Category Archives: Flutes

Deerstalker

Hidden Histories: Being a Flute Detective

Adler-4Whenever we get an older second hand instrument for sale, we research its history and background for its story. Sometimes the maker is obscure and there isn’t much information around, but occasionally a fascinating story is revealed. Often more than a little detective work is required to find an instrument’s story.

This was recently brought to mind, when we had two Adler piccolos for sale. One was marked Oscar Adler & Co while the other was stamped up F. O. Adler.

The first piccolo I was researching was the Oscar Adler. As a maker, Oscar Adler is well-known in woodwind circles: born in 1862, he produced woodwind instruments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Markneukirchen, Saxony. He held numerous patents: along with a chap named Hermann Jordan, he held in 1903 a patent for an instrument called the Oktavin (page in French), which was a hybrid of a clarinet, oboe and bassoon! By 1902 Adler was the largest woodwind manufacturer in Germany, and the Adler company continues today, concentrating nowadays on oboes and bassoons.

This piccolo was stamped with the Adler roundel with a serial number on the reverse and year of manufacture – 1936 – on the front. The year of the Berlin Olympics in Hitler’s Germany, and the year that Germany reoccupied the Rhineland.

Adler-3Aside from the maker’s stamp on the piccolo body, the headjoint had another mark: Fl. H K Wunstorf. I had no idea what this was: whether it was the name of a previous owner or even if it was another maker’s name. In this case, might the headjoint not be original?

A quick search and it was revealed to me that Wunstorf was (and still is) a German air base in Lower Saxony, not too far from where Adler’s workshop was in Markneukirchen. This air base was built in… 1936!

The Fl. H. K. abbreviation stands for – I believe – Fliegerhorstkommadantur, or Air Field Station Command. So, it seems that this piccolo was purchased by the Luftwaffe specifically for their new airbase and was played by the band of the Luftwaffe! One can only speculate on the rallies that this instrument may have been played at.

This was fascinating to me: what this seemingly innocuous piccolo has seen in its life and the journey it must have made to end up for sale in a music shop in London. The RAF took over the German air base at the end of the war, so presumably this is when the piccolo came in to British hands.


Piccolo by F.O. Adler

F. O. Adler stamp on a piccolo

The second piccolo, which was marked as F. O. Adler, was the first instrument I had seen from this maker. Since I had no information on who this maker was, I turned to the trusty Langwill Index, which is a bible in these situations. It lists thousands of wind instrument makers from the infamous to the obscure: sometimes there is a lot of information, often there is just a scrap, or occasionally there is none at all.

Adler is a fairly common surname in Germany (it means ‘eagle’ – hence the wings sometimes found on a headjoint are called Adler wings, or eagle wings – nothing to do with an inventor), and there are several Adlers listed in Langwill: there are the three Adlers of Oscar’s family tree (his father Johann and brother Robert Oswald who were both also woodwind makers); Adler a brass instrument manufacturer; Eduard Adler a stringed-instrument maker; Frederic Adler of Paris, a bassoon technician and inventor; and Johannes Adler (of Markneukirchen, the same town as Oscar), who started making woodwinds, before branching into brass and strings. But, no mention of an F. O. Adler.

The Oktavin Patent in Music Trade Review

The Oktavin Patent in an 1896 edition of Music Trade Review

I then came across this article in the Patents section of Music Trade Review dating from 1896, which mentions an 1893 patent owned by F. O. Adler and Hermann Jordan, both of Markneukirchen. The text of the patent and accompanying picture shows the Oktavin! Putting two and two together, it turns out that the two Adlers were one and the same, that the initials F. O. stood for Franz Oscar, and that at some point between 1896 and 1903 he dropped the name Franz from the company name. This piccolo was certainly made before 1903 then, but beyond that it is hard to pinpoint a date.

As an aside, during my search through Langwill for F. O. Adler, I discovered one more interesting little snippet that reminds us of conditions in 1930s Germany. Here is part of Johannes Adler‘s entry in Langwill:

“A mid 1930s advertisement stated ‘note the forename – a purely Aryan business!’, an anti-Semitic reference to their local competitor O Adler.”

Perhaps Johannes Adler was envious that his Jewish competitor’s instruments, and not his own, had been purchased by the Luftwaffe. Maybe business was just slow, but either way I thought this was an interesting twist in the tale of these piccolos.

Play Flute!

Back-To-School Inspiration

It’s that time of year again, but don’t fret – we’re here to bring some inspiration to the new school term.

