed you”.
This process was perhaps made inevitable because Paxman was left handed, so a student might have to turn something upside down or back to front to do the same job. ‘Figure a way round it. It was a way of thinking on your feet’. This hypnotic method, with its overtones of ‘through the looking glass’ in which everything is a puzzle, has had a strong influence. Clearly it gave Andy a good grounding, several years of apprenticeship, the attainment of skill and knowledge, but it also encouraged him in his curiosity; audacity: establishing invention as a fundamental part of making instruments, based on the need always to ask questions, look beyond the immediate task. Andy’s apprenticeship and early working experience offered him a useful mixture of the certainty and uncertainty of knowledge.
Comically, teaching trainees himself now he still finds that he demonstrates some tasks backwards, without realising it, from something remembered literally, and watches puzzled to see someone turn round the instrument, as he once turned things round years ago.
After this groundwork in French Horns he sees the trumpet as a much more simple process. He can see the whole design of a trumpet in his mind’s eye, without the need for drawings. This was what I observed as he made my mouthpiece, the free and seemingly cavalier ease with which he shaped and cut the exact forms: ’You shouldn’t need a computer. You need to talk to the musician’.
Other factors have influenced his methods of work. The vivacity he showed whilst careering round with the child’s car shows playfulness. There’s more. He listens to car engines, bike engines: BMW’s, Porsches, TVR’s, with definite ideas about which is best, because it’s the one that sounds best. ‘Alright it might break down ten times, but when you hear it coming down the road; Wow’. So here’s Andy looking at car exhausts, seeing where the baffles are, the silencers, the collector at the back of the manifold; seeing how the sound is made, what the acoustics are. ‘The engineers know it has to sound cool, otherwise people won’t shell out that kind of money ’. The lesson is that the car has to sound good. So does the trumpet.
In the same playful spirit he looks at, and listens to, microphones and speaker systems. ‘The old traditional horn loaded PA system, basically a flare at the end of a tunnel, controlling the dissipation, travel, angle of dispersion, is like the trumpet.
He has other observations on trumpet history, many of them also mischievous ‘I use the same sound principles on the trumpet as I do for the French horn and that isn’t how most trumpet designers work, because they’ve only ever looked at the trumpet. They don’t look beyond it to other instruments. Why does that make the sound it does? What makes that vibrate in a certain way? What messes up the tuning on that one? Why is the range of a Horn so troublesome a thing? – and then try to relate that back to their own instrument.’
And what is the aim of all this restless ludic energy? ‘To make a good player sound better.’ and, as importantly ‘If you can make an average Jo sound good on it, then you’ve got to be heading in the right direction, so that they can get that sound, play that phrase.’
I said at the beginning that he was a ‘big kid’, with all the energy, imagination and humour implied. It is clear that an over-riding sense of fun informs everything Andy is doing, generates the development of the adventurous and sound instruments he makes; in the same proportions of technique and improvisation needed to play jazz successfully.
Before I leave, he grabs the battered flugel, (‘I can’t bear to see anything in that state’.),
Now I can worry about the upper partials.
As for my mouthpiece; I didn’t dare play it in the workshop, (the fifteen pound flugel and the custom made Taylor mouthpiece), but it sounds great and makes my other instruments implausibly better, so I’m happy. I was right. He’s done his homework. He’s a big kid. Thank goodness.