Generally speaking, when we start to learn to play an instrument it is on an inferior model. We trade up as and when we improve, partly as a reward for improving and partly as an investment in our future development because we believe this would be limited in scope or rate without the advantages that a superior instrument offers.
This continues even as our technical ability elevates and our musical insights deepen. As musicians, we can easily find ourselves fretting over our instruments, wondering if our dissatisfaction with the noise we are making is because we’ve outgrown them or, rather more simply, because we just need to practise more. Singers, needless to say, have no choice.
The process, if not the fretting, only comes to a halt when the increasingly elevated price of instruments makes further progress up the instrument ladder impractical for all but a very few: those with access to private wealth; those able to arrange financing on the back of stellar careers or career potential; those who secure the benevolence of individuals, corporations and bodies who have instruments to loan.
Almost invariably, the assumption is that the instrument given up must be inferior to the one taken up, at least when the decision is in the musician’s own hands. The generous players at the end of their careers who hand over their fine instruments to younger colleagues, content to continue playing on something less esteemed, are exceptions.
But I wonder, has a master musician ever made the choice to trade down precisely in order to develop as an artist? It may be customary to assume that a fine instrument gives a fine musician access to a greater range of possibilities – it may even be our overwhelming experience. Perhaps it would mean refining our understanding of artistic musical expression, but is it inconceivable that a great musician would deliberately put aside a fine piece of craftsmanship in favour of a poor instrument: the next stage in her development, the true vehicle for her artistry?