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!

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  • DaveHeath

    Is there something I am missing? — There is no doubt that all flute players owe Wibb, Eldred Spell, and Albert Cooper a huge debt for everything they have already done to improve the instrument — but if Wibb feels he can improve the scale still further — respect for his previous contributions should surely tell us he is certainly worth listening to, and that he should go for it, whether we like the final result or not.

    If people prefer playing on Powells, untuned Haynes’ or a toilet roll with Cooper key work and a Louis Lot button, who is stopping them?

    I would agree that talk about comparative scales is not something that students should be encouraged to get involved in  – getting a good flute and practicing on it is far more important, but it almost seems like
    people are angry with Wibb for being a huge character? My angle is that in these days of robotic motor racing drivers, faceless footballers, Simon Cowell and poodle artists, the great characters are a dying breed. We should appreciate them before they become extinct!

    But here is the thing I really don’t get; WIBB plays open G sharp which was how the flute was originally designed and which is without doubt, a far better system both acoustically and mechanically – at least I have never heard a good defense of the closed G sharp system. So why do we all play closed G sharp when we know open G sharp is better from every point of view?  Why? because we all just follow everyone else, and are too lazy to change—all a bit pathetic really, and I include myself in that.

    I guess from Wibb’s perspective, all closed G shapers are probably illogical, and must make him wonder if any of us are serious about improving the flute at all…

  • guest

    are these scales from boehm on based on equal temperament? which is the most out of tune temperament?
    if yes it means that for example the hole for d sharp/e flat shoul be right in the middle of these two notes so that you can play with the minor adjustment 3 pitches :d sharp,e flat and the equally tempered note…

  • Anonymous

    After listening to recordings and hearing live the above players and some of those who posted their comments below, I can see why there are 2 camps. It is very obvious that those in the camp who don’t care so much about the scale sound not quite as well in tune as the others. Most of the people don’t care so much about being in tune, and often even cannot tell if the player is in tune. Just go and hear some international competitions, and the jury concerts. 

    The bottom line is, you can always adjust to a certain point, but I think you should absolutely make your life easier and get an instrument well in tune. And about the plasticine – it’s a personal thing. Oboe and clarinet players add some all the time, and I wouldn’t think it’s a wrong thing to do so with the flute.

    • Clare Southworth

      How interesting that you can post such a personal comment and yet not have the courtesy to leave your name. I wonder why?
      This is not about personalities it is about common sense………Clare Southworth

    • dr spok

      Why two camps monsieur anonymous? No-one is questioning ze relevance of intonation or ze need to play in tune. It is offensive in ze extreme to suggest zat people such as Mr Davies and myself, and others who evidently ‘old a different opinion on zis subject, simply dont care enough about intonation.

  • Clare Southworth

    It is so refreshing to hear some common sense on this whole issue of flute scales. I have played on many different makes of flute over the years and have enjoyed the challenge of playing them “in tune”. 
    It would be a very dull world indeed if we all played on the same flutes. But, even if we did all conform to this so called ‘in-tune new flute” players would continue to play in their own individual way, with all the variation of head-joint and blowing positions. Couple that with all the physical differences that each player has and varying levels of technique and we would still be in a situation where complaints about intonation would occur. In my experience I have found that students’ aural abilities benefit hugely from working on intonation, becoming aware of the peculiarities of their instruments and learning how to play in tune. It is exactly the same technique that is required to play with dynamics and colours. If I hear sharp C#’s then I don’t blame the flute, but instruct the player. Aural awareness is crucial and an integral part of musical training. I recently gave a series of lecture recitals on the history of the flute and played my baroque flute, wooden Rudall Carte, silver Boehm system and my platinum Miyazawa. It certainly gave my ears a clean-out and helped make me even more aware of pitch irregularities. And it was fun! So I urge those of you who are thinking about buying new flutes, to try as many different makes as possible and find the one that is right for YOU. Learn to play it to your best ability, keep your ears open and practice the techniques needed to be flexible and play not only in-tune, but with the whole range of colours and dynamics.All best – Clare Southworth   

  • Mark Mills

    Two penn’outh from an amateur. In many aspects of life there are things that are held to be absolute, but which are in fact about dogma and fashion.

