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!

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 They also are available in one easy-to-find location at

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.

Building a Flute Library: Unusual Flute Music for Three Advanced Flutes

Right now there is great deal of exciting music available for three flutes, so if you are lucky enough to belong to a good trio there is plenty to keep you interested.

Suite Pastorale by Jean-Michel Damase is a great place to start. Enigmatic harmonies underpin approachable rhythms, the Pastorale of the title being evident throughout. The second movement Pastourelle flows gently as if dreaming, the finale Rondeau is a lovely jaunt, but the first movement, Carillons, is just beautiful:

If you prefer your lyricism a little more grounded you could try any of the trios by Caspar Kummer. Trio Op.53 is wonderfully Romantic in style – pure flute music. Written in a conventional fast/slow/fast movement format, his melodies weave their magic throughout. This is a true delight.

Perhaps one of the most esoteric pieces for this combination is Morton Feldman’s Trio, written in 1972. On paper, it seems that there is little to this – just 2 pages of score containing nothing faster than a quaver or higher than a middle register G flat. The interest is in all the harmonies that clash and resolve constantly throughout:

Another compelling work which relies on texture is Celtic Knotwork by Edward McGuire. The “knotwork” effect can be easily heard by the close interweaving of all three parts. The opening Lento evokes misty mornings with bagpipes in the distance and this is followed by the more lively Slip Jig. The cadenza in canon is really effective, and the work ends as it began.

The little known trio Three Pieces for Three Flutes by Pal Rozsa is worth a look. Each of the three movements is well-constructed with a good balance of writing between the parts. The harmonies are sometimes deliberately quite bare, allowing the timbre of the flutes to prevail. Tune and accompaniment this isn’t, but it’s very appealing all the same:

Trois Pastorales by Henri Tomasi also uses some more unusual harmonies. Tomasi really knew how to write for flutes and this is full of challenges for each player. The beguiling melody in Bolivienne is passed around effectively, whilst the atmospheric Cretoise fluctuates in mood. The Sicilienne Saltorello will especially wow an audience! If you haven’t tried Tomasi before, do give this a try – even if it is at the higher price end.

Currently active composers are also taking to write for this combination, which is great news. Try Elkido Suite by Lars Floee if you like a more straightforward variety of contemporary music. Each movement here is ‘inspired by a different culture’ with Szitakoto (Bartok’s Hungary) and the Japanese Sakura both being very approachable. Balkanski Mish-Mash is more difficult, and the changing time signatures at speed will test an ensemble. Granada is a whirlwind of notes to bring the work to an exciting climax.

Last but not least, Niederau by Gary Carpenter is not for the faint-hearted! The three movements here will need some work as there is little in the way of melody or rhythmic unity to help. It’s a great piece though and will really pay dividends in the end!

This is just a small selection of repertoire available, but I hope it gives you a good starting point to explore more of the great repertoire for this combination.

The Wedding Flutist

Building A Flute Library: Music for Weddings

Spring has sprung and the temperature is rising, so it won’t be long before someone asks you to play at their wedding. There is an astonishing amount of repertoire suitable for both the church and the reception, so depending on your forces the choice is yours. Books of arrangements are really handy in this situation – you never know what might happen on The Big Day!

The most obvious combination is for flute and organ, and Sacred Solos Volume 1 arranged by Gilliam and MacCaskill will provide you with plenty of choice. Contents include Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, Pachelbel’s Canon and the Meditation from Thais so you should be covered for all eventualities. The accompaniments work equally well for piano, and there is the added bonus of a CD that could be used to help the couple decide what music they might like.

Wedding Music for Flute and HarpWedding Music for Flute and Harp is for you if you are a part of that classic wedding combination. Compiled by Meinir Heulyn and Katey Thomas, who have a great deal of hands on experience in this genre, the books include performance directions and advice on when you might play each piece. This is really useful again if the couple are uncertain as to exactly what music would be suitable for their occasion. As well as the usual repertoire they have included the Intermezzo from Cavalieri Rusticana, Dance of the Blessed Spirits and the Pearl Fisher’s Duet, so again there is plenty of choice.

The Wedding FlutistIf you’re playing by yourself, look no further than Ricky Lombardo’s The Wedding Flutist, where he conveniently divides the repertoire up into Preludes, including Elgar Salut d’Amour and MacDowell To a Wild Rose, Processionals (Pachelbel Canon, Wagner Bridal Chorus (Lohengrin) and Clarke Trumpet Voluntary), Ceremony (Bach Air from Suite in D and Gounod Ave Maria) and Recessionals where you can play them out to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy or Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. Lombardo is a really good arranger and these pieces all work, given the scale of the reduction.

Sacred Duet CollectionLombardo also has another good book to offer you – Sacred Duet Collection is ideal for 2 flutes. Not everything here is suitable for the wedding but All Glory, Laud and Honour and Holy, Holy, Holy will add a suitably stately feel to your contribution. For the reception you might like to try Double Act by Marian Hellen. Subitlted ‘Popular Melodies’, there’s everthing here from Blow the Wind Southerly to Rule Britannia. This is very straightforward music, so there is plenty of scope for improvisation and repeats. You could also try them as written with a glass or two of champagne!

Single pieces that might work well at the reception if you have more than just 2 flutes would be the inevitable My Heart Will Go On in the excellent version for flute trio by Eric Hovi and Jamaica Sunrise for 4 flutes by Kate Cuzner. This will really add some sunshine on a rainy day with its lilting Caribbean rhythms and catchy melody. 8 flutes could play Jubilate Deo by Giovanni Gabrielli at the church where the antiphonal writing would be very effective.

If you are lucky enough to have a flute quartet at your disposal, Bill Holcombe is your man once you have finished playing Mozart Quartets. Music for Weddings has 2 volumes (Vol 1, Vol 2)and includes Ich Liebe Dich by Greig and Oh Perfect Love by Barnby as well as the usual mix of Bach, Handel and Mendelssohn. He has also arranged similar combinations of pieces for flute choir, wind trio and wind quintet, all of which will complement any standard music that you might have chosen.

Playing at weddings can be great fun as long as you are prepared, so sort out your music, don your wedding finery and get ready to party!