Artistic Growth and the Importance of Garbage

Making room for something better

Shop Notes Blog

I often wonder if other flute makers suffer from the same chronic condition that I do. The condition that afflicts me is that I’m rarely completely satisfied with the flutes that I’ve made in the past. Even the recent past…like yesterday. That’s a bit of hyperbole of course—poetic license, if you will—because there are plenty of flutes that I’ve made in the past which I couldn’t make any better today than I did then. But what I mean to say is that the majority of my work is forever evolving, and I’m always trying to find ways to improve things, even if only to a tiny degree.

I think a lot of makers can relate to this. We are always trying to refine, and if we are successful then that means that yesterday’s flutes are not up to today’s new standard.

To illustrate this, some years back a friend was visiting me (he is a professional flute player) and we were going into my workshop. Outside there was a large trash can full of scrap wood, sawdust and such, as well as a dozen or so flutes. He stopped and fished a couple of flutes out and started playing them. He looked at me quizzically and a short dialog ensued.

Him: “These are great—why are they in the trash? What’s wrong with them?”

Me: “Nothing. I’ve updated the design so I’m not selling them.”

Him: “But why throw them away? They are perfectly good flutes!”

Me: “They were perfectly good flutes. Now I can get the tuning to be more accurate and I’ve changed the appearance.”

Him: “But you can still sell them, even just as seconds” (some makers sell flutes that have cosmetic issues or some other irregularity, designating them as “seconds”, i.e. not of the first quality).

Me: “Well, I don’t sell seconds and I can’t keep all of them because I can’t store them—I’d have piles of flutes under foot.”

Him: “I’m taking these with me—I can fit them in my suitcase”.

Me: “Check inside for spiders—they’ve been sitting there for a couple of weeks…”

Now I must admit that it goes against the grain to have to throw out flutes that at one point I considered good enough to sell. And I know of a few players who have cringed in horror at this practice. But to my chagrin, all of my attempts to explain why I feel compelled to do this haven’t really seemed to convince anyone that it’s a reasonable practice.

However, I think a lot of other artisans or craftspersons who really try to evolve their craft will understand it, even if they don’t (for sensible economic reasons) engage in it themselves. I think it is the flip side to perfectionism, and perfectionism is (in my view) crucial to being a successful artist.

I remember some years ago watching a documentary about a famous sushi chef in Japan (Hiro Dreams of Sushi). They were interviewing one of his employees—this gentleman whose job was to make this particular type of egg custard that goes into some of the sushi rolls. Making a batch of this stuff was very finicky and took a lot of time, and he said that Hiro (his boss) sampled each batch and if it was not perfect, threw it in the trash. This happened (if I remember correctly) more than a hundred times! I heard that and I totally understood where Hiro was coming from.

Now this is not an exact parallel because in the case of the egg custard, Hiro obviously already had a fixed standard that he was aiming for, and that’s not the case with my flute making. My standard is like a moveable goal line, always just out of reach, but I’m the one who keeps it there deliberately. There are times when my efforts to reach it have made me a bit manic, honestly, and I can’t count the number of occasions that I’ve gotten completely obsessed with solving some problem and spent absurd amounts of time trouble-shooting some tiny detail for days or weeks on end. See my blog “The Flute That Changed Everything” as an illustration. And because it is always moving, it is inevitable that at some point the trash can is full of flutes that a year before were being sold in my store as being the best work I was capable of at that time.

And if I may venture onto some more esoterically philosophical ground, I think this gesture of sacrifice is important for me personally. Yes, I could certainly still sell some of these flutes that were previously “good enough”. Yes, there is an element of waste involved in simply recycling them as scrap wood. But I feel that by making the decision not to sell them, and to instead push toward that new goal, it motivates me and keeps away any sense of complacency that might creep in and blunt my artistic drive. Maybe I’ll outgrow the need to do this and will be able to moderate this particular extreme, but I’m not sure that I won’t loose something along the way if I try.

This is an almost impossible subject to give form to without sounding completely pretentious! Reading that last paragraph I can almost see myself dressed in a black turtleneck with a book of Nietzsche under my arm, as I start discussing questions such as “What is art?” (I actually knew someone who did dress and talk that way, but to be fair he was only nineteen at the time). I’m honestly not that self-absorbed. But it’s a subject that sort of forces itself upon my attention because these milestones happen over and over again as the years go by. Suddenly, I have a fit of perfectionism and something ends up on the scrap heap while I feverishly create it’s replacement. Such events do rather make one question one’s inner motives. And referring to oneself as “one” really doesn’t make one seem less pretentious, does it?

Anyway, this speculation arose from a concrete happening, which was my recent redesign of my line of xiao flutes. It was another one of those moments where I dropped nearly everything and spent a couple of months of inspired craziness making prototypes, experimenting with all sorts of design elements (again!) and emerging on the other end with something that I feel is (subjectively) better than my past work. Luckily, this time I only had a couple of my old flute designs still on the rack, and because they are particularly nice versions of my older xiao I did not throw them in the garbage. Hmmm…maybe I am becoming more moderate after all.

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Published Tuesday, October 12, 2021