Category Archives: Guest Posts

The Whole Musician: Becoming Happy, Healthy Musicians

Are you inclined to criticize yourself for the smallest things? Are you overly concerned about what others think of you and your playing? Are you fearful of getting it wrong? Are you stuck in a rut? It is very likely that we all have some emotionally charged reactions to these questions in some form or another. Their effect on our musical lives can shape our playing and alter the pure enjoyment we can attain from one simple note.

Christopher Lee: On Accuracy and Freedom

Christopher LeeWhen I first started playing in orchestras I remember it being one of the most stressful things in my life at that moment. You see, at the beginning, I (and I imagine lots of young musicians) felt I had something to prove. That I was worthy of sitting in that chair. So, I focussed on being an accurate player, and what that meant to me at the time was putting all the right notes in the right spot at the right dynamic and in tune. With that mindset, I never achieved this goal. There was something inside of me that made me want to play a phrase a certain way which in turn made it more difficult technically. Therefore, as every concert came up I’d be determined to have an accurate night. At the end of the concert I’d decide that the next night it was going to happen and so on.

Then, something changed somewhere. I forgot about my long-standing challenge and all it took was one concert where that focus wasn’t in my mind. It worked. It was an accurate concert, and also, musical! I realised then that my one-sided focus to be accurate was not going to work for me because my musical side was one to take risks and react to what others were doing in concert. Once my mind had switched to simply enjoying the music-making I found that the accuracy also became consistent.

This led to a freedom of feeling and thinking which runs through all the repertoire that I play. It takes me a long time to come to an interpretation of a piece simply because it’s always changing as I discover more and more sounds, colours and moods. At times I incorporate so-called “extended techniques” in old repertoire because it gives light to a more musical sound. These are not things I learned from school, or from reading a textbook. These are things that came from imagination, and, happy accidents in the practice room. So from there, every “mistake” I make in practicing is merely an opportunity to see if I hear something else in a phrase.

This constant search for colours in sound can be somewhat addictive! Yet, for me, it is the way to tell my story when I play for others. A natural extension of this is my belief that everyone has something to say. For some of us it could be bottled up inside and we may not even know what it is yet! I use some acting techniques in workshops to help free this creativity in others. For we are all actors the minute we step on stage to deliver our story.

Meg Griffith: On Perfection and Perception

Meg GriffithAt a crossroads in my musical life, I sat trying to decide which direction to take my career. With so many inspiring opportunities surrounding us all, one would think this would be an exciting pastime. Unfortunately, I was filled with negative energy – there was a lack of passion towards music and disappointment and sometimes disgust directed toward myself and my playing. I thought I had no idea how to get to my goals efficiently and positively so I just stared at the seemingly unattainable, building my own walls around me and giving myself permission to expend less energy towards my goals. I thought of quitting.

Then I began to consider why I chose the flute in the first place – simple enjoyment of the instrument and the music itself. This idea had become clouded during the busy years of musical schooling in which I focused on what I ought to sound like and what others thought of me. I dusted the idea off, made it the basis of every aspect of my teaching and playing, and let it guide me as I determined how to approach problem solving on the road to my goals. The difference in both my attitude and the attitudes of my students was incredible – we still worked hard, still competed, still performed, still obsessed over small mistakes, but the approach, both intellectually and emotionally, was hugely different and far more positive. We spend so much time trying to attain perfection (whatever that really is in the long run) that we forget to look at the beauty we offer in each moment.

That is all well and good you say, but easier said than done. For me, things began to come together when I stood back to watch my reactions during my practice sessions and then ask questions to better understand those reactions:

  • After intense criticism over the smallest things, how do I feel? Is this helping me get to my goal? Why am I being so critical?
  • Are my reactions helpful and detailed in ways that lead to decisions that can help me get to my goal? Or are they overly general? (That sounded bad. VS I liked the musical approach, but I lost control of the register and it became airy. What tools do I use to solve the sound aspect while keeping the musical idea?)
  • Why do my reactions tend to be negative or critical? Am I afraid of getting something wrong? What happens if I do? (Nothing – except that I find a new understanding of my mental or physical approach to playing which helps me avoid the same mistake in the future.)
  • Is my fear of getting something wrong based in shame or embarrassment within the view of others? Where does this comparison come from? Do I feel my offerings are not worth as much as others? Why should another’s offerings define my own?