    I note for example that the sound quality of flutes is currently held to rise in proportion with the value of the metal they are made from. (Gold better, platinum best?) I am reminded of a story told by Albert Cooper, of how he melted some pots and pans and made a head joint from it, explaining to the world how he had found this wonderful alloy that made superb head joints. And the world was very impressed.

    I am sure that we are all in favour of flutes that play as in-tune as possible with minimum intervention on the part of the player, be this in the form of changes of lip positioning, special fingerings or anything else. But in my view, Sir James puts it well when he states: “When it comes down to it, the intonation of the flute depends very largely on the ability of the player and not the cut of the head or the scale of the flute.” And in his book on the flute: “If you pay the top dollar, you get a good flute”.

    The current range of flutes on the market might perhaps, in time, be rendered obsolete by the arrival of a new scale.  But that doesn’t mean that today’s flutes are any worse than they were last year.

  • Sir James Galway

    Dear Paul,

    Dear Paul,

    Thank you for posting this most interesting letter on the chat. I am sure there will be a lot of interest in it.

    I do admire your courage in speaking out against this issue in the English flute world. You are quite right in saying that it has been allowed to go on too long unchecked.

    I never did anything about it as I count Trevor Wye and William Bennet to be friends and one is never happy to oppose ones friends. However, like yourself I think the time has come when we should all air our opinions.

    Last year I met William at his home and showed him some flutes, Nagahara and Haynes gold and a Galway spirit flute from Conn Selmer.

    Wibb started in right away on the C sharp issue as I expected him to do. Wit William it is not an issue but some sort of phobia. He came to the conclusion that the Nagahara was the best. This was after blowing all flutes in a short time. This is something that I disagree with right away. I think the best way to try a flute is to play a Bach sonata or a work which is the equivalent in length and difficulty. The reason for this is that you can access how the flute works when you embouchure is under stress and fatigued.This is how I try a flute.

    Let me tell you about my journey through the flute scales of the world. The first thing to bring to your attention is that I never heard about scales until I got my first Cooper flute in 1961/2 when I was playing in the opera in London. Until then I played a flute made by E. J. Albert followed by a Haynes. It was with this Haynes I first became aware of the bad intonation of the instrument. Upon reflection it is no wonder it was out of tune as it was not made by any scientific standard. I believe in those days a local flute player from the Boston Symphony, Mr. Papasakis would advise on the tuning and he was also no scientist. In the late Fifties I was happy to have a flute that worked and one I did not have to take to the the local repair man, a notorious Mr. Morley of London.I did manage to play this instrument in tune with the help of some alternate fingerings for the third octave.

    William Bennett came to the rescue and advised me to gt a Cooper flute which I did. I got an in line open hole ;ow B silver flute and used the headjoing from my Haynes. I sold the Haynes to a friend and his daughter still plays it .

    This New Cooper gave me a new lease of life on the flute. I no longer had to tinnk of special fingerings for F and A flat 3 and for the first time managed to play in tune modifying the already good scale of Albert cooper with my embouchure.

    In the Berlin Philharmonic I had two flutes made specially for the job, one in silver and the other in gold, both made by Mr. Cooper. Even with these instruments I had trouble adjusting to the pitch. After a week or two I got used to the new pitch and could play very well in tune within the orchestra. During my time in the BPO. I did play in England, the land of 440 and I managed very well. In fact I made my first two or three solo recordings with my Cooper 445 and it worked very well. I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about. I was convinced that a higher pitched flute worked batter with the head pulled out than pushing in with a lower pitched flute to reach a higher pitch. This would explain the erratic pitch problems in the BPO flute section where one player played on an old covered hole Haynes and another on a Muramatsu. Herbert von Karajan called me into his office once to ask me why I could play better in tune than the others. I told him about the Boehm Schema and he understood it straight away.

