Category Archives: Hints and Tips

“What Should I be Practising?”

Learning the flute (or any musical instrument) is not always a smooth process of steady improvement. We all learn in different ways with our own strengths and weaknesses, so there will be times when things can get frustrating if one feels they are not improving as much as they would like. Other factors also affect our practice, such as limited time due to busy schedules (school or work), or having a lot of repertoire to learn and juggle for competitions/auditions/exams etc.

Time

Setting aside time and having an effective and efficient practice plan is a great way to make sure that you can progress and stay on top of things.

How much time you set aside is really up to your schedule, but anything between 1-4 hours a day is good. However, quality of practice is far more important than quantity, so if you only practice for 30 minutes but in a detailed, mindful way you will get a lot of benefit from that. Consistent, daily practice is key to improvement since it is our “muscle memory” that we need to train, i.e. the coordination of our body and mind to successfully execute difficult passagework or big interval leaps etc.

Breaks

It is important to take regular breaks to make sure you are fully engaged and aware of what you are doing. I find 45-50 minutes of practice, followed by a 10-15 minutes break is good if I’m doing 2 or more hours. You could also do a bit in the morning and a bit in the evening if you have work during the day.

Schedule

What you include in your schedule can and should vary (“variety is the spice of life!”), but I would try to include the following to ensure you’re covering all bases:

Warm up

With the notion that your body is your instrument, warming up the body should be part of your practice. This might be simple stretches, some breathing exercises, or some basic flexibility exercises for the embouchure (pitch bending, crescendo/decrescendo, whistle tones, harmonics). Have fun by thinking of different exercises and also relating it to whatever piece you are learning, e.g. some pitch bending on C sharp for finding a good starting note for Debussy’s L’apres-midi, or harmonics on an E for Schubert’s Trockne Blumen.

Good books for warm ups:

Mastering the Flute with William Bennett

Melody

Play a simple melody such as Fauré’s Pavane in all registers and in different keys. Pick a melody from Moyse’s Tone Development Through Interpretation and be aware of what you are doing. Try some different dynamics and colours, listening closely to intonation, articulation and quality of sound.

Tone exercises

Developing our tone is one of the most important things we can do as flute players, like a singer develops their voice. Make sure to include some flexibility and evenness of tone exercises, such as those found in Moyse De La Sonorité. Long tones are often suggested by teachers, but it requires a great deal of imagination to make long tones interesting. Try varying them, e.g. start soft, crescendo and then get softer; add two or three notes and work on a really smooth legato between notes; add octaves or harmonics to match the sound in all registers; change the vowel shape in your mouth to work on playing with different colours (aah, ooh, eee etc). Clare Southworth’s The Expression of Colour is a great book for working on tone colours

Sequences and scales

Try not to switch to auto-pilot mode at this point! It can be very tempting to bash one’s way through all the keys, but this is not very efficient and not very rewarding. Instead, give yourself something to focus on each day in your sequences and scales (intonation, evenness of tone, fingers, dynamics etc). Slow, mindful practice of scales is very beneficial. String players often practice their scales incredibly slowly and I think this really helps build on solid foundations. Quick practice is also important, but make sure you are still listening carefully. Vary the articulation: work on getting a good sound in all variations. Remember that music is full of scales and sequences, so try to play them as musically as possible. Think of some different characters to play in (a warm sunny day, or a thunderstorm, or Mickey Mouse etc!)

Good books for sequences:

Scales:

Etude/Study

Take your technical practice a stage further. Before you start playing your study, take a look at it and find out what it is for. Articulation? Intervals? It could be more than one. You could then practice that technique first and then you’ll find you can make music more easily with the etude since technical difficulties won’t be such an obstacle. There are many etude books out there to keep you occupied!

Repertoire and orchestral excerpts

The last section of your practice could be repertoire. Having done a lot of technical work, your focus here can be on making beautiful music. Making the phrases come alive with shape and direction, telling a story and bringing out all the characters and colours with constant self-observation and feedback. Notice where you tend to tighten up and see if you can practice that particular area with more ease and freedom. Take note of the tricky areas and be sure to tackle those in your technical practice. Technique and music making are inextricably linked – a good technique will allow you to make music without restriction and imagination and playing musically will help you enjoy your technical practice.

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!

Tips on Andersen Etudes: Op15, No. 3

Andersen 3

This is probably everyone’s favourite étude – it is certainly the one that gets performed the most outside of the practice room. It’s a triplet tour de force without any breaks, but it also has a very beautiful melodic quality.

Find the Skeleton

If we take away all the decoration and leave the “skeleton” of the melody, this is what we get:

Andersen 3 skeleton

First work on making beautiful phrasing with the melody alone. This melody often reminds me of the 2nd subject in the first movement of Reinecke’s Undine Sonata:

Undine ex

Also, the piano’s melody after the first section and at the end of the Scherzo from Widor’s Suite Op34.

Widor ex

Phrasing

All these melodies share a common melodic shape – an upbeat followed by an appoggiatura. This is a perfect example of an “I love you” phrase. When you say “I love you”, “I” acts as preparation to “love” which is stressed and “you” which is released: I love you. Many people put an undue stress “you” when playing these kind of phrases, which doesn’t make any musical sense.  Would you say to your loved one: ” I love you!”?? This might cause them to doubt you! 😉

So when we come back to the Andersen étude, practise it with the following phrasing:

Phrasing no 3

Then apply the same phrasing when you add all the notes. You will also need to do the micro phrasing of the each triplet figure so that we don’t hear emphasis on the accompaniment (especially the low notes, which students often honk out).

micro phrasing

Notice how some micro-phrasing is over one quaver beat, and others are over two quaver beats. This tells you how to grade your diminuendo: you don’t want to come away too quickly when it is over two quaver beats, otherwise you will lose the line.

