Where’s the Schmaltz?

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Is it possible that recording technology is the reason for the drastic change of style in the early 20th century?

Herbert L. ClarkeHerbert L. Clarke Recordings

As part of their lessons, I give all of our regular students (regular students are those who have made a weekly commitment to lessons) a weekly listening assignment. One of the CDs I often assign is a collection of recordings made by Herbert L. Clarke. It says in the liner notes that these recordings were made on drums, not on disks. So this is technology that predates the phonograph.

What I find most remarkable about Herbert L. Clarke’s recordings is his almost over-exaggerated flair. By today’s standards, he was overdoing it. Too much vibrato. Too many drastic changes in the tempi and dynamics. The recordings seem to be what we call today, “old fashioned.”

Old Movies and Granny Singing at Church

The Clarke recording reminds me of church when I was young. Do you remember the days when churches didn’t have rock concert sized PA systems? In those days, you could actually hear yourself sing along with all the other people in church. You could hear the old grannies singing at the top of their lungs with an almost fake operatic vibrato. It used to drive me nuts. (Ha! I never like vibrato much as a kid.)

Pearl and I recently watched the old movie titled “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and there it was again, that wide, almost operatic vibrato. As we watched the movie, I was thinking again about how much the styles have changed and that’s when it hit me. Back when I was a student of Sam Trimble at UTEP, he used to call that old style “schmaltz.” If I was working on a cornet piece he would tell me to “add some schmaltz to the music.”

Where’s the Schmaltz?

Today, we don’t hear any of the schmaltzy playing anymore. I believe that maybe the reason the styles changed is because of the PA systems and recording technologies. I remember as a child feeling some musicians more than I could hear them. From the best to the worst of them, you could feel their musical presence in a very physical sense. The problem is that the schmaltz is not very well communicated electronically. When you record someone who plays very schmaltzy, 80% of what that musician is communicating never makes it to the other side of the mic.

We have become a remote population. Nothing we do is physically present anymore. When we go to church, we watch our preachers and pastors on the big screen instead of watching them with our own naked eyes. We hear their voices through a PA system, and when that PA system fails, we don’t hear anything they say.

Beautiful Sound vs. Powerful Presence

As a result, everything in the music world has become primarily about sound. Recording technology has been around for so long now, that most living musicians don’t even know how to be present the way musicians used to be before electronics changed everything.

I get the impression that most trumpet players hear music as a recorded medium, not a live performance medium. So when they practice, what they strive for is the perfect “recorded sound.” In fact, this is SO VERY TRUE that even symphonic players consider recording equipment an absolute necessity for the success of their practice.


I am not saying one way is good and another way is bad. I am only trying to make connections here. I am trying to understand why everything changed, and this is the best explanation I’ve found so far. Schmaltz cannot be recorded because it is not only a sound phenomenon. There is a very physical element to schmaltz that cannot be communicated via electronics. So it is no longer used.

Do you agree?

I’m always open to other possible explanations.


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