    I have written about this on my chat before Paul, but wanted to run it by you so you would know of my experiences in the top orchestras I played in.

    Now to the present situation where Bennet, Wye and Spell are damming us all for not playing the instrument of their choice and the scale of their choice.I personally think that they do not have to right to foist their opinion on the rest of us who have been playing very well on Muramatsu, Nagahara, Powell, Brannen Burkhardt Pearl and a slew of other very good flutes for the past few decades. These top end makers have served us very well in meeting our demands.

    When it comes down to it the intonation of the flute depends very largely on the ability of the player and not the cut of the head or the scale of the flute.

    I am currently staying with Sam Coles who is the solo flute in the Philharmonia orchestra of London. 

    This morning after reading your letter we made an experiment with a flute and a tuner.
    We both played the A on the same flute and I was flatter than Sam on the tuning machine. We did this with two different flutes a Brannen and a Nagahara.  When we played on a couple of Nagahara flutes Sam’s intonation was spot on and he was playing on an unfamiliar flute. It was the same when I played on his Brannen. I became very quickly accustomed to the instrument and felt very much at home on Sam’s instruments.

    We concluded that we could not play the same flute with the head joint in the same place. Therefore the position of the C sharp hole in relation to the head joint was different for each of us. In my case shorter and in Sam’s longer but the intonation was spot on no matter which flute we played.

    Where is this all taking us? Does Bennett Wye and Spell (BWS) expect the world to change and start using their scale in the hope of improved intonation? I dont think this is going to happen. The day that Muramatsu or any of the big flute firms change for the BWS scale will be the beginning of a brave new world. They also have an aversion to gold as a material for flutes and here we have another issue. I think I could safely say that the majority of first chair orchestra players play on gold and it cannot be for the look only. If they were all in awe of the playing of BWS they would all be playing Altus silver flutes and using the spare cash for better cars or houses.

    No siree. We all play gold because it is a better material otherwise we would all be playing a silver flute and not all made by Altus. 

    Paul, your idea of studying relative pitch is worth more than the eternal search for the “perfect scale”. 

    I think we have opened a real can of worms here and it is time it was opened.

    I look forward to all your comments.

    Best wishes,
    Sir James.


  • catali

    Excellent Stuff! I find many students just play with the head joint turned in too far (for my taste anyway!) and this causes many of their tuning problems. I also know a maker (of repro simple system flutes) whose flutes I can’t play because he does the tuning himself and has the same “problem”! Pity (for me anyway)! However, you lose so much power and flexibility if the blowing angle is too deep. Anyone know anything about whether there are trends/fashions in these flute playing styles? Would be very interesting if someone did some research, though I imagine that the limited historical descriptions of the finer details of flute playing would not be overly helpful. Photography should have changed that these days. :-))

  • albatross

    Although I may be flying off on a tangent here, several points of this discussion interest me greatly.

    TonyF points out “perception of pitch is not uniquely that of however many cycles per second”. From my reading of acoustics this is absolutely correct, or as we were taught: “matching pitch is not the same as matching frequency”. Overall pitch is determined by a sound’s harmonic structure. When the brain processes this harmonic structure it infers the fundamental frequency. If I am not mistaken, this is how transistor radios work. This inferred fundamental might not match that of a mechanical tuner. This is why some players will sound out of tune even though a lie detector (tuner) will say they are in tune, and some players will sound in tune even though the tuner will say otherwise. The relevance for this discussion, as I see it, is that each flutist’s sound has a unique harmonic structure, determining its overall pitch. Therefore, it seems impossible to create a scale with a hole in place for a perfect fundamental frequency for each note for each player.

    When it comes to the top-end flutes, are we not speaking of only a few cents here, a few cents there? And in relation to what, an equal tempered scale? Can anyone actually hear to the twelfth root of two? Would the C# in question be played same frequency in an A-major scale, an F#-major scale, or as a Db in a Bb-minor scale?

