The REMFAGRI Factor in Lutherie

August 8, 2011

I teach an annual week-long class in Voicing The Guitar. Some of my students have told me, in retrospect, that they were not prepared for the kind of class that this actually is: a few days into the class, after we’d discussed basics such as the physical properties of woods and the main modes of vibration, they’d begun to wonder exactly when I’d get around to saying anything really important — such as the essential secret techniques I’d perfected over the years, along with the requisite correct specific measurements. It would be at about the third day, when various items of information had begun to connect, and pieces of the puzzle had begun to attain unexpected significance, that these good people began to see that I’d actually been giving them pertinent information all along. It simply hadn’t looked like any useful information they’d ever been given before and they hadn’t recognized it as such. They had, instead, all been waiting for the secrets of the remfagri to fall into their laps.

REMFAGRI is my personal shorthand for the idea of a Recipe-Method For Achieving Great Results Immediately. It’s much like the idea of, say, the perfect recipe for French onion soup: it doesn’t exist, and never has, but that hasn’t stopped people from seeking it. It’s well known that some chefs make absolutely heavenly French Onion soup — but there’s ALWAYS another recipe out there that might be even better, if one is willing to keep on buying cookbooks… even though the recipes ALL depend on the same basic ingredients and techniques.

It’s hard to know whom to blame for our collective focus on REMFAGRIs, but they are endemic and epidemic. One has only to go to the nearest bookstore and look at the How-To and/or Self-Help section. No subject is left unsimplified, and even ungodly complex projects such as wars and choosing mates are conceived out of the same here’s-how-to-get-the-job-done mindset.

I’m inclined to believe that what is missing in general is any sense of… well… scale. The kind of thing that induces some personal humility and awe. You know, something should I put it… profound… or at least greater than you… and worth approaching with respect… rather than it merely being an extra-large-pizza-sized chore or challenge to deal with before you check it off your list and go on to the next thing to conquer. If you react to a sunset, or the great outdoors, with any sense of it being special you’ll know what I mean. And my question is: did you ever pair that sensation with doing any of your work, or learning anything, or having a discussion with someone? When do we ever think, or do, or meet, or eat, anything that we consider to be special?

These are nutshell descriptions of Life-Attitudes that are so fundamental to one’s thinking (or absent from it) that one doesn’t usually have an awareness of having such an attitude. It’s of course expressed in humor, which every culture has its own spin on. American humor is no less complicated than anyone else’s, but an awful lot of it is about belittling, diminishing, or simplifying what’s in front of us — and thereby reducing its scale, importance, or specialness.

It’s understandable that this should be so, given all the pressures of our contemporary lives: it’s tempting to find projects and relationships that we can exercise our powers over so that we can feel in control. And then, most cultures and religions (including all the secular ones) DISCOURAGE questioning of their basic beliefs. Doing so makes people uncomfortable (I mean, it’s sooooo intolerable to suspect that even French onion soup might be bigger than we are, no?). But, heck, let’s face it: we can’t even really comprehend basics such as gravity, amoebas, or trees. What’s wrong with admitting to some sense of scale?