Asking these types of questions, even if you find out you don’t know every answer, is the first step to understanding yourself and therefore having compassion for your challenges rather than frustration and shame. One of my favorite teaching moments after walking through questions like these is seeing the emotions on a student’s face when he or she fully realizes that not only is there nothing to be ashamed about (relief) but that they do know the answers and have every tool to lead them to success (pride).

On Where to Turn

Whole MusicianOpportunities for one-on-one coaching in topics dedicated to these challenges as well as discussions with people just like us who can provide anecdotes like the ones above make up one of our favorite aspects of being musicians: the support within our community. Expand your network and open your mind to new approaches by surrounding yourself with positive energy and supporting yourself in mind and body. Whole Musician retreats bring all these aspects of musicianship and more into our awareness with the aim of making us all happy and healthy musicians. We will be presenting workshops on these ideas and more in London from August 26-28. If anyone is curious about what goes on at Whole Musician retreats, by all means look for our registration information online at WholeMusician.net.

Gareth Davies

An Interview with Gareth Davies

Gareth DaviesThe following interview with London Symphony Orchestra Principal Flute Gareth Davies interview was originally posted on Principal Chairs. He talks about everything from the LSO to auditions, colleagues in the orchestra, preparing for auditions, his Royal College of Music teaching appointment and his new book about the LSO on tour.

Hi Gareth! Thanks for coming to chat with us. As a lot of our subscribers are recent graduates could you tell us what you found to be the challenges in bridging the gap between college and professional work?

Well when you start at college it’s difficult to know what’s expected of you in the workplace. You’re obsessed with all the things you have to get right like exams, and other things, and you compare yourself with other flute players around you. It was quite an eye-opener when I went out and did a bit of freelance work. It is difficult to pick up your first date, but I remember turning up for an audition as a rookie student flute player and in the same room as me were three well-known, established flute players, all warming up about to audition before me. That’s when I realised that one can be the best flute player in the college, but when you’re out you’re judged against every other flute player and that’s a quite big leap to make.

So how did the audition go?

I got the job! It just depends; if there was a job going in the London Symphony Orchestra then you know that a lot of other principals would be going for that. Having said that, there is always room for somebody else. I mean, take Adam Walker for example; he was 21 when he got the job [co-principal LSO] and of course there were other excellent flute players going for that seat. If you don’t get the job in one orchestra it doesn’t mean that you won’t somewhere else. All orchestras have a different style of playing. There is no right and wrong way of approaching this kind of thing.

What aspects of your job do you feel college couldn’t prepare you for?

I was at the Guildhall, but it has changed a lot since then! At the time I played in lots of repertoire sessions with just the wind, which were really useful, but we did very few concerts. For instance, I played second in Symphony Orchestra in a concert and that’s all I did in the entire time. The concert we did was Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony. It has taken me almost 20 years to come up against that piece again and it took it off!

It’s interesting that what college didn’t prepare me for is the repertoire. The dream is to come out of college and get a job in the Berlin Phil, LSO, LPO etc., but the reality is that most people will come out and start doing small shows, local orchestras and dates in muddy fields playing the 1812 Overture. The Overture is really hard! Certainly when I was at college no one ever told me that.

Actually, one thing I really try to work on with colleges (since I have been in the LSO) is doing rep. sessions on standard repertoire that you are likely to actually play in real life. The first time I played in the LSO I had to sit down and virtually sight-read. Martin Parry, who was second flute then, had broken his ankle and I had substitute. It was Mahler 2 and I had to learn it pretty quickly. I got the score, looked at it and relied on my nerves for the concert. I felt that the college really did not prepare me for that. To be fair, there is no way it could have prepared me for that situation.

Usually you prepare for weeks for a concert and you practice for hours. I simply do not have the time for that now. I would be lucky if I could look at the music we’re playing in the next concert for an hour. You have to be quick and flexible. I think that was the biggest shock when I moved from college to the profession.

