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My wife and I were both teachers when I decided to go into instrument making full time in 1979. I had been making moonlighting instruments for about fifteen years. We talkedsometimes very intenselyabout this for a long time. It meant she would become the "primary breadwinner," at least until I either got established making instruments or knew it wouldn't work. Well, it has worked, as I have had contracts continuously since 1980. But she still wins the primary bread because a lot of my earnings go back into the business as supplies, tools, advertising, pension plan, travel, salaries for part-time help, and on and on. Without her regular income and benefits we would be living much closer to the edge. I am thankful that she is very supportive of my work and takes a part in the business by designing and painting soundboard art. But for her, you would be talking to a derelict, or at least a hungry hermit.
The clientele in this work is a very unusual and interesting crosssection of the artistic world. Whether they are highly qualified professional players or amateurs who play primarily for themselves, they are tuned-in not just at the basic musical level but at a very sophisticated aural level, a highly sensitive touch level, and an unerring visual level. People who own and play harpsichords respond to everything about the instrument. The work becomes tremendously exciting and challenging because you know you are answering so many needs when you create an instrument for a client.
The hardest thing is marketing. Arnold Dolmetsch certainly had the right idea when he convinced Chickering to let him develop a line of early keyboard instruments. Too bad things don't work that way anymore. If they did, the piano factories would each hire what we call a "harpsichord maker" to develop their plucking assembly line. How nice it would be just to be a harpsichord maker, not, in addition, a harpsichord sales representative, advertising executive, copy writer and publisher, exhibit booth front-person, over-the-road harpsichord trucker, yada, yada.
Of course, the ideal is to exhibit your instruments where you are the only harpsichord maker. The problem with this is that you are probably not at a large enough event to make it worthwhile, or you are not targeting the right potential market. So, if you go to the right meetings, the chances are you will be exhibiting with other makers, competing for the same potential clients. This is not all bad, however, because, like the users of the instruments, the makers are all interesting people, if not unusual or downright weird. Most have dropped-out, washed-out, or burned-out from some other line of work. (One harpsichord maker I know claims to be the only one to have chosen this work of his own free will for his life's endeavor. He may be right.) Anyway, being castouts, retreads, or whatever, the harpsichord making collegium is an interesting group.
With the economy the way it is and the number of makers and harpsichords out there, one wonders about the future. That the instruments will be needed and will need care and regulation seems assured. "Early music" has gone beyond a "movement" in England and Europe, and is more and more loved and played in our country. Even in St. Louis, admittedly parochial, there are symphony musicians playing at pitch levels below the terribly high modern orchestra norms. The Flemish and French modeled instruments have become commonplace, the German style has been embraced, and it has been said that English harpsichords are the wave of the future. I think the time will come when individual makers will lean less on the European national models and develop hybrid instruments incorporating the best characteristics of all schools of thought. The emphasis will shift from re-creating specific models to creating exceptionally versatile instruments useable for all styles and schools of music.
|© Peter Tkach