Don’t Let A Metal Allergy Stop You Playing Flute

Over recent years in Jonathan Myall Music, we have come across more and more flute players who suffer a silver allergy – and I’m one of them. I have several allergies: silver, dust, cats, (sharp flute playing!), and have found that I can not do anything about them other than to find a way not to be exposed to the causes. However, a silver allergy really isn’t helped by playing a silver flute! If you are like me, and need help with finding an answer to this miserable problem, read on!

I first noticed my silver allergy when I was much younger and upgraded my flute to a silver-headed Yamaha YFL-381. I kept getting mouth ulcers and my lips used to swell up, right to the centre of the embouchure hole, meaning that I would be unable to play for weeks. Back then, though, I did not realise the severity of my allergy and struggled on.

When I started at the Royal Academy of Music, I was very lucky and was loaned a flute to play on. It did not come with a headjoint so I had to provide my own. At the same time, I started working at Just Flutes, where their wonderful headjoint maker, Ian McLauchlan, offered to make me a silver headjoint. Of course, the allergy problem persisted.

I initially experimented by applying a thin layer of nail vanish on the lip-plate to act as an invisible layer between the flute and my mouth. However, I soon discovered that this was not a suitable solution: as I was playing, the lip-plate would warm up and the nail varnish started giving off fumes, which made me… well, nothing short of “high”!

Ian McLauchlan suggested gold-plating the lip plate. This sounded a good idea, and we went for the thickest plating possible: 9 microns. Initially, this solved the problem and I could play trouble-free. However, the lip-plate rubs a lot against one’s chin, and after just a few months of practicing several hours a day the plating began to wear off and my allergy started up again.

Maybe something more industrial would work, we thought, so we plated my flute’s lip-plate with a metal that is used by car companies to stop the car corroding. Unfortunately, after practicing for a couple of hours on one hot Summer day, I noticed that some plating had flaked off the flute and onto my mouth. Not good.

So, it seemed that silver was a lost cause for my flute and me. I asked Ian to make me another headjoint, this time with a gold lip-plate. My problem was solved.

Except, not quite. After graduating from the Academy, I had to give my loan flute back and buy my own. I simply fell in love with the silver Altus 1807 (AL): the problem was that it has a silver lip-plate and I had had to sell my gold-lip headjoint to fund a new flute! Back to square one?

I already knew what things wouldn’t work, so I set out to find something else to solve the problem. I tried the Just Flutes lip-plate patches, which were good, but did not cover quite enough of the lip-plate for the allergy to disappear altogether. I tried covering the lip with Gaffer tape, which worked very well (and, with it looking so weird, was definitely a conversation starter!) But, I had to change the tape every few weeks and it would leave a sticky residue on the headjoint which then went into my mouth. Not ideal.

Then a good friend and customer gave me a sheet of sticky-back silver paper. Yes, silver paper! He explained that it is the same paper that they use in garages when cars are painted: the tape is put over the headlights and windscreens to cover them against splashes of paint. This tape is very thin (but thick enough to work against the allergy) and sticks perfectly to the lip-plate.

All in all, for me this is a perfect solution: it solves my allergy problem, it’s inexpensive, looks the part and is durable. About one year ago, I cut out one small lip-plate shaped piece from this paper, and it still holds… I hope it will continue to hold for a long time, because I can’t find the original sheet any more!

Flute Pad Saver

Flute Essentials: Cleaning and Maintenance Accessories

There are masses of accessories designed for cleaning your flute and keeping it in top playing order. Here’s our round-up of what we suggest every flute (and piccolo) player should have in their cleaning arsenal.

1. Cleaning Rod and Gauze

Flute Cleaning RodThe most important cleaning accessory for every flute player! You should use a good-quality wooden cleaning rod (a metal one can scratch the inside of the instrument) with a lint-free, non-fluffy gauze, after every playing session. This will absorb the bulk of the water from inside your instrument, meaning your pads will last longer.

You shouldn’t store the gauze in the case with the flute – leaving a soggy cloth in the case isn’t good for the mechanism, plus there often isn’t space! Store it in the side pouch of your case cover.

Wood Cleaning RodCleaning Gauze

2. A Silver Cloth

Most flutes are either silver or silver-plated. Silver reacts with sulphur in the air over time, making it look tarnished, dull and blackened. A silver cloth is impregnated with a chemical compound, and can polish silver up to make it bright again. If you notice that your flute is looking tarnished, a silver cloth will almost certainly do the trick.