How did you prepare for the auditions?

When I applied for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra I was 22. I think I was in the last day of the auditions when they were probably just ‘sweeping-up’. I made sure I knew the excerpts.

I had a few ‘moments’ at college, like when I failed both of my technical exams, mainly due to laziness. I didn’t listen to the excerpts in context, just learnt the notes. Fortunately, I made that mistake at college so when I went to a real audition I was better prepared. When I went for that job I certainly didn’t expect I’d get it. I had no experience and the last time I had played in a Symphony Orchestra was about a year before at college. Since I’d left youth orchestra I’d played first flute only five or six times, so I prepared myself to just go in and do it. It was the end of the day, so I thought “what the heck, I’ve got nothing to lose!” I had had a few dates with some London orchestras just before, so I knew I wasn’t totally rubbish!

I didn’t think that I did particularly well in the audition, but no-one does, do they? It’s the same in a concert situation – I can play much better in my practice room, partly because I can play things three or four times! So I drove home after the audition and had an answer-phone message (pre-mobile phone era!) from the Bournemouth, offering me a trial. I was completely gob-smacked! I wasn’t a genius or anything, I had simply prepared.

I think it is important not to treat auditions with a “do-or-die” mindset. When I am on the panel for auditions I really want people to play well and it can be really boring listening to the Mozart again and again with varying degree of success, and the same three excerpts with the same mistakes. It’s a bit like going to a nightclub and the bouncer looks you up and down and says “Yep, you’re alright. You can come in.” Once you get a trial, then you really can impress.

It’s a whole different ball-game doing the concerts. I remember the first concert I did about three months after I got offered the trial: I got the music straight away (Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra) and learnt it. The problem was, I couldn’t get the part. I had to buy the score and write the flute part out by hand, which is why I really don’t have much time for students who turn up for classes with the excuse “I couldn’t find the excerpt!”. I never set excerpts to trick people. It’s all standard stuff.

Anyway, back in Bournemouth after the Bartok we did the complete Vaughan Williams Symphonic Cycle with Richard Hickox and I got offered the job pretty quickly after that. I think Bournemouth have a tradition of taking risks on good, young players. Karen Jones was my predecessor and it may have been her first job too. I really enjoyed it there and I think one of the reasons I got the job was that I was able to get on with people. I think they like attracting younger players and they thought “why not take a risk”. I am very glad they did because that’s when I actually started to learn!

How usual is it for people to get jobs straight out of college these days?

Well, take a look the LSO: we had two positions vacant in the last four years. The principal flute job was won by Adam Walker when he was 21. He had little bits of experience, but not a huge amount. But, he has a lot of natural ability, he works hard and learns unbelievably quickly. He’s a fantastic player and a great colleague.

The second flute position was won by Siobhan Grealy. I will not tell you how old she is because that would be very un-gentlemanly of me! Her and I are about the same age now and the LSO is her first job, so I think you’ve got your answer there. Some people are always going to be superstars and some people develop much later. First and second flutes are very different jobs too. Siobhan was a very experienced freelance player and having that support is important. I think second flute is a much harder job to fill, actually.

Congratulations on your new RCM professorship appointment!

Thank you very much! I’m very excited.

What are you intending on bringing to the department?

I will bring my flute. Definitely! [Laughs]. But seriously, it has taken me a long time to know what I think about playing the flute. I’ve always been an intuitive player, never a technician. I’ve had all sorts of problems. I am, by no means, a perfect player and I make mistakes all the time, I get nervous etc. When I am tired I fall into bad habits, especially when we’re away on tour for weeks; it’s just so easy to do. So it has taken me a long time to come to conclusions about things.

Somebody asked me the other day about ‘support’; the holy grail of air support! I suddenly realised that I have been as guilty of using that phrase as all of my teachers, but very few people can tell you what that actually means and what you actually have to do. There are things I can teach and things I can’t.

For example I can’t teach you how to get the right element of fantasy in the solo in Daphnis, or how to get the right mixture of pathos in Mahler 10. In many ways I do not want to do that because that is entirely open to your interpretation, which may be different to mine, but that is cool. What I can teach is the mechanics.