For Teachers

The myfife MethodThe myfife Teacher’s Resource Book by Liz Goodwin

This is a teacher’s resource pack to accompany the Fife Book, and if you’ve never thought about using a fife as an introduction to flute teaching, then take a look at this. It is packed with lesson plans, exercises, games, practice sheets and report forms as well as flashcards. Topics covered include ‘Flute Techniques Taught Using the Fife’, ‘Individual or Group Lessons’ and ‘Embouchure Development’ – if you are working with young students, this book could really change your life.

Pneumo Pro Wind Director Pneumo Pro Wind Director

This wacky-looking piece of kit helps beginners to make a good sound from the outset. It is very lightweight and simple, based on a system of fans to help with both air direction and speed. This can be particularly useful if there is a problem producing the sound in the early stages as it is also colourful and fun! Developed by Kathryn Blocki, you can use it in conjunction with her excellent Flute Method. Every flute teacher should have one of these!

For beginners

Razzamajazz Flute Book 1Razzamajazz Flute by Sarah Watts

Learning the flute is so exciting and it really helps if you can start making music at home as soon as you can. The first piece here, ‘B Groovy’ uses just the one note but the CD accompaniment is so good that you feel as if you’re really performing ! Only 10 notes are used altogether and the material can be all used again up the octave. A piano part is included as well. Highly recommended!

Duets for One - Rickard & CoxDuets for One arranged by Rickard and Cox

This book is crammed with 16 pieces that range Pachelbel’s Canon to Scarborough Fair. It is very flexible: the book itself has a melody and a harmony part, the CD has performances and separate parts as well. Not presented in a progressive order, it seems easier to just dot about and play what you fancy. Starting with the harmony part, there is then real incentive to improve and play the melody line. Great supplementary material.

For Intermediate Players

Light Aerobics - Clare SouthworthLight Aerobics by Clare Southworth

If you feel you need to zip up your flute technique, this book of exercises could be just the thing to give you a kick start. Each section follows the same format – principle, method, exercise and notes, allowing you to move at your own pace. Tone, finger work and articulation are all covered, together with rhythm and finding your singing voice. There is also material suitable for groups. Clare’s introduction tells you how to use the book to its best advantage, so get working!

Mighty Boom Ball Speaker Mighty Boom Ball Speaker

It’s really easy to record yourself on your smartphone now and this is a great way to see if you’ve improved. The Mighty Boom Ball is a natty little gadget which is small enough to fit on your keyring, but can turn almost any object into a loudspeaker. Suggestions range from a cardboard box or bike helmet to a picture frame or microwave – wherever you are, you will find something to convert in to a speaker!

For the more advanced:

Lefreque Sound BridgeLefreque Sound Bridge – Dutch original sound solution.

As used by Emily Beynon. If you would like to give your sound a real boost then this could be just the gadget for you. It consists of 2 small brass plates which attach with plastic strips to both the headjoint and the body of your flute. The improvement in sound is astonishing! This device really has to be tried to be believed.

Know The Score - Mark TannerKnow the Score by Mark Tanner

If you are thinking about taking a performance diploma that involves any sight-reading, this great little book will really help make the test seem easier. Mark Tanner has divided up the task into various bite-size elements, for example tempo, tonality and final polish, which help to organise the brain rather than scramble it. He guides you through the first pieces and then leaves you to your own devices. This is an excellent buy, even if an exam is not on the horizon.

Albert Cooper in the doorway of his shop.

RS 2012 Scale

Albert Cooper in the doorway of his shop.

Albert Cooper in the doorway of his shop.

RS 2012 is slightly different from the original Cooper Scale. As Cooper admitted, there was always room for improvement and this has now been done. That said, I am sure there will be corrections in the future, continuing Cooper’s work. The alterations are small, but to those with sensitive ears, they are significant when expressive intonation is employed.

It was a pity that those who criticised RS 2012 did so before trying it. The comments posted here about the new Scale were made before the only prototype was available.

Burkart Flutes have made several flutes to this scale; Stephen Wessel has now started to use this scale on his flutes too.

Flutemakers are welcome to use the figures freely and without acknowledgement, if they wish. The explanation of the Revised Scale 2012 can be seen at http://www.trevorwye.com/cooper1.html and a link at the bottom of that page will take you directly to the figures.

Trevor Wye

Munch - Scream for Flute

In My Opinion

For many years now there has been an issue in the British flute world that has been allowed to continue unchecked and I feel that is time that someone with a contrasting view voices an opinion.

In my 35 years or thereabouts at the top end of the orchestral world in the UK I have tried to avoid confrontation, and it is only after a long period of thought that I have finally decided to share my opinions. I certainly have no intention to offend anyone, but equally, the endless highly disturbing stories that I hear back from both professionals and students make me realise that silence is no longer an option.

