About Me

That's me playing bass, sometime in the last century. (photo credit: Krista Sene)

Hi, I'm Paul Hirsh, jazz musician. My musical career has been about trying to find the ideal instrument for improvisation. One that would follow your inspiration wherever it takes you, even to places you've never been before.

My aim was to be able to play "like singing in the shower". The instrument had to be intuitive to learn, like your own voice.

And the nearest I came to that ideal has been the wholetone-tuned panpipes.

My earliest lessons were on the violin, but I noticed that when I improvised, I tended to end up always gravitating towards the keys of D or G. This wasn’t too much of a problem so long as I just wanted to play on my own.

I then took up the guitar and got quite good at improvising, but kept hitting long periods where my fingers just seemed to take over and play patterns that I got sick of hearing. The other problem was that you end up spending a fortune on gear in search of that ideal sound that you have in your head.

I also took up saxophone, and played on a few jazz sessions. I could usually manage a few choruses before starting to repeat myself. I found that to acquire fluency on the saxophone you virtually have to pre-learn all the licks you might want to play. And you had to do that separately in each key, unlike the guitar where you can just shift up or down a number of frets. So the work load went up an order of magnitude.

Shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute, was another instrument that I learned to play chromatically, though sometimes the notes were so approximate the audience was simply perplexed, and unable to judge how close or far I was from being any good! In addition, by its nature, the instrument exerted a strong gravitational pull down to the bottom D note.

All this time, the crude set of bamboo panpipes sitting on top of my piano was doing nothing - until New Year’s Day 1980; when I woke up from a dream of being able to play all 12 major scales on it, by tipping the instrument to bend the notes and get the sharps and flats. I tested... it worked!

So I ordered a proper boxwood instrument from Peter Kobliczek and after some months practising the thing I started going on jam sessions with it, hitting plenty of wrong notes and annoying the other musicians.

I did however manage to earn a small living from the instrument, touring with an Irish orchestra, recording on film sound tracks and playing Badinerie for weddings in Spain. My TV-advertised panpipes album “Flights of Fancy” managed to get to number 17 in the UK LP charts.

But it still wasn’t any use as an improvising instrument. The task of playing by ear is complicated by the fact that when you play panpipes, you can’t see where you are. You need to know the name of the scale you are playing in order to know where to go for a “black” note.

Rather like being blindfolded and having to pick out a tune on the piano with your chin.

So panpipes took third place after my guitar and my saxophone. I was ready to lock them away in a trunk and take up painting instead. But then...

After some thirteen years faffing around on it, and realizing I had nothing to lose, I had the idea of taking a Great Leap into the unknown and retuning my instrument in whole tones: C D E F# G# Bb. This logical layout means that the same leap always gets you the same musical interval. The octave leap was shortened by one tube, which was an added bonus.

It took me about three weeks to get used to playing this system with less wrong notes than before my Great Leap. And in over twenty years since then I have never once regretted the old diatonic tuning – even for playing Romanian tunes, or that old lollipop, Badinerie.

Over the years I ordered various whole-tone tuned instruments made for me from the best European panpipe makers, but for various reasons I ended up using my 3D design skills to develop my own streamlined models.

And now my mission is to share the fun with the rest of the music loving world.

the improvising ideal

In my quest for the perfect improvising instrument, I have gradually narrowed down my terms to the question of "How do I find the next note?". Given that melodies are interval structures independent of what key they happen to be in, the ideal instrument would have to offer a transparent, intuitive representation of intervals.

Guitars and violins come a long way to satisfying this condition, but they suffer from one drawback: that fingers develop habits too easily. Being at arm's length from the brain they have a tendency to demand autonomy, and are hard-wired to develop habits and routines.

That is great when your task is to tie your shoe laces, but when you are trying to follow your mercurial inspiration, conflict arises. Ideas get blocked and the flow dries up. Clichés take hold and frustration is just around the corner.

I speak from experience!

What scales are used in jazz?

(Answer: all of them)

Jazz legend has it that the teenage Charlie Parker was thrown out of a New York jazz club because he could play the blues in only one key. Stung by the rebuff, he went home and mastered the blues in all twelve keys and came back to outshine the whole of his generation.

Since then it has been tacitly understood that anyone claiming to be a jazz player is fluent in all keys. With the coming of composers like Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, Benny Golson and John Coltrane, the jazz repertoire began to fill up with pieces that visit several keys all in the space of a few measures.

Today, it is hard even to gain admission to a reputable jazz school unless you can play in all keys. Coltrane's tune Giant Steps, which goes through the scales of Eb, G and B, became a sort of entrance ticket to the jazz fraternity.

The whole tone panpipe is the perfect instrument for playing this tune by ear, as all three scales have the same shape.

Charlie Parker worked wonders playing twentieth century music on a nineteenth century instrument. What couldn't he have done with a twenty-first century instrument?

playing like "singing in the shower"

Check out my blog Intervallicawareness.com for tips on how to play like singing in the shower!

Follow me on Twitter @jazzpanflute