    That said, I am very grateful to those who have developed the flute scale over the centuries, and am grateful we have the technology to niggle over a few cents.

  • dr spok

    Article Number 2 from Robert Winn

    Flute Scales and the problems of outonation .

    Imagine a piece of A4 photcopy paper , it is approximately 0.1mm thick ………. That’s a tenth of a millimeter and if you look at it side on its pretty thin . Whilst you are imagining this , I will carry on my story .
    You are probably wondering what makes me think that I have any right to pontificate here about matters of such gravity as intonation and flute scales .

    I spent many happy hours discussing flute scales with Albert Cooper and William Bennett.
    For 6 years , I studied headjoint building and many other aspects of flute manufacture at the Flute Makers Guild in London under the tutelage of Harry Sealey, the master flute maker

    Two major international instrument companies contracted me as a design consultant , for a total of 6 years .
    I have rebuilt and renovated some 35 flutes of various vintages and makers and tuned others and constructed many headjoints over the last twenty years, with colleagues who specialised in padding and fine metal work……………..

    oh and by the way I was solo flutist with the RPO and many major orchestras for 20 years and am now professor of flute in Köln Germany .

    All of which means that I am no stranger to screws !!

    So now back to the point at issue …………. Here is a comparison of two sets of numbers

    43.2 43.5 As you compare these
    76.7 77.0 numbers , you will become
    110.1 110.4 aware of the staggering
    similarities , except in respect of one measurement
    140.2 140.3
    169.3 169.2
    197.3 197.2
    223.5 223.5

    246.4 247.5 THIS ONE !!!!!!

    268.9 269.1
    291.1 291.1
    313.1 313.1

    332.8 332.8

    365.0 365.0

    382.8 382.8
    398.7 398.7

    These are the A440 hz scale workings of a famous flute maker in his own hand and a celebrity flutist in his own hand ( I have both documents dating from the early 80’s . )

    Now , you’ ll have to concentrate a bit ………… imagine three A4 sheets next to each other , side on , and that’s the difference between the numbers which have a difference of 0.3mm and a single sheet for the ones with 0.1mm difference

    These numbers represent the centres of the holes on a flute body starting at the foot
    As we can see , one of the above gentlemen believed that the foot joint toneholes , the first three numbers , should be placed further up the tube from the bottom , i.e. in the direction of the headjoint , presumably because he feared flatness .

    In my experience I have hardly met any one who could see the difference in a postion of 0.1mm of a hole , particularly in the event that it was a patched hole on a Louis Lot flute , in fact I think its well nigh impossible , and I have similar documents pertaining to scales where the figures are measured to two decimal points , that’s less than one thickness of A4 paper , which is simply ridiculous in hand made flute construction and is most probably a thing of science fiction or NASA .

    The empirical work of Mr Cooper is obviously a great basis from which to start and we should be grateful to anyone who devotes time and energy to the business of improving the instruments on which we play, as many people including WIBB have over the years . However , I would like to make the following reservations if I may , since I have heard many disturbing stories recently , which like Paul Edmund Davies have spurred me to say something .

    The above figures show one dramatic difference , and that is the position of the closed g# hole ,( I have ommited the lower duplicate measurement for clarity )

    The reason for the disparity is because one of the gentlemans’ workings is based on an open g# scale , and the other for a closed g# set up. It was in the opinion of Mr Cooper necessary to adjust the position of this hole because on a closed g# system there are two holes in close proximity at this point on the tube where there is only one on an open g# system .
    As a result, in my experience, I have found the d# 3 on the Bennett variation very sharp . Frequent conversations with professional colleagues and years of discussion in orchestra coffee breaks have led me to believe that I am not alone in my findings, indeed only last week Gareth Davies , principal flute of the LSO , confirmed the same to me. Could it be that no correction for this hole , was ever given to those flutemakers who adopted this scale, or did WIBB never agree that it was necessary or perhaps it was just overlooked or not scrutinized because he didn’t play a closed g# flute. .
    Subsequent measuring and testing of several closed g# Bennett scale flutes has born out my suspicion about the position of this hole . The disparity is 1mm ,over thirty years and thousands of flutes , a huge amount, probably several hundred meters ! That ‘s Outonation!