I refer to the tuning of flutes and the ‘war’ that appears to be waged by certain distinguished players and teachers in the UK against manufacturers they have either an axe to grind with or quite simply, no time for.

I am full of admiration for people who take a scientific approach to the whole process of putting a flute together. There are very logical and valid reasons for trying to make the instrument as close to perfection as possible, and the dedication shown by the few in attempting to evolve the flute further is to be applauded.

One could now have lengthy discussions about precise measurements and distances. However, like many, I am not a scientist, and as such not qualified to make absolute comment on the merits of one flute scale over another, other than through my observations of what I personally experience as a performer. It has also to be noted that advances in flute design and making over the past four decades or so has been significant to the extent that many flute makers across the globe are now making outstandingly good instruments.

However, it should be remembered that in the end, there is no such thing as an in tune flute. What finally comes out of the instrument is the responsibility of the performer, not the instrument itself. It is up to the musician to use his or her intelligence and ears to play the instrument that they have in their hands to the best of their ability. This includes having a precise concept of pitch and the relative distances between notes. Whilst the correct positioning and size of the holes on the flute are of obvious importance, there are many more factors beyond the construction of the instrument that need to be considered in the art of playing in tune.

A key area that seems to be ignored in this discussion is individual physiology. This has a colossal impact on the character and pitch of the sound that comes out of the flute/flute player. Fact: we are all constructed differently, therefore, we will blow flutes in very varying ways. What might well work for me is not necessarily going to work for someone else. Yes, there are starting blocks to work from, but these won’t always lead to the same conclusions.

As an example, I find it difficult to articulate far forward (recommended by many well-known teachers), as I have a narrow mouth and a wide tongue. For people with a more ‘standard’ mouth, I will advise them to articulate further forward initially, but it doesn’t work for me. A further problem is that language also plays a significant part in our approach to articulation (and indeed sound), but this is probably best left for another time!

In other words there are so many variables that go into the creation of a note on the flute. The scale of the instrument is one of these, but by no means is it the ‘be all and end all’.

After I left music college I decided that one day I would like to own a Louis Lot flute. A piece of history and, when re-tuned to a more modern scale, a very fine instrument. However, I wanted it to be a relatively early one and therefore a seamed head and body. Finally one turned up and whilst the only note that worked on it was an open C sharp (in the middle of the stave), the sound quality was good enough for me to decide to take the plunge, buy it and then have it adjusted by Nick Crabbe. Nick worked on the flute for a long time, but I wasn’t in a particular hurry and in fact he made an excellent job of the re-tuning.

Sadly, my colleagues in the LSO were not instant fans. Louis Lots have a very distinctive sound and at that moment in time, they had been used to my old flute (Arista number 2), which was a fine flute that had a sound more in keeping with a good blend in a woodwind section. The Louis Lot had a wider, richer sound and as such was going to be a better solo instrument. So I didn’t play it very much in the orchestra and it spent most of its time in a cupboard.

One day I bumped into a very well-known British flute player and he enquired about my Louis Lot. I had it with me and he asked to try it. He blew it the way that only this gentleman in question can blow a flute and pronounced the second octave (middle of the stave) C sharp too sharp. I had not noticed this at all, but he then insisted on taking the flute apart and adding some plasticine to the offending hole to flatten the note.

For a few years the flute went back into the cupboard and was virtually forgotten about.

Some time later though, another professional flute player who lives locally and who plays on Louis Lot flutes contacted me and asked if she could borrow my LL flute for awhile, as hers was going in for a major service. I was delighted that this wonderful flute would be played again. As it turned out, her flute took longer to fix and she ended up playing my flute for about three months.

When she brought it back to me she said: “Thanks so much Paul for the use of your Louis Lot. It really is a great flute.”

However, there was then a bit of a pause.

“The only thing about it that I thought was a bit strange though, is that the middle octave C sharp is very flat!”

I tried it and sure enough the C sharp was incredibly flat. The events of several years prior to this moment then slowly came back to me.

Needless to say, I dismantled the left hand mechanism of the flute and stripped out the offending plasticine. The flute is now very much more in tune for me again!

I have now played on Powell hand made flutes for close on fourteen years and am exceedingly happy with the two instruments that I regularly work with. Whilst there are certain notes (many of them in common with all makes of flute) that require more attention than others for accurate intonation, there is nothing in the three main octaves of the instrument that makes life overly difficult.

Contrary to this, there is one make of Japanese flute (extremely well made) that is played very successfully by many professional players. I personally have problems with this make of flute, particularly in the very bottom end of the instrument, where I find it difficult to get certain notes up to pitch.

