Stradivarius from Bach? Oh, the semantics!

by kirangarimella on July 31, 2007

This true incident happened to me.

A few weeks ago, I was hanging out in our local music store, waiting for my daughter to finish her guitar lesson, when I spotted this young man at the repair desk with what looked like a violin case.

Inscribed on its cover was the magical word ‘Stradivarius.’

Straightaway, I went into a fit and started quivering like a jellyfish in a tropical storm.

Now, if you are a classical music buff (or especially a violinist) like me, that word (‘Stradivarius’) is guaranteed to make you stand up (or stand taller if you were already standing), and salute smartly.

To those of you who never paid attention in music ed classes (or worse, never had any to begin with), Antonius Stradivarius of Cremona, Italy, was the most famous violinmaker ever. His violins are the most expensive musical instruments of any kind; his Hammer Stradivarius, for example, is valued at over $3.5 million.

I have two copies of the Strad myself (focus on the word ‘copies’), with labels inside the belly near the sound post, charmingly inscribed ‘Antonius Stradivariuus Cremonensis, 1796.’

I am hanging on to them in the fond hope that some day they’ll be “discovered,” perhaps on the Antiques Roadshow (a bit unlikely, since Antonio went to the Big Violin Shop in 1737).

So, as you can imagine, owning a Strad is a big deal, to put it mildly.

A 15-year old owning a Strad (or at least cradling it nonchalantly) is inexplicable (unless he were Yehudi Menuhin).

Such a young man, unaccompanied by an adult, casually discussing its repair in a general music store, is bafflement confounded by mystification.

Now you know why I was quivering like a j. in a t.s.

I approached this young man to find out more. What ensued is a conversation worthy of a classical Wodehousian dialog.

Me: “Excuse me, is that a real Strad you have there?”

Young Man: “Oh yes, I got it off of eBay, like real cheap. I was, like, real lucky to, like, find it.”

Me: “eBay! They sell Strads on eBay?”

Y.M.: “Of course. Lots of people, like, put them up for sale. This one was, like, a little chipped in the corner. I brought it in to, like, get it fixed.”

My incredulous eye noticed, in the other corner of the instrument case, the word “Bach.”

Me: “What’s Bach got to do with a Strad?”

Y.M., looking perplexed: “Bach sells Strads, didn’t you know?”

(If, by this time, you don’t think you have, like, wandered into a twilight zone, then your musical education is, like, either non-existent or completely wasted; if the latter, ask for your money back.)

I was dying to ask the kid to open the case so I could ogle at a real Strad. Perhaps touch it. Perhaps even draw the bow across the strings!

But before I could screw up the courage to ask that question, I popped him with another that immediately restored sanity.

Me: “That’s a violin we are talking about, yes?”

Y.M., with a smile that teens reserve for senior citizens who live in the 18th century: “Oh no! It’s a trumpet. Made by Bach, you know, the company.”


Now, I ask you, would you ever imagine a company named Bach manufacturing trumpets called Strads?

Would that be an unmitigated chutzpah, musical dyslexia, or what?

(It turns out that a fellow called Vincent Bach, [1890-1976], no apparent relation to good old J.S., built high quality brass instruments that people called the Strad of brass.)

See how semantics can trip you up?

Similar conversations are going on in corporate America about the meanings assigned to business data.

Granted that the debaters don’t sound like a bunch of grammarians discussing the etymology of words, or that these conversations aren’t so Wodehousian in nature.

However, lack of semantics does cause confusion; people, being naturally polite, assume they know what others are saying, but assign their own interpretation to business language.

There were at least a handful of projects that I recall where the team spent an unconscionable amount of time debating the exact meaning of business terms.

To those who tell me they don’t understand the ROI of semantics, I suggest that they sit in on a requirements gathering session, monitor all conversations that deal with imprecise semantics, and do the math (multiply unit resource cost by amount of time, and add it all up; then multiply that by the number of projects).

The last time I tried that on a single $150,000 project, the cost of semantic debate tipped the scales at $10,000. Not exactly chump change.

No conversation about the business (including business process management and technology projects) is efficient without an underlying foundation of business semantics.


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