    The head joint on a flute is designed with a truncated parabolic curve .
    This serves to bring the octaves of the first and second register in to tune and assists in forming the third register which has a more complex arrangement of fingering patterns . There are many different parabolic curves , most of which were made by hand in the early days, 1860 onwards , because there were no computerised copying machines . Despite all the talk about intonation ,neither Mr Bennett , Mr Wye nor Mr Spell devote any time whatsoever to the most important part of a flute, the headjoint , its taper and the embouchure position, shape and cut .
    Since it is well known that certain tapers affect intonation in radically differing ways , I am somewhat surprised by their attitude towards many of the flute companies in regard of intonation. Whilst a headjoint is primarily concerned with the octaves on a flute , the amount which each individual pulls it out or turns it in ,or out, or covers it with the lip, will have a profound effect on the left hand notes of the flute . This is because if we pull out 1cm , over a length of 30 cm it will represent a flattening of three percent , whereas over 10cm it would represent a flattening of 10 percent and so on respectively . Therefore, depending on how far we pull out , based our individual manner of playing , we will always flatten the left hand notes more than the right hand notes percentage- wise .

    Of course this does not diminish the fact that the relative positions of the holes are of enormous importance , however in recent times I have been told and indeed seen many examples of flutes, deemed to be out of tune , where the holes have been partially filled with lumps of a substance similar to putty , variously called ‘chicken sh*t ‘ I believe …………. This rather beggars belief considering the high empirical expectations of the scale patterns discussed by our three musketeers , where apparently 0.1mm is of sufficient importance to claim copyright. .

    No flute player or teacher how ever celebrated , owns the copyright to the intonation, indeed ‘outonation’ , of flutes in England or any where else for that matter . It does the industry and the dealers no service whatsoever to have self appointed individuals making confusing rants about scales ,which the majority of fluteplayers really cannot possibly be expected to understand. It serves to undermine the confidence of young people who seek tutelage and drives frantic parents to seek recompense for often expensive instruments which on occasion have been described as – only fit for the waste paper basket, unplayable and other such, too numerous to list here .

    Whilst it is true that in the industry there is currently a serious lack of direction and much ignorance about some of these issues , it is in my opinion , high time that this embarassing trend was brought to an end. Some of the major makers of flutes in my opinion have a great deal to learn about acoustics and the problems of E mechanisms and many other issues associated with material science, and intonation. This however , does not in any way excuse the obtuse behaviour which some of my colleagues are engaging in. And, I would also like to remind them, that if you constantly change your mind about these issues ,as has been the case over the last 20 years , in the end people become confused and don’t know what they should believe any more No flute company in the world will be prepared to adopt these kind of ideas because they are in the business sense , deemed unreliable . Whilst I represent no flute company, may I join my colleague Paul Edmund Davies in his search for more professional and concilliatory solutions to these problems which plague our industry.

    In my next article I will refer to material science ……………

  • dr spok

    From Robert winn

    For years instrument makers the world over have sought guidance from top professionals on how to improve acoustics , volume , and intonation , not to mention sound quality and materials.

    In our generation, the influence of Sir James Galway in the 1970’s and 1980’s has led to a huge interest and popularisation of the flute in the world market of musical instruments .

    Firstly it is important to understand the industry dynamics . Approximately 5-10% of all the flutes which are manufactured in the world are destined to be played by top professionals.

    This very small top-end proportion, means that the flute industry is mostly concentrating on the other 90% , which includes children of all ages , semi professional players , teachers ,students and the huge number of people who enjoy playing music as a hobby, either at home or in local amateur orchestras. They are served in the main by a dealer who explains to the customer about the product and the important features of the instrument in question.

