The Future of the Tonal Plexus - Part 1: With whom am I speaking, please?

July 08, 2016

For a few years now, I have been receiving emails asking when I will start building Tonal Plexus keyboards again. My answer to this has been "I don't know yet" — an honest answer, but saying this bothers me. It's a disappointment to those who are asking, and it provides no context for future expectations. The problem is that a substantive answer requires a long explanation. So, I've decided to write a series of blog posts in order to give a better answer to this question. I'll start by introducing myself and telling the story of how the Tonal Plexus came to be, looking back and working my way up to the present moment. This may not seem totally necessary, but it feels natural at this point, since I am leaving the U.S. and moving to Germany. I'm not sure how long it will take to write this, but at the end of it I promise to share some exciting news about the keyboards.

The first thing to understand when asking this question is that the whole of H-Pi Instruments is a one-man operation. When people contact me through my business, it's sometimes clear that they don't know this. I take that as a compliment, but it sometimes causes unnecessary confusion. It's normal to assume that a business is an organization of many people: teams or departments working together: developing products, writing and maintaining software, manufacturing products or partnering with manufacturers, handling products for order fulfillment, marketing, designing and maintaining the website, tech support, and so on. While I would like to be in that situation as the leader, that is not currently how my business works, because I am the only person in the business. I design all the products and build them myself. I write all the software. I wrote the website from scratch. I handle all the emails. Etc. It's a lot of work. And, obviously it's important to know this because it's not reasonable to expect the same thing from one person that would be expected from an organization of many people working together.

The next thing to understand is that I am a professional musician. Specifically, I'm a composer. Like many composers, I can play a lot of instruments, with varying degrees of skill, but I haven't given a public performance in over a decade. As an organist, I have some training, and I play the pipe organ both for my own enjoyment and also occasionally for church services. The majority of my training is in percussion, which I studied between the ages of 12 and 22. I'm also an instructor of composition, with about a decade of experience teaching every area of University music theory and composition. Without all that training and experience, it's highly unlikely that I would have invented the Tonal Plexus.

I'm not a professional product designer, nor a professional instrument builder. Product design has always fascinated me, and in one sense, it's something I've been doing since I was very young, but I have no formal training in product design. I've basically been building things ever since I was able to move around. My father taught me the basics of woodworking at a young age, and I fiddled around a lot with electronics, simple circuits and dry-cell batteries. I do have some training in the visual arts, and about 25 years ago (before I made the choice to pursue higher education in music) I considered studying art further at the Art Institute in Chicago, and also considered studying industrial design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been different had I taken that latter path. By studying design, I would obviously have improved my design skills, but I certainly never would have invented the Tonal Plexus.

I have no academic credentials as a computer programmer. The most I can boast is that I won a third-place award in a city-wide programming contest when I was 12. My experience with computer programming began in 1981, at the age of 9, when my parents brought me to a summer event hosted by a local chemist named Richard Miess, who lived on the neighboring block and was one of the first people to have built his own computer at home. He invited all the children in the neighborhood to come see the computer and learn about BASIC programming. I was spellbound. My parents noticed this, and offerred to pay Dr. Miess to give me weekly lessons. He agreed to the lessons but not to the pay. We met once a week for the next 8 years. The first lesson he gave me was how to program a prime number sieve - the Sieve of Erotosthenes. The impact of his guidance on my personal development was profound. My father bought a Commodore 64 for the household, and I spent many hours in front of that green screen, programming all kinds of things, but mostly games. I sometimes wonder what kind of logical thinking skills I would (or wouldn't) have now, if I didn't have that guidance then. Without those skills, I'm certain that the Tonal Plexus would not exist.

Fast forward a couple of decades and two music degrees later, and somehow I had acquired the skills needed to make all the things that are now here at H-Pi Instruments, though my original plan had nothing to do with starting an online business. I was personally motivated for no other reason than that I wanted to be able to compose music using pitches outside of the standard Western 12 tones. Anyone who has ever tried to do that has run into major difficulties. Tools are needed that simply don't seem to exist. Standard music theory doesn't work. Standard notation doesn't work. What I discovered was that, in the whole history of music, these were serious basic problems nobody had ever solved in a comprehensive way. Some had tried, but failed for any number of reasons - their vision was too narrow, the time wasn't right or the technology wasn't ready, they weren't equipped with the right skill set, and so on. I realized that, in order to do what I wanted to do compositionally, I would have to solve those problems, so that's what I set about doing.

But I'm getting ahead of the story. Next time I'll begin by telling about what happened in the years leading up to the launch of the business.

Best Regards,

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