However, it wasn’t until recently that I became confident to be able to say “this is how I do it”. I’ve been thinking about it recently, partly because my daughter has taken up the flute. I’ve been thinking that I am 41 now, I’ve been playing professionally for nearly 20 years, and I didn’t feel ready to teach younger players until recently. I am still learning myself; I learn from teaching I do, or when I’m sitting down the section playing alto flute with Adam on principal I can learn stuff from him.

I always try to learn from musicians on other instruments too, which I think is so important. Playing in an orchestra is about playing in a team. I don’t do a huge number of recitals, apart from the recent one at RAM for the BFS artist series. I don’t actually like the flute repertoire! The reason I love playing in orchestra is that I have the opportunity to play Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and Strauss! In the flute rep. there is one piece written by a great composer and it’s played to death. So I really enjoy being part of the team in the LSO.

It’s nice to have your moments to shine, but there is something about being a part of the core sound of the woodwind section which is so brilliant. When you do get the solo, like in Daphnis, it is great, and playing on the sound that the LSO makes is just extraordinary. I don’t really like teaching orchestral excerpts because they get done in a specific way which is so different to playing with the rest of the section.

For example, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony is terrifying to play by yourself, but when you play it with the second flute player its not quite so terrifying, and then when you play it in an orchestra it’s ok … not easy but not terrifying because you’re part of the team. I’ve done this many times: I turn pages in a piece and suddenly there is an ‘excerpt’ and I start panicking! So I’m constantly relating solo things back to orchestral ways, especially in terms of intonation, sound and flexibility.

You have to be so flexible to play in an orchestra and I’d like to bring an awareness of this in approaching solo pieces to my students at RCM.

We’ve heard you’ve written a book! What prompted you to do that?

I started writing a tour blog for the orchestra in 2007 when we first started doing things like that. I enjoyed doing it and it gradually it became a bit of an obsession of mine. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words now! I found it became more and more difficult to describe concerts as I started to run out of adjectives quite quickly…. “it was a sensational concert”, “a marvellous concert” etc. So, it ended up being much more about what it was like being away in New York, for example, or what it was like being away from your family for months at a time. People also enjoy hearing about the backstage gossip!

The blog became more of a description of what it is like to be a musician, rather than a dry description of concerts from a musicologist. Lots of people said to me “oh, you should write a book”, but I couldn’t just regurgitate the old stories because that would just be boring!

2012 was the centenary of the LSO going on tour to New York for the first time; we were the first European orchestra to tour the US in 1912, which was a long time ago. 100 years to be exact!

To cut a very long story short, I was talking to our archivist, who found a diary which was sent to us and which I found very interesting. It was actually a diary of Charles Turner who was the timpanist on that very tour in 1912, a founding member of the LSO in 1904. So this diary described that tour to the US. He describes what they ate, what the living was like; he said New York was dirty and that they didn’t really like it and so on. Then another diary surfaced, written by Mr Nisbet who was the second flute player. His wasn’t quite as interesting!

What I realised from those diaries was how different and similar things were compared to now. Some things haven’t changed a bit. So after reading the things they did in New York back then I thought ‘if one was to simply change the names of the people and places, it would virtually be the same as today.’ I started comparing it all and the research just got bigger and bigger. The book is basically comparing the 1912 and 2012 tours. Anyway, so it’s coming out in May. I really enjoyed writing it and it’s something I would like to do more of. We’ll have to see if anybody buys it!

Last question! Do you think that Principal Chairs is a useful resource?

Yes, I think it’s a really useful thing and I do wish it was around when I was at college. As I said, I wrote out the part for Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. It was time consuming, I did it myself and then had to figure out what to do from recordings.

Because I’d left college by that point, I didn’t have a teacher to go to and get help. So to have all that online ready, and to have Michael’s advice would have been invaluable. Michael is a fantastic player and experienced in orchestras; he really knows what he is doing!


Principal Chairs

Reproduced with kind permission of Principal Chairs, the leading website for orchestral audition preparation.

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 trevorwye.com. They also are available in one easy-to-find location at eldredspellflutes.com/scales/index.htm

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

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!