    It has always been the dream of the instrument maker to have his flute played by a top international artist and therefore this small percentage of players have more often than not turned to the smaller companies or one -man operations such as Cooper , Almeida , Jack Moore , Landell , Sheridan, and others , to satisfy their more personal requirements. These artisans- the makers ! have therefore been responsible for many of the innovations which have occurred in the market place , for one simple reason , and that is production techniques .

    In a factory production line, 10 –20 craftsmen sit at benches each fulfilling a role in the overall production . Designs for instruments are carefully considered , based usually on unit cost and the market which the instrument will supply.
    Because high grade machine tooling is so expensive to produce, whether for drawn or soldered tone hole flutes or headjoint mandrels it is in the interest of the manufacturer to maintain consistency and not be constantly changing the designs at the whim of some celebrity flutist .A production line requires empiricism to be successful and also the time and resources to devote to research and development . There is a constant risk of losing sales because the customer has expectations about the product which the maker has always produced and of course the potential consequences of having to lay off staff due to lack of orders . This has been the lasting success of companies such as Muramatsu , Sankyo , Brannen Cooper , Haynes , and Powell and Rudall Carte who over the last 70 years of the 20th century became recognised as market leaders in consistency of production of the highest quality . (Since the early 1990’s there have been some radical changes to the manufacturing industry which we shall discuss in a later article ).

    Now back to the five percent !

    It is the constant enthusiasm for improvement that drives the professional player to search for the Holy Grail of perfect intonation , perfect sound , perfect material ………… I could go on ………. and on…………… and ……………… on .

    And this is where the fundamental problem lies ………..players are notoriously subjective in their analysis of sound and intonation , and also as Paul Edmund-Davies very correctly points out , individual physiognomy also has an important role to play .

    It is of no use whatsoever if our flute celebrity gets up on Wednesday and declares the c# hole to be too sharp and on Thursday changes his mind again. This would cause chaos in the industry.

    In the early 1970’s Albert Cooper , who I knew personally for very many years , began the process of improvement of scales . His work was empirical , meticulously researched and executed . It is through his empirical approach and remarkable consistency in manufacture -despite being a one-man operation in a shed in south london- and his humble attitude, that he achieved the marvellous results in headjoint manufacture and flutes for which we all should be grateful. This as we have seen was only possible because he worked alone , his overheads were minimal and he was not subject to the major market forces which are so problematic for large companies.

    Intonation is relative .

    In England in the 1980 ‘s all the major orchestras played at A 440 hz which is a comfortable place to work in my experience. The only argument that we had was with string players who persistently got sharper during the course of their scratchings, which led on more than one occasion to confrontations .
    William Bennett , Sebastian Bell , Adrian Brett, Richard Adeney and Edward Beckett and many many others including Paul Edmund Davies and myself , I’m sure have had un- FLAT -tering stories to tell on this subject .!

    Apart from the daily soap opera of orchestral intonation battles , there was the constant thrust towards better intonation for the flutes themselves. Albert Cooper, who always listened attentively to professional players was available to take some hints from Messrs Cole and Bennett which produced a very good compromise on which most of us played for many years . This work sporned the scales which were made in America by Powell, who adopted the Cooper 440 hz scale towards the end of the 4000 serial number flutes and also Jack Moore who adopted the Bennett variation A 440 hz , in 1978 – 1980 ( around the 80 serial number) and later Edward Almeida, Jonathan Landell and Miguel Arista .
    Meanwhile Haynes continued producing what had become known as the Deveau scale , named after the President of the company. Not until I went to Boston to work for John Fugghetta, the subsequent president, as a consultant in the late 1990’s , did they update their scale models . The reason for this lay as I have already explained in the expectations of the market place and in particular because they produced a lot of instruments for military bands in America, added to the fact that at the time in America the orchestral pitch was A 439 hz.
    Finally, the Brannen brothers adopted the Cooper 442 hz scale as they began their production of what has been one of the most successful flute companies in the world, renowned for excellence of manufacture and consistency in quality and carrying on the great name of Cooper in the flute industry .