Silver Cloth

Silver cloths are very mildly abrasive, and so should be used just once in a while on a lightly tarnished instrument. For everyday use, you should use…

3. A Fine Microfibre Cloth

Shinvision ClothYour finger prints contain grease and mild acids, and you should use a fine polishing cloth to gently remove them. This will keep your flute’s finish in its best condition, and is especially important on a silver-plated instrument, where silver-plating can begin to come off (‘pit’) if not kept clean.

Fine Microfibre Cloth

4. Pad Saver

Flute Pad SaverWhen used correctly, a pad saver can help increase the life of your flute’s pads. They work with the help of an impregnated dessicant which draws extra moisture from the pads’ surface. You should use the pad saver after cleaning your flute with a rod and gauze, and not as a substitute. Store it inside your flute body while it’s in its case, and it will help to reduce condensation when moving from warm to cold environments, too.

Flute Pad SaverPiccolo Pad Saver

5. Picc Stick

Picc Stick

This is an incredibly useful cleaner for piccolo players who suffer from water-logging keys. It assembles to the full length of your piccolo, so can be used mid-gig to quickly swab it out without having to take the headjoint off and re-tune. It takes down in to two pieces, which will easily fit your shoulder bag.

Picc Stick

Flute workshop

Sticky Pads: A Perennial Problem

Flute workshopSticky pads can be infuriating. However, they are something that nearly all flute players have to put up with to some extent. Very few flutes have no stickiness at all, and to be honest, there is not that much that you can do about it!

To look at what can cause sticky pads, let’s first look at the pad itself.

Most pads are made up of the following parts :

1. A card washer to give the pad some stiffness.
2. A felt washer (usually about 2mm thick) that sits on top of the card washer.
3. Two layers of ‘Gold Beater’s Skin’ which is stretched tightly over the felt washer and glued on to the underside of the card washer holding everything together and providing an airtight surface that will seal the tone hole.

When a pad becomes sticky, what has happened is that the surface of the skin has become dirty. This causes slight holding of the skin when the pad comes off the top of the tone hole, so that when it releases it makes the characteristic sticky noise.

The dirt usually gets on to the pad when the pad is damp. Dust in the air, or in the flute case, settles on the skin and it gradually becomes slightly sticky.

Another cause is players consuming sweet drinks or food before they play the flute. Stickiness seems to follow soon afterwards! To prevent this clean your teeth, or at least have a drink of water before playing after eating sweet things.

Probably the best way to clean the surface of a pad relatively safely is to use lighter fluid on a cigarette paper:

1. Buy a can of lighter fluid and some cigarette papers from any good newsagent. Make sure you buy lighter fluid, not gas.

2. Put two drips of lighter fluid on to a cigarette paper, and slide this between the sticky pad and the tone hole. Close the pad on to it and gently hold it closed for about 10 seconds. Open the key and then close it again with the paper in a slightly different position. Take the paper out, blow on it to evaporate the remaining lighter fluid, and replace it between pad and tone hole and close the key for the last time on to the paper to blot up any remaining fluid.

You should find that now the pad is not sticking, or at least the noise is reduced.

At no time pull the paper out from under the pad when the key is closed!

My feeling is that the above method is the safest for repairing sticky keys, but some people recommend the following tips. I am not certain that I can recommend these myself, and I have said why here.

‘Put talcum powder on to a cigarette paper and close this between pad and tone hole. The talc will stick to the sticky parts of the skin reducing the stickiness’

Whilst this does reduce stickiness, I feel that adding more ‘mess’ on to the skin surface is asking for trouble later on. Also, I’m sure the pad cannot seal as well after this treatment.

‘Wipe a soft pencil on to a cigarette paper and then close this between pad and tone hole’

Again, this is adding more and more mess to the pad surface. I cannot recommend it.

‘Place a dry cigarette paper between pad and tone hole, close the key and pull the cigarette paper out’.

Don’t do this! It ruins the pads very quickly. Paper is surprisingly rough and acts like sandpaper on the pad skin. When this has been done only a few times the surface of the skin looks frayed. This pad will not last long and will certainly not seal as well.

I hope the above helps with your sticky pad problems. Do remember though, even if using the lighter fluid method, that you should only do this occasionally.

This article was originally written by Ian McLauchlan for the Flutewise magazine.

Yamaha Pocketrak C24

Assessing Your Practice through Recording

Sometimes the best teacher you ever have will be yourself. Yes, it’s true! Many of us are used to listening to recording of ‘the greats’ performing the pieces that we are learning, and we know how they sound through our headphones, stereo or computer speakers. Why not listen to yourself like that too? By doing so, you have the opportunity to find out what it that ‘the greats’ have that you don’t (or even vice versa!).

Here is my attempt at trying to persuade you to do some homework and record yourself. How to do it, however, is another question, so I will give you a common set-up which you can follow.