From my orchestral experiences, I have found it much easier to physically adapt my playing to bring potentially sharp top octave notes down than to lift up flat bottom octave notes. The latter becomes even more relevant in a p dynamic. Therefore it makes life a lot less stressful in those Shostakovich symphonies with flute solos in a p dynamic that travel down to the last notes on the instrument to play on a flute that is not flat at the low end. Other composers where a flat bottom octave can make life difficult: Mahler, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy etc…..

When looking for a new instrument I would urge all potential purchasers to try out all of the mainstream makes of flute. Whilst I currently play on a Powell flute, all I can say is that this make works for me and I am thoroughly happy with the instruments I possess. I am happy for people to see my enthusiasm for these flutes, but I would never tell anyone that this is the make for them. I have also tried amazingly interesting flutes from other well known manufacturers, both American and Japanese and would urge you to spend some time finding your way around these instruments. As I have made very clear above, we are all different and are looking for a wide range of varying possibilities out of the instruments we play.

If it is a handmade instrument that you are looking for, ask to take it away for a few days, play it to friends with ears you trust and spend some time carefully going through the instrument with a tuning machine. In this way, you will discover the idiosyncracies of the instrument and be able to reach a logical conclusion as to whether or not the instrument is right for you and your physical make up.

Finally, be guided by your instincts. The world would be a much poorer place if we all ended up with identikit flutes!

Holes, the crux of the matter. Top to bottom: Figures 1A, 1B, 1C, and 1D.

Scales: An Incomplete Look at What Every Flutist Should Know

What’s in a scale? More to the point, what’s in “the Cooper scale”? This short primer on scale — and why every flutist needs to understand its importance — includes a heartfelt appeal for the open information-sharing that defined the character of the late Albert Cooper.

The crucial concept of “scale” in the lives of flutists began, more or less, with Theobald Böhm — and, sadly, its technical understanding largely ended with his death in 1881. But throughout much of the 20th century, a gang of mostly British flutist-technicians (along with myself as a token American), searched for ways to improve the tuning (and with it the sound quality) of the modern flute.

Following the death in 2011 of the group’s key member, Albert Cooper, the man whose name will be forever linked with the flutemaker’s Holy Grail — the Cooper Scale — there has come a renewed interest in explaining, disseminating, and perfecting the details of this approach, so that future flutists can continue the work that Cooper and his friends began.

In the Beginning

“Scale,” for our purposes, means a set of proportions that can be seen in the different placement of frets on a guitar fingerboard and the curve of a rank of organ pipes or piano strings. In equal temperament, these follow a simple mathematical formula. Multiplying by 1.06 (or 1.0594630948 or 12,-2.) increases the overall length proportionately to  eventually reach the octave — exactly.

Stringed instruments are well behaved and follow this rule closely. Sadly, flutes are not well behaved. Because we move our lips, intonation is a moving target.

Holes, the crux of the matter. Top to bottom: Figures 1A, 1B, 1C, and 1D.

Before Theobald Böhm, the concept of “scale” was lost on flutists. Figures 1A and 1B in the photo above show two one-key flutes pitched at A=427 and 442, with nearly identical hole placement. While flutemakers were not concerned with mathematical abstractions, they were not ignorant. With the finger position decided on, tuning could be dealt with by changing the size of the holes. A larger hole raises the pitch and a smaller hole lowers it. Makers sometimes also undercut the tonehole, making it larger and raising the pitch without changing what you see on the outside. Remember this principle, as there will be a quiz later.

The larger holes of our modern flute absolutely require an accurate “scale.” The photo’s figure 1C shows a Nicholson model flute, with the usual placement and wildly enlarged finger holes. Figure 1D shows an 1832 Böhm model flute as made by Rudall & Rose. This is Böhm’s direct response to the Nicholson instrument. Notice the absolute regularity of tonehole size and placement. Böhm’s understanding of “scales” must have been extraordinary, but the knowledge largely died with him. Flutemakers were left to copy existing instruments and make the occasional tweak.

A New Era

In the United States, we can easily imagine what happened with scales in the early 20th century. As the French style of playing became fashionable, so did French-style flutes — namely those made by Louis Lot. Most of these were intended for diapason normale, or A=435. These can be played at A=440 by shortening the headjoint, but this leaves the holes too far apart. If A is in tune, C-sharp will be sharp and the low notes will be flat. This is what the famous flutists played, so customers wanted a copy, and makers did their best to provide. A flutemaker might tweak something here or there, but they would have been crazy to deviate significantly from the “ideal.” Players learned to adjust for the errant notes (with mixed success), creating a paradox: a theoretically perfect flute would have been unacceptable, because established players would find the low notes sharp and the C-sharp flat! And this is exactly what happened.