    In the next article I will discuss the scales in more depth and subsequently talk about other elements of flute manufacture , including materials and mechanisms .

  • Jon

    Some clear thinking and advice from an old pro !

  • kenhawkins

    I enjoyed this article as it reminded of the reality that there are a myriad of strong opinions on just about every subject in the world of flute playing. Sometimes more weight and credibility are given to an opinion based on who is giving the opinion. This article shows that the “rightest” opinons for some, are the absolute “wrongest” for others. I reflected on a couple of key points for me. We are all unique in the ways that our bodies are constructed which affects the sounds we produce. Sir James will sound just like himself on a Powell, a Haynes a Miyazawa, a Cooper or a Bundy. I will sound like me no matter what I play. We ( the players) are really the main instruments. If I love the sound of the particular flute, I will have a great time using it to make music regardless of whose scale it is. Thank you for posting your article and voicing your opinion.

  • jpritcha

    So true, so reasonable, so necessary. Thanks for posting this bit of wisdom and common sense.

  • Melanie

    I agree that it is necessary and important work that William Bennett, Trevor Wye and Eldred Spell are continuing in the Albert Cooper vein as Dr. Spell elaborates in the recent Flutist Quarterly article (and in one of the recent posts to this blog “Scales: An incomplete look at what every flutist should know”). I also agree with Paul Edmond Davies in this blog that it is important for all of us to recognize that there is the unrelenting variable of the player that forces us to take all absolutes with a dose of perspective.

    All who are in prominent positions of influence in the flute industry as well as teachers at every level must accept as our responsibility to educate with an open mind and a sense of perspective.

    While producing an instrument that comes closest to a “theoretically perfect scale” is highly desirable and if made available to all flutists, it would become the basis from which we learn to compensate for tuning in all the myriad playing situations, each individual will still be subject to his/her own playing variables which will cause the flute to respond differently than for others.

    We are all aware that the overall picture of intonation does not exist in isolation. Just as when a young student tunes her “A” to the tuner and thinks that she is now magically “in tune”, there is some risk of relying too heavily on what we would consider to be a theoretically perfectly tuned flute. Starting with the best equipment is smart, but relying on the scale of the instrument to do our work for us could be misleading. All players must adapt to every moment of the dynamic circumstances of playing and performing with an inclusive awareness of all variables. Nonetheless, having the best possible equipment with which to start can enhance the results of the player’s effort.

    Even if these theoretically perfect measurements proven with a mechanical blowing machine indicate a better scale overall, variables will remain once the human player is introduce. The player’s skill and ears will always need to compensate for these variables to a great degree. Variables include, but are not limited to:
    1. Physical characteristics of the player that affect the quantity, shape, quality of the air stream including shape, surface and control of lips; shape and size of mouth; tongue size, placement and use; angle of approach to the embouchure plate and riser; etc…
    2. Choice tone color
    3. Dynamics
    4. Articulations
    5. Variable tuning and textures of other instruments with which the flute is being played along with the variable playing characteristics of each of those players
    6. Personal and/or cultural aesthetic which influences what is emphasized in the production of the tone (affecting which harmonics become more or less predominant in tone color characteristics which necessarily affects tuning)
    7. Training and skill both for playing and hearing accurately

    Additionally, there is the comfort of the player with the instrument. I have observed through my work with helping players to find their best head joint, that the more flexibility the player has to control elements of pitch, dynamics, and color; the more comfortable they feel with it. This allows the player to play better overall and to be more proactive in the continual tuning adjustments that must always be made. Just as I have rarely found two people to choose the very same head joint as the best for the way they play and with the flute they currently play, I suspect that the head joint that is ultimately paired with the “theoretically perfect” body of the flute will have nearly as much affect on the overall tuning once paired with the infinitely variable human player.

