Quality. That word has so many meanings. To say something “has quality” or is “of good quality” or is “quality made” seems to be, like so many things a function of the trust you place in the person making the claim combined with individual standards we each apply to determine “what is good” and “what is bad.” Like determining “what is beauty?” we know these standards vary person-to-person, but I’m curious: are there universal truths to achieving high quality that transcend subjective opinion and relate to everyone universally regardless of background, bias or prior experience?
I believe the illusive answer lives in the meticulous process of a master craftsman; someone whose life’s work centers around achieving the highest quality, with the pursuit of perfection, of one’s craft. Robert Pirsig explored the idea of the craftsman in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and wrote “The material and the craftsman’s thoughts change together in a progression of smooth, even changes until his mind is at rest at the exact instant the material is right.”
That means the craftsman and his product become one and neither ceases changing and improving until the optimal inner potential of the product is revealed.
Years ago I started playing harmonica (referred to in this article by its common vernacular of “harp” or “blues harp”). What began as a curiosity became a hobby and has now metastasized into a full-blown obsession. Ever since I was a kid, I always loved music and the idea of taking such a rich and versatile instrument with me on my business travels was alluring. Plus, as a drummer, it became impractical to check my drums in my luggage on the 3-4 planes I flew each week. Like all type-A personalities, I learned all I could about harmonicas – the history, the manufacturers, the materials, the players, the techniques, the theory, etc. – and dove head-first into a world of delight. I’d play for 5-10 minutes in my hotel room before bed, I’d jam in the car on the way to work or just pull up a few Blues standards on YouTube and play along.
As I progressed in my ability I started buying better and better harps. The better harps cost more but I found that, in general, with every upgrade in harp, my enjoyment increased. The instrument was more air tight, clearer in tone, responded better and was easier on lips (aka embouchure). Every harmonica, like children, was different in its characteristics. Some had plastic combs and some had composite material; some had reeds made of steel and some had brass; some makers swore that wood cover plates were the only way to achieve a warm, dark tone while others professed the benefits of chromed-steel. Yet no matter how different the harp I purchased, the better ones shared a common set of traits that can be traced back to the way in which the instrument was made; traits that are only achieved through a set of principles or philosophies imbued by the craftsman.
One day, on my quest for the perfect harp, I discovered a German harmonica maker based in England named Antony Dannecker. Antony’s roots trace back four generations to Stuttgart, Germany where, in 1895, his great grandfather (Carl Dannecker) was appointed as an engineer to the Hohner Harmonica Company. Antony explained that:
“Carl dedicated his life to the technical development and manufacture of harmonicas. Since then, four generations of Dannecker family members, including Antony’s father (Willi Dannecker) have worked within the harmonica industry (Hohner) and with professional harmonica players right up to the present day.”
The Dannecker family has devoted their lives and legacy to the pursuit and perfection of the Harmonica. But heritage alone does not make a craftsman. The quality of the products themselves must live up to the name, and in Dannecker’s case, they do.
I bought my first Dannecker harp and was instantly blown away. I had never experienced such a magnificent instrument. It played like an extension of my vocal chords and enabled me to execute difficult bends, blows and achieve expression I had been struggling with on inferior harps. So, I ordered a few more and struck up a relationship with Antony. I’ve been playing Antony’s harps for close to five years now and their quality has stood the test of time. Every time I put one to my lips, it seems to play itself with little effort. Now, I do not claim to be a good harmonica player, but whatever skill I have as a musician, is easily revealed on one of Dannecker’s harps.
Curious about Dannecker’s process, I set out to find out how he achieves this level of perfection in his instrument and his craft. Is it the process he follows? Is it closely guarded family secrets from Carl’s days in Stuttgart? What is it that makes Dannecker’s harps so special? John Ruskin wrote “Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort.” So, I approached Antony in an attempt to understand his own personal “intelligent effort.” Through a series of conversations and emails, Antony described to me his journey and philosophies as a master craftsman. I told Antony my intent was to find universal truths in his process that could be applied to other fields. We set out on a journey together and distilled five core philosophies – five universal truths – of achieving quality in one’s product.