Most people think of trumpets when they hear the name Harrelson. In reality, we are a true technology company focused on research and innovation much more than building trumpets. Yes, we do build trumpets, but our production capacity has been very small in our industry since I started this journey in 1993. In fact, I have only produced around 2500 trumpets in that time, in a market that encompasses millions of customers.
Many years ago, I found myself bombarded with offers from consultants, investors, and well-meaning supporters to grow my business. The theme I heard again and again was that they could help me scale production, make gazillions of dollars, and Harrelson would become a household name. Of course, most of those people were hoping to get a cut of the action. And this was not in line with my vision, not even close!
My pursuit is a simple one. I am driven by the creative urge to overcome obstacles in a user-centered, technically-engineered, beautifully-designed form. My approach is not driven by profits, although it should be to some extent, because my passion is the process. Where the average company would explore ways to make a better mousetrap I ask, "why are mice a problem?"
When trumpet players have difficulty playing high notes, pretty much all trumpet companies will quickly establish that, "insert famous person's name" has overcome this problem, and he/she plays our special, "insert fancy product name" mouthpiece, trumpet, or tool. If you buy our product, your problems will go away. There's no end to the number of variations this has played out over time. Look at almost any trumpet product today, and you'll see this formula is used by 99% of all companies.
Where is the innovation? Where is the personal approach to solving your specific challenges? Why doesn't anyone listen to what you have to say about the problem? Because the one-size-fits-all model is very profitable, and personalized custom solutions require a great deal of thought, organization, engineering, and care.
There's so much irony in our industry. The vast majority of trumpet players I know are very passionate about their musical craft. They view themselves as lifelong learners, artists, interpreters of profound thought, and the bearers of knowledge, perhaps even wisdom. Yet so many trumpet players allow themselves to fall victim to the simplest paradigms. They work hard, practice diligently, try harder, and eventually create their own form of mythology based on their personal experiences. They begin to believe that their own personal history holds the secret ingredients to success. Trumpet playing almost becomes a new type of religion, reinvented in the minds of each and every one of us complete with beliefs that have nothing to do with reality. That may sound harsh, but I've been there, done that, and I've had the privilege of getting to know thousands of you!
My first trumpet teacher had convinced me that Arnold Jacobs knew everything there was ever to know about playing brass instruments. I followed his careful advice for two full years before failing miserably. My mouthpiece pressure habit was never addressed because Jacobs' teachings ignored most factors other than the ability to control air flow and visualizing tone quality. After having the dentist tell me that trumpet playing could cause me to lose my front teeth due to excessive mouthpiece pressure, I came to the conclusion that my trumpet teacher had been hurting me more than helping. I'm not saying that he or Mr. Jacobs had nothing valuable to offer, but their approach was flawed in that it ignored many factors that are crucial to the success of any brass player.
As I continued to work through my range, endurance, and mouthpiece pressure challenges in college, I slowly discovered the many specialized mouthpieces, instruments, and teaching methods built around the opportunity of turning my lack of knowledge into profits. At the time, I sincerely believed these products were created to solve my problems. And, to some extent, I believe some of the manufacturers and educators involved in this segment of our industry have convinced themselves of the same. However, almost every solution on the market today grossly misses the mark as comprehensive solutions require a broad perspective, deep understanding, and real life data from actual trumpet players like you.
Continuing on my journey, I fell into more trappings of trumpet culture with peers suggesting lead mouthpieces, professors promoting long tone and lip slur studies, and manufacturers claiming specific trumpet models to solve my performance challenges. Again, all of these people were trying to help, but their solutions did little to resolve my range, endurance, and mouthpiece pressure issues. I became quite confused that a music school would employ professors who did not understand or teach the principles of brass playing. They cannot teach what they do not know.
Over the next two decades, it became apparent that this is a worldwide problem with no prejudice against age, experience, or level of education. Trumpet players with multiple doctorates can be equally as uneducated on the physics of brass instruments as a fifth grade student. And while there are many highly qualified educators who do teach the more important physics concepts required to understand the physical nature of brass playing, they are few and far between.
How does this relate to Harrelson being a technology company?
In my first year of college, I recognized the fact that I did not understand how to play the trumpet. Despite all the advice given to me in high school and beyond, I was on a journey to understand the rules of brass playing. This approach is likely a result of studying martial arts, which taught me that you cannot do what you do not know. In martial arts, you can defend yourself with your mind, body, and objects around you regardless if you have an actual weapon. I learned that your mind is the most powerful tool available to anyone.
I began examining the problem. I had difficulty playing any note for more than a full breath as endurance would suffer. To counter this, I was taking a lot of breaks and buzzing my lips in the air to circulate blood into the mouthpiece pressure zone. I could not reliably play specific notes above the staff. And my tone was full, vibrant, and beautiful despite these other issues. My teachers and directors were usually fooled into thinking I didn't practice enough, which led some of them to imply I didn't care enough to be a better player. This was far from the truth. I cared more than was healthy, which eventually led to creating this company and dropping out of college with only 3 days remaining.
I broke down the brass playing system into two parts, the player and the instrument. In later years, I further explored all the variables including the oral cavity, dental structure, muscle development, lip durometer, aperture size, air flow, air velocity, lip vibration frequency, tongue shape, tongue placement, aperture range of motion, aperture size, mouthpiece rim, cup, throat, and backbore attributes, venturi, impedance, gap length, leadpipe taper, thickness and length, tuning slide shape and wall thickness, bore size, valve alignment tolerance, bell choke, bell tail diameter and length, bell taper, length, and diameter. Yeah, that's a lot of variables, each of which I have researched in depth!
Getting back to my freshman year of college, I began formulating hypotheses related to tone production from both sides of the system, the human body, and the man-made instrument. This led to me studying with a physics professor employed by Yamaha as a musical instrument acoustic scientist. He assisted me in discovering how to assess, measure, and evaluate the acoustic nature of a trumpet as well as many other instruments. And my experience in the physics lab led to me becoming a believer in science, technology, and the human spirit to create and achieve nearly anything.
To make a very long story fit into two paragraphs, I learned the fundamentals of brass acoustics, and ran with this knowledge to discover new ways to match the impedance of a specific human body (a trumpet player) to the trumpet by creating modular systems. The intended result is maximum bell resonance, which I coined as MBR many years ago. The human body is a dynamic system that can change nearly simultaneously with our environment. But a fixed brass instrument design cannot change, which is why people spend years, even decades training their bodies to meet the impedance requirements to consistently create resonance and MBR.
I realized early on that a modular trumpet and mouthpiece designed to have adjustable components that directly affect the most important variables could nearly eliminate the problem of practicing so much. After all, pianists do not need to spend four hours a day practicing to reliably hit a high C. And it turns out that trumpet players don't really need to practice all day to be consistent when impedance matching results in maximum bell resonance. And that is how Harrelson became a technology company from the very first day.
I'll be diving into the various technologies we use here at Harrelson in my next blog entry. And I'll be sharing many of the exciting new technological developments used in aerospace and medical industries that we have embraced, which will change the nature of trumpet design. And ultimately, these new approaches will lead to more efficient and useful designs in all industries worldwide.
I'm happy to share more of my journey with you when you visit us in Denver. Trumpet playing is very personal, and finding the best solutions is a different experience for each and every musician. Allow me to lead you through a seamless transition into a new reality where trumpet playing is extremely rewarding in ways you never imagined. A place where science meets sound. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 303.657.2747.