    As we all know, there are no two exactly the same hand cut head joints, even though the differences are infinitely small and varied. Would it be the same with each flute body? Is it not possible that two players playing the same instrument made to the same scale would experience enough different response that one would say the scale is poor for notes x,y, and z while the other would say only note w was a problem? (Paul’s inset story alluded to this very thing)

    I applaud the continued work of the gentlemen engaged in improving the flute scale and encourage open-mindedness in the flute world in general. Yet I caution against blanket statements that could have misleading affects on young flute players and unintended damaging consequences in the flute-making world. There are times when leaving out just enough information can cause people to make false assumptions and act on them.

    We have an abundance of fine flutes available at this point in history compared to the past. There are many more fine options available than ever before. They are more consistent and to better scale than those available prior to 1980 and continue to get better. Makers continue to refine and improve their processes and technology. Players continue to become more sophisticated and demanding.

    Our best guide in this industry will continue to be that which is best in all the music industry – our trained ears and sensibilities.

    Melanie Sever is an active freelance musician, a licensed Minnesota K-12 Music Educator and teaches flute at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Her article, “Head Hunting”, has appeared in Fluit (Netherlands), Flote Aktuell (Germany), and She presented the lecture “Head Hunting” at the 2010 Adams Flute Festival in the Netherlands and the 2011 NFA Convention in the USA, and with the German Flute Society’s November 2011 “Headjoints: Inside and Out” tour and will present at the upcoming 2012 BFS Convention in Manchester. MM, University of Minnesota-Duluth; BA, St. Olaf College. See

  • TonyF

    P.E-D. has made some excellent points. Becoming obsessive about moving the holes in a flute is a risky and possibly naive approach to optimising intonation across the range of an instrument to suit all players. I think this risks making intonation more of a moving target than it is already and is not going to be popular with students and teachers especially. All players have different physiologies and a degree of adjustment and accommodation is a fundamental part of performance for an instrument like a flute. It seems to me to be missing the point to optimise an instrument for one particular player on one particular day performing in one particular key with one particular set of colleagues playing their instruments also with their own challenges in pursuit of optimal intonation.

    The perception of pitch and relative pitch is an area not simply a matter of drilling a hole here, there or anywhere new. For example, with keyboard instruments, harpsichords especially, we live regularly with retuning for playing in different keys when using different temperaments to fit in with stringed instruments and singers. What are we going to do with our flute? Have different instruments to suit different keys we are playing in? If you are a student with intonation challenges then throwing your instrument away and buying another one is unlikely to solve all the problems instantly.

    Another issue worth mentioning (speaking from the background of a sound engineer) is that perception of pitch is not uniquely that of however many cycles per second one measures for a given note, it is level dependent. Try recording a long held Gnatural above middle C. Play it back at a normal level. Then try playing it back with the level increased by a significant twist of the volume control – it sounds flatter, but the frequency does not actually change. This phenomenon is indicative of what a complex issue perceived intonation is – and part of performance is dealing with pitch ‘on the fly’.

    If a player is having some intonation difficulties with a particular instrument I see no problem in trying a variety of available alternatives, however the notion that there is a universally perfect set-up for everyone is misguided in my opinion.

    • Rolandbryce

      A fascinating set of letters and opinions…. Us lesser mortals are just happy to play in tune and drive the instrument by ear. I heard Sir James play an old walking-stick flute years ago as an encore. It sounded as good as any flute I ever heard and convinced my that it wasn’t the flute that mattered…. Wibb’s flute always looked in need of a darned good overhaul, but sounded wonderful! “90%  is the man behind the gun” my old school Rudall Carte flute-playing teacher used to say….(Not Gareth Morris)  (un-pc, sorry ladies, but it is reported speech) 
      Sir James himself blurted out once in a master class: “Better sharp than out of tune!” Much truth in that very statement…. can we all figure out why>? 😉