Firstly, the recording equipment you use is very important. Your computer microphone can be of use, but due to the limited frequency range of the small mics, you may not hear what you actually sound like. It will give you an idea but for the purposes of learning you need something better.

Don’t get me wrong, the recording doesn’t have to be done in a professional recording studio (but if you can afford a couple of hours at Abbey Road go for it!). The best thing to do is to buy a stand-alone HD recorder like the Yamaha Pocketrak C24 or the Zoom H2N, or, if you want a little more flexibility, go for the Zoom H4n. All of these include an SD memory card slot and a USB plug, so that, after you have finished playing, the recording can be transferred directly to your PC or Mac.

The Equipment

Yamaha Pocketrak C24 Recorder

Yamaha Pocketrak C24 Recorder

The Yamaha Pocketrak C24 Digital Recorder is a great machine with two medium sized mics and a frequency response range of 20Hz-20KHz, which is suitable for most uses. The USB stick is built in, so there are no cables co carry. The whole thing is powered by a single AAA battery (which lasts a long time), takes up little space and weighs virtually nothing.


Zoom H2N Handy Recorder

Zoom H2N Handy Recorder

For a more sophisticated machine, one should look at the Zoom H2N Digital Recorder. This features 4 microphones, two of which are at a 90° angle, the other two at 180°. The 90° microphones are ideal for solo recordings, and the latter is suitable for recording larger ensembles, such as a quintet or even a chamber orchestra. Power supply is by mains or batteries, which last for about a day of recording.

The H2N has the capability to record at different ‘sampling rates’. The sample rate is the number of times a second that the audio is ‘sampled’; the higher the sample rate, the better the quality of the recording. 44.1kHz is CD-quality, or you can opt for 48kHz or 96kHz, which is DVD-Audio quality. A higher sample rate means that the end audio file will be larger. Now, the SD card that comes with the H2 has 512MB of storage space, which is enough for general recording, but not enough if you are recording at higher sample rates, so a 1GB or 4GB SD card is preferable.

Zoom H4n Handy Digital Recorder

Zoom H4n Handy Digital Recorder

The H4N, also from Zoom, does even more. Apart from having two XY formation microphones, which can be adjusted from 90° to 180° degrees, at the back of the device there are two XLR inputs (for connecting external microphones) and a built-in four-track recorder. On top as this, it has a built-in effects module, with which you can add reverb, echo, chorus, fizz-wah and distortion effects to your recordings. Essentially, you could plug an electric guitar into it and use it as an amp!

Furthermore, if you plug the H4N into a computer, you can use it as an audio interface, enabling you to record straight into your computer using the Zoom’s mics.

The Basic Set-Up

So you are in your practice room. You have your music stand, the music, the instrument in your hands. The best place to put the recorder is about 2ft away, directly in front of you, preferably at the same height as your instrument when you’re playing it. The microphones on the recording device need to be pointing straight towards you: if you are using the Zoom H2N or H4N, make sure the mics are set to the 90° angle and not 180°; if you are using the Yamaha Pocketrak C24, you can clip it to your music stand.

Next, set the ‘gain’ of the input. This is the level at which the mic will record the sound, and on most devices there are three settings: low, medium and high. Use ‘low’ if you are recordings something loud; ‘high’ is used for very quiet audio sources. If you are not sure how loud or quiet you play, stick to ‘medium’. Press the record button and off you go!

Assessing Your Practice

Sometimes it can prove useful to record just one piece, or even just one movement, although it is highly useful to record long chunks of practice too – for example 15-30 minutes at a time. If you think about it, with one hour recording and one hour listening back to it and analysing, you can say you practiced for two hours! When listening, have the music in front of you: it is incredibly useful to mark wrong notes, rhythms and articulation, as well as make general notes. Don’t forget to stick the metronome on every now and again to check the speed. You can also use these devices to record your lessons (with the teacher’s consent), concerts and recitals.

I find that it is best to listen back to the longer recordings a couple of hours later, or maybe even the following day. Doing so gives you a better perspective on all aspects of your playing.

You can listen back to the recording on the actual devices, or you can connect to a speaker system or headphones, but what if you want to transfer it to your PC and edit, enhance or simply send it to someone? Here is where the USB connection comes handy: simply connect to your PC or Mac, and the recorder will mount as an external hard drive, then it’s just a drag and drop action to transfer the files to your computer. Editing software (usually Cubase) is provided with most recorders, but if you are unsure of what to do, I would suggest steering clear of this part.

Hopefully you now have enough information to give you confidence and encourage you to get recording; many professional musicians in orchestras today have used this method while studying at conservatories, and these days the hardware and software is priced so competitively, one can’t afford not to try it!

Zoom and Yamaha digital recorders are available from Just Flutes.