Albert Cooper in the doorway of his shop.

In 1974, Bickford Brannen visited Albert Cooper in London, brought the scale back to Powell Flutes, and so contributed to an historic decision. Powell, at the height of prestige and with no need to innovate, introduced not just a new scale but an entirely new instrument and approach to flutemaking. It is difficult today to appreciate the controversy this created. This pivotal moment in our history deserves a separate article, if not a book. Suffice it to say that we are all deeply indebted to Bick Brannen for taking the first step on this groundbreaking journey.

Across the Pond

One does wonder why this new scale came from London and not some American  corporation or university. The answer seems to be found in our different histories and attitudes. In the US, flutes were (and are) considered art objects. Tampering was strictly forbidden and so experimentation was discouraged. Verne Powell left us with many colorful quotes, one of which nicely sums up the American attitude toward innovation: “I made it, it’s right, go play it!”

The situation in England could not have been more different. Like the Powell scale in the U.S., the Rudall & Carte “schema” was presumed perfect. However, Rudall & Carte made quite a few “HP” (high pitch) flutes, and with the establishment of A=440 as the international standard (1939), these became obsolete. R&C could have sold many new flutes but instead transplanted the old mechanism to a new tube at the new pitch. This in itself was not “experimentation”; the concept of repurposing flutes was well established. Further, London flute players are arguably (pun intended) more critical of flutes and flutemakers. Everyone seems to have strong opinions and “agreeing to disagree” is an absolute tradition.

By the 1950s, R&C had gone into decline and then folded. This removed the sort of central authority the U.S. had in Boston and also left a number of highly skilled craftsmen to fend for themselves, most notably Albert Cooper.

The Cooper Scale “Brand”

When Powell (and later Brannen Brothers) invested in the Cooper scale, it became a brand — and should have. The companies took risks, and Cooper certainly deserved financial reward and every bit of credit. That said, Albert Cooper did not invent the scale out of whole cloth. What became “the Cooper scale” evolved as a group effort, with input from many different players. What in the United States became an industrial property remained “Cooper’s scale” to those who had played a part in its development.

A letter to William Bennett from Albert Cooper.

The best known of these is William Bennett (aka WIBB), author of the William Bennett scale. Cooper and WIBB agreed to disagree on some details but were long-time friends who shared information and opinions freely. It was WIBB who first said, “If the hole is in the wrong place, move it!” And he did, beginning in 1954. In 1956 he invented the technique of “patching” toneholes. This allowed an incremental approach to tuning flutes rather than building an entirely new instrument to test every possibility. The process has always been one of trial and error, and without this expediency, progress would have been slow indeed.

Cooper left R&C and began making his own flutes around 1958. Both he and WIBB experimented with fixing the worst notes, but a systematic approach was needed.

The person who most deserves recognition here is Elmer Cole, principal flutist with the English National Opera Orchestra for nearly 35 years. (Cole also invented the convertible footjoint, an improved system of trill keys, and who knows what else.) Cole had ordered a flute from Cooper around this time, and as it was being made, Alex Murray (inventor of the Murray-system flute) suggested Cole look into Böhm’s book. He did, but unfortunately, the flute was finished too soon to incorporate the new ideas.

The Cole Factor

Regardless, Elmer Cole set the entire effort on a straight course by insisting that, whatever else, the scale must have an underlying mathematical basis. He coined the term “octave length” and laid the groundwork for everything that followed. And octave length continues to be a subject of discussion. It determines the overall pitch of a scale (A=440, 442, or whatever)—and small uncertainties still continue about the best starting measurement and how, exactly, to proportion the tonehole placement.

Obviously, Albert Cooper made the largest contributions to the effort. Among many things, he developed a “displacement graph” that enabled makers to substitute different-sized toneholes in a predictable way. Just one example of Cooper’s quiet genius: When the strict “Böhm schema” was tried, the left-hand notes were found to be flat—a very serious problem. Instead of belaboring theory, Cooper simply (but rationally) jumped to a workable solution. In essence, he grafted two different scales together—what we now call the “Cooper stretch.”

This was a major breakthrough, and one that Cooper could well have kept to himself. Instead, all developments were shared, discussed, and incorporated into the general effort. This attitude of sharing both effort and credit seems difficult for Americans to understand, i.e.: “My scale is better than your scale!”

This is not to say there was agreement on every item. Everyone was working toward a common goal — better flutes — but not necessarily a common solution. There are myriad compromises, and everyone had slightly different opinions. Quite remarkably, there was a common understanding of what the compromises were and why certain choices were made.

