How I Became a Mute Maker

Denis Wick

My  long-suffering wife said,  “You’re just never satisfied!”. Many a true word is spoken in exasperation. I had tentatively suggested, in about 1969, that somebody ought to design mutes that actually played in tune and worked in every register. We had been recording film music with Bernard Herrmann, who had  helped to make all those Hitchcock films such a success. He was contemptuous of the old fibre mutes that I and my  LSO trombone section were using. He called them  "psychological mutes” and we knew what he meant. Our trumpet colleagues were using a famous US make but they always played slightly sharp with a very tinny sound and we did not blend at all. I had found a newer American trombone mute since then, thinking that it would solve our problems. Great sound! Unfortunately, they were just too big to handle easily and on one (for me) memorable occasion refused to come out of the bell of my trombone, then finally slipped from my fingers with a tremendous clatter during a BBC Prom concert live broadcast relay.  Something had to be done. At the time I had a student who was also a brilliant graphic artist, with talent that enabled him to make a perfect freehand drawing of anything, instantly.

I assembled every trumpet and trombone mute that I could find. He drew them all in a few minutes. I then superimposed all the drawings for trumpet mutes, discovering a curious phenomenon. If I drew (with the aid of compasses, I should add) a kind of median line between all of them, the proportions seemed just about perfect. There was a symmetry between height and  width and all the curves were proportionate. The same happened with the trombone mute, arrived at in the same way, although this was more difficult as I was determined to make it grip-able by my not very big hand. I remember the day well; December 26, 1969. With 3 children,  Christmas had been a busy time; after having done my family duty, now I could relax.

So when I next visited the small engineering firm that had been making my mouthpieces for a few years, I asked Bill Cox, the engineer, if these mutes could be made. He said “You need a metal-spinner.” I had no idea what a metal spinner might be and must have looked puzzled. “Leave it with me” he said,  “I’ll get some prices for you.”  A week later, he told me “about  £2 each for the trumpet mute” he said. By now, Boosey and Hawkes had been selling my mouthpieces for 18 months, so I asked Bill Martin, their buyer, if they might be interested, and for about how much I could sell to them.  “About  £2” he said.

It had seemed a good idea, but there was no margin, so I more or less forgot about it. That is, until almost a year later, I was returning home after an LSO recording session at the marvelous Kingsway Hall  (now long gone) when I saw a discarded newspaper on the next seat on the tube train.