It is an obvious fact that the first and most important step towards fixing anything is identifying the cause of the problem. However, when we come across issues in playing our instruments it often becomes all to easy to make assumptions about the underlying cause, which can make it more difficult to resolve.
There are some players whose first reaction when their playing isn't up to scratch is to blame the equipment. These are the ones who often spend huge amounts of time and money on new set-ups, in the belief that if they can only get exactly the right combination of reed, mouthpiece and instrument then they will never again have to worry that their playing doesn't fulfil its potential. Taken to its extreme, this is a dangerous obsession that can be very expensive, and waste time that would better be spent on focussed practice.
At the other end of the scale are those who never question the instrument itself. They adopt the motto of 'a bad workman blames his tools' and insist that intensive practice will solve any issue that they encounter. This attitude can stem from a reluctance to spend money on improving their setup - after all, why pay for something when practice will fix it for free? Also contributing to this attitude is the fact that highly proficient players can get a half-decent sound out of just about anything. It is clear that this, too, is a dangerous way of thinking because the player, in an effort to save money, may spend many hours on wasted practice for little or no improvement.
Until recently I admit that I was partly in the latter camp. I had what I had been told was a good clarinet, a good mouthpiece and a good reed. Therefore any problems had to be with me, not the instrument. But then I realised that there is no such thing as 'good' equipment. Rather, the important thing is whether the equipment is right for me and whether it helps or hinders me in achieving the sound I want.
Then I started to try different equipment and reap the rewards of experimentation. It was only then that I realised what a stupid phrase 'a bad workman blames his tools' is.
The truth is, a bad workman is one who is not open-minded and scientific in his problem solving. A bad workman makes assumptions about what the problem is rather than testing objectively and looking at the evidence. To bring this back to a musical context, then, a good workman is one who knows when a problem is caused by equipment and when it is caused by the player, and who takes action appropriately.
So next time you encounter an issue that you believe may be caused by your instrument, don't be afraid to experiment. Have a friend play the instrument - do they encounter the same problem? Try varying your setup - does this help? By objective testing you will be able to discover the root of your discontent, and in doing so take the first and most important step towards fixing it.