As an example, the octave between low and middle D tends to be wide. If you make the low D “in tune,” the middle D will be sharp. Conversely, if the middle D is “in tune,” low D will be flat. What to do? Cooper reasoned that since third-space C-sharp also tends to be sharp, putting two sharp notes together might lead players astray. WIBB reasoned that if the player is already adjusting the C-sharp, why not humor the D as well?

They were both right.

To be clear: despite superficial differences, both Cooper and Bennett scales were always based on these same underlying concepts and measurements. I last saw Albert Cooper at the 1998 NFA Phoenix convention (at which, along with Charles DeLaney, he received the NFA’s Lifetime Achievement Award). He was his usual cheerful self, but a bit contemplative. He said quite clearly that he thought “the scale” was essentially complete, yet there were still details to be worked out, and that WIBB would likely run those to ground. There was nothing about “his scale”—it would have been out of character.

Keeping the Scale Alive

Edred Spell, left, Jack Moore, and William Bennett in 1978.

More than a decade ago, WIBB voiced concern that as the principal characters age and die, the process leading to “the scale” would be lost. This started me on a mission to document as much as possible. Sadly, this was about the time that Albert stepped in front of an oncoming car. He never really recovered, and WIBB’s fears were partially realized. Fortunately, WIBB kept detailed notes from the start. In reviewing five decades of his research, I noted a pattern of uncertainty about the tonehole displacement graph and the adjustments needed for open holes. Trevor Wye (another significant contributor and the engine behind our present effort) had built a mechanical flute player in the early days and got it working well enough to prove that things were actually headed in the right direction. It seemed a simple project to build another, take a few measurements, and settle matters.

Judith Gilbert with a version of Wye’s flute player, dubbed “Trevor 3.2.”

Right. Wye’s students called his machine an “Automated Trevor.” Borrowing computer technology, I dubbed mine “Trevor 3.0.” Years and sleepless nights later, “Trevor 5.3” is
beginning to behave predictably, and the open-hole corrections are taking shape. The displacement graph just might come together in the next year.

Everybody Else

As the initial controversy subsided, other makers were left to make tough choices. A few companies really did try to develop their own scales from scratch, with mixed success, but a simpler approach was to copy a “Cooper scale” flute and use it without giving credit.

Or they could get the William Bennett scale for asking.

Or they could copy either and announce their new “Brand XXX” scale.

Or they could tweak something (usually for the worse) and claim to have invented the thing entirely.

In any case, these came after the fact. It was the initial concept that mattered, and once the idea of improved tuning was accepted, anything seemed possible.

Sadly, in the past few years WIBB, Trevor Wye, and I have become increasingly concerned (annoyed/frustrated) at having students with expensive flutes that are obviously (in our opinion) out of tune. We don’t mean to appoint ourselves the “pitch police,” but it’s been a long road, and the desire to make everyone’s lives easier remains.

We hoped that if we published the actual numbers, flutemakers could use them directly or at least compare their numbers to ours and note the differences.

Thus, we offer — in a gesture of the openness and sharing that was a hallmark Albert Cooper’s character — our most recent numbers for all to view and use. You can find them (and much more useful information from Wye, a 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient) at trevorwye.com. They also are available in one easy-to-find location at eldredspellflutes.com/scales/index.htm

This article first appeared in the spring 2012 issue of The Flutist Quarterly, the membership magazine of the National Flute Association, and appears here with permission.

Ian McLauchlan Headjoint

Ian McLauchlan’s Guide To Making A Headjoint: Finishing the Headjoint

Probably the most important stage of making a headjoint is cutting the embouchure hole. It is this that really makes it work or not.

Ian McLauchlan HeadjointWhen I cut the embouchure hole, I use a tool called a scraper. It’s a wooden handle with a blade shaped like a triangular file, about 15mm long. However, instead of having file teeth on each surface, the faces are ground to a mirror finish, giving three very sharp cutting edges.

I start by using a series of gauges which show the angles required at the front, back and sides of the hole, and also the outside curvature of the lip plate. I cut the hole so that it is a minimum size from front to back, from side to side, and so that the diagonals are the correct length.

From this stage, I finish cutting the hole by playing the headjoint on my own flute, until I feel satisfied with the result. This may take 5 minutes, or sometimes I have to put the headjoint aside and start work on it again the next day! Either way the headjoint must blow well and be characteristically ‘one of mine’.

When making a flute headjoint, the following points are the most important to me:

  • Good dynamics throughout the whole range.
  • Good articulation throughout the full range when played loud and soft.
  • A wide range of tone colours available.
  • An even sound throughout the full range.
  • Plays in tune.

When the headjoint has all the above features it is ready to polish and finish.

I polish inside the riser using emery paper. This is done very carefully by hand, being sure not to alter any angles, as this could drastically alter the headjoint. I polish the outside on a buffing wheel, which has a fine polishing powder on its surface and gives an excellent finish.

I then play the headjoint again on my flute, and if I am still happy with it, my name is engraved on the tube!

Every maker aims for different things and produces very different results and, due to the fact that headjoints are so personal to the player, it seems to me that nobody can ever produce ‘the’ perfect headjoint. We all strive for perfection, but there always seems to be room for experimentation and improvement. Long may this continue!

This article was originally written by Ian McLauchlan for Flutewise.

Headjoint showing the riser

Ian McLauchlan’s Guide To Making A Headjoint: The Riser

In my first two articles in this series I talked about how I make a headjoint tube and lip-plate. This article covers the riser: a part that you don’t really see but that is an important part of the headjoint.

Headjoint showing the riserThe riser (also called the chimney, or by some American flutemakers, the ‘wall’) gives the embouchure hole its depth. This depth affects the response and tone quality of the headjoint, broadly a deeper chimney produces more low harmonics in the sound and therefore a richer quality. A shallow chimney will produce a brighter and freer-blowing headjoint.

The riser is shaped like a top hat without a top, and most headjoint makers use a casting to make it. By creating one riser the correct shape and making a mould from it, any number of copies can be made in any metal, the most popular being silver, gold and platinum.

The riser is soldered firmly to the underside of the lip-plate. To hold the riser and lip-plate in the correct position whilst they are heated up, I use a simple arrangement of two U-shaped metal clips. I do the soldering on an old house-brick, as it won’t burn and it retains heat easily: this means that the lip-plate also heats up from underneath, which helps the solder run all the way around the joint.

Next, the lip-plate and riser are cleaned up and soldered on to the headjoint tube. Here I use two pieces of thin wire twisted around everything to hold it all together.

After soldering is complete, the headjoint is now ready to have the embouchure hole ‘cut’. This is the critical stage in making the headjoint, as it is this that ultimately makes it good or bad!

The next article will cover this cutting and final polishing and finishing of the headjoint.

This article was originally written by Ian McLauchlan for Flutewise.

Robert Dick Glissando Flute Headjoint

The Ultimate Flute Headjoint?

Kingma System Flute fitted with a Glissando HeadjointRobert Dick is an internationally renowned American flautist and composer nicknamed ‘the Hendrix of the flute’ due to his ability to create effects similar to electric guitar and push the boundaries of conventional flute playing. He was inspired by Hendrix’s creativity from a very young age and desired to match the sound and abilities of electric guitar on flute.

“I heard sounds that had never existed before…and that’s where I connected mostly with Jimmy… The Stratocaster had a whammy bar so I set out to create a whammy bar for flute.”

After working in collaboration with Bickford Brannen of Brannen Brothers, Eva Kingma and Kaspar Baechi, Robert Dick made his dream a reality and created the ‘whammy bar’ Glissando Headjoint®. At first glance the Glissando Headjoint® may look like a novelty piece of kit, but think again. This headjoint has the potential to completely revolutionise the flute we are all so accustomed to.

Robert Dick describes the design as “a telescoping headjoint, with a high performance contemporary cut headjoint sliding inside a carrier tube! Two ‘wings’ extend from the lip plate and comfortably embrace the flutist’s cheeks.” It can be used to perform in the same way as a traditional Boehm flute when in its “home position” (all the way in) and clearly a great deal of thought has gone into the sound. Throughout the registers you can achieve a rich and full sound which you would expect from a high quality handmade headjoint, but this headjoint does so much more than just that. By moving the lip plate to the left you extend the length of the flute and it is also possible to make a downward glissando from every note… genius!

The Glissando Headjoint® adds another sound dimension to the flute and allows you to keep the tone quality on bends which can be lost with exposed open hole fingerings. Robert Dick foresees this headjoint being used by every jazz, rock, world music and contemporary flautist in the future and there is no doubt that it creates endless new possibilities for the modern flautist.


Robert Dick plays “Sliding Life Blues”

The Glissando Headjoint® is now made by the Eastman Musical Instrument Company (the parent company of Haynes).

The Glissando Headjoint® is available at Just Flutes. To arrange a trial, please call 020 8662 8400.

Publications by Robert Dick for flute are available from Just Flutes

Hammered lip-plate

Ian McLauchlan’s Guide To Making A Headjoint: The Lip-Plate

In part 1 of this guide, I explained how tubes for handmade flute headjoints are made. In this article, I’ll talk about the method I use to make a lip-plate.

Making up lip-plates for flute headjoints is great fun because the intitial stages involve just brute force!

Lip-Plate Making Tools

The photograph above shows the three necessary tools for starting to shape a lip-plate. The steel former on the left is a punch which is shaped like the underside of a lip-plate, and it is on this that all the work takes place. The larger round item in the centre is a lead mould which has the impression of the punch in it. The third necessary tool is a nylon mallet.

The first stage of making the lip is to cut out, from a sheet of silver, an ellipse the shape of a flattened out lip-plate:

Ellipse of silver

Position this carefully over the lead mould and place the punch on top. Now, take a large weighted hammer and, preferably in one strike, sink the punch firmly down into the mould. This squeezes the silver sheet between the two, producing a rough – but recognisable – lip-plate.

Hammered lip-plate

Now, on the over-hang around the edge of the lip-plate, it usually looks as if it has been cut with pinking shears! This is obviously not acceptable to flute players, so to get rid of this, hold the steel former in a strong vice. Sit the lip-plate on it, and tap gently around the overhang with a very hard steel hammer until it is tight on the punch and hey presto – one lip-plate! Well… not quite.

This overhang now has delicate hammer marks all over and it may not be symmetrical. Lip-plates look much better with a sharp angle , so the overhang is tidied up using a file which, with care, gives it a clean surface. This is then polished to a mirror finish.

Finally the surface of the lip-plate is made absolutely flat using a file which is run lengthwise over the whole surface of the lip-plate, all while it is sitting in the punch. This surface is then polished to a mirror finish.

Polished lip-plate

In my next article, I’ll discuss how I add the riser.

This article was originally written by Ian McLauchlan for Flutewise.

David Symington "Flutemet" Flute Crown

Alternative Crowns & Stoppers: A Resounding Leap Forward?

David Symington "Flutemet" Flute Crown

Recently there has been some debate over whether the cork assembly inside the headjoint makes a difference to the way the flute plays and feels. Many headjoint makers and flute enthusiasts have been experimenting with different materials and set-ups, and several alternatives are already available through specialist shops. In this article I want to demystify this subject and find out whether there really is truth to it.

Robert Bigio has been making stoppers and crowns for flutes out of different materials for a couple of years now. I remember that when I first saw his Zirconium flute stopper I have to admit that I was more than a little sceptical and didn’t really give it a second glance. I remember standing with some other players while one of them played a couple of headjoints with and without these stoppers. We all decided that there was indeed a difference in the sound, but we couldn’t put our finger on it.

It’s now a few years later, and Altus have launched a headjoint with a regular cork assembly, but three interchangeable crowns in heavy, medium and light weights. Again, I did not at first take much notice in this development until I was at a Flute Cocktail weekend in Bodmin with Gareth Davies.

Gareth was using one of these headjoints on his new Altus ‘AL’ flute, and he told me how he prefers the light crown compared to the other two. I thought that if one of Japan’s finest flute companies was producing different crowns, and one of the UK’s finest orchestral players was playing one, perhaps I should give these a try! I also have an Altus AL headjoint, so I tried the heavy and light crowns. I really can not tell you how much difference they made: it was vast!

With the heavy crown, I found that the sound became more focused and the top register really started to sing out. I felt that the lower register became slightly reduced power-wise, but I was happy to pay the price. I then wondered: what if I change the whole cork assembly?

Bigio Zirconium Crowns

Bigio Zirconium Crowns

On returning to Just Flutes, I took the crown and cork assembly from my headjoint and swapped them for a Robert Bigio Zirconium stopper and crown. My earlier reservations went out the window: I believe it put even more life into my sound than the Altus crown: more top end harmonics, a more powerful tone, and a little bit more resistance.

I then tried David Symington’s “Flutemet” stopper and crown. David Symington has been experimenting with crowns and stoppers in various materials for some time, and the Flutemet is the culmination of this. Made from a very dense and hard alloy, this is one heavy piece of kit! Even on a flute with a B footjoint, the headjoint was still the heavy end! For me, this set-up had beautifully resonant middle and upper registers, and made the headjoint substantially more resistive. Unusually, these stoppers are also available for piccolo.

In conclusion I found it an invaluable experience to try these different stoppers. I can’t say that they’re for everyone, and maybe not all players will feel or like the difference; but there is definitely something in the hype. Try them for yourself: you might find that you’re pleasantly surprised, like I was.

Alternative flute crowns and stoppers – and piccolo ones – are available at Just Flutes. To arrange a trial, call 020 8662 8400.