The idea is to show the melody line clearly without elongating each note. This can sound affected and can distort the rhythm. You could also help show the line by giving the melody notes more colour and play the accompaniment notes with a softer colour. If both parts have an equally strong colour and dynamic, the étude just becomes a study in playing a lot of notes, which is both boring and pointless!

If you have the chance, listen to Marcel Moyse practising this étude – he really knows how to make the flute sing. There is a box set released by the Muramatsu flute company of his recordings including his studies and various other pieces that he recorded over the years.

More blogs on the Andersen Etudes Op.15 can be found on Rod’s personal blog: rodfluteblog.wordpress.com

Order the Andersen Etudes, Op15 at Just Flutes.

How to Start a Beginner Flute Ensemble

Whether you are a novice in charge of your first flute choir, or you are a veteran and have run many ensembles, choosing music for that all-important first rehearsal is a daunting task at any level – but when planning for a beginner ensemble it is even more  important to hit the ground running.

Picking one or two pieces that will be sure to work will give the group the easiest route to success. Underestimating the standard isn’t usually a problem, depending on the dynamic of the group. Didn’t anyone tell you that you had to be a psychologist as well?! Often, the standard can vary substantially between those who are almost ready for the first exam and those who can just about produce a note, and fortunately there are books designed just for such a scenario.

Gems for Flute Ensembles by Helen Butterworth

This gem of a book is  invaluable in this situation as the eight original little pieces are just right for starting off an inexperienced group. The keys and rhythms are mostly eas,y and there are duets, trios and a larger group piece included. The most important element is the accompaniment, which will hold everyone together and allow those less able to feel that they have made a contribution. Don’t worry if you aren’t a pianist as the CD includes the piano part, as well as complete performances of each piece. Some of the pieces have a very easy or optional part, some can be played as a round  and some are more difficult. You can also photocopy the parts. Perfect! Buy Now!

Red Hot Flute Duets Book 1 by Sarah Watts

There may be an occasion when you feel that simply doubling up two  flute parts might just  be easier. These great little pieces are perfect for the inexperienced and the popular jazz style is sure to motivate! Sarah Watts is great at using the accompaniment to make the simple flute parts sound more interesting and, as with all her books, a CD is included to make this easier. There are two speeds for each track which is invaluable! The first three numbers are written with the flutes in unison rhythm before Head in the Clouds introduces a small amount of independence.  The highest note used is first octave D which results in the second part being quite low so often the first part is a little easier to manage in the initial stages. You could double up these parts indefinitely and the music would come to no harm at all! Buy Now!

Easy Flutes Together: Music from the Classics arranged by Terry Kenny and Terry Cathrine

If you would prefer something without accompaniment the Easy Flutes Together series of arrangements by Terry Kenny and Terry Cathrine is always worth looking at as it’s designed to give starter flutes the chance to play familiar tunes along with their friends. Music from the Classics includes Papageno’s Song and Ode to Joy which might be familiar. Pachelbel’s Canon would be a good place to start from in this collection, bearing in mind that the easiest part can often be the third.  The overall level is up to grade 3, all the pieces are well-known, and the arrangements have a great deal of rhythmic unity to hold everything together. Included are three copies of each part and extras are available for purchase. You can’t buy much better for beginners than this! Buy Now!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang arranged for Four Flutes by Mel Orriss

Sometimes the best way to inspire a group is to use music that everyone will know, even if it is slightly too difficult for some. Starting with a popular tune that everyone will love gets everyone engaged immediately and they don’t come much more popular than Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!  The arrangement has to be good though, and you wouldn’t expect to find anything less from Mel Orriss. The lowest part is cleverly pitched for a novice with a winning combination of easy rhythms, a small note range and an imaginative use of percussion instruments. I’m sure you could use anything that comes to hand here if you can’t find the right ones in the cupboard. There’s interest in the other parts too and you’ll probably find your grade eights wanting to join in!  A sure-fire crowd pleaser – parents will be overjoyed to hear this at a concert! Buy Now!

Dandelions by Adolf Terschak for Four Flutes arranged by Roz Trubcher

 

Another approach would be to chose a lovely but unfamiliar piece that is simple in both style and technical challenges,

Dandelinos by Adolf Terschak ticks both boxes. Using only crotchets and quavers and a note range of low octave E to middle register A, Roz Trubcher has ensured that this has a style that is easy to work with.  The most interesting aspect here is that the parts are all rhythmically independent, aside from the  six syncopated bars where they all meet. This allows players to develop their ensemble skills through counting and gives them the chance to catch up if they fall behind. There are some note challenges too with C, G and D sharps appearing in the middle section. This is clearly a long term investment in terms of skill sets but also introduces everyone to the tuneful music of Terschak! Buy Now

Unsettled Weather for Flute Choir by Sophie Dufeutrelle

Finally something completely different! This is not strictly for beginners but if  you are needing a new approach, or you have a very mixed group of players this might be just the thing. Each of the pieces  has only an illustration and  symbols of what to play,  so there is no conventional notation. This is very flexible as the group can be divided or used as a whole. Some of the effects are easier to assimilate than others, for example jet whistles are used in Gust of Wind. This will help younger ones to find their diaphragms and extend the range of the more advanced. There are instructions for the conductor too – Curtain of Rain should be directed with an umbrella. There is plenty of scope for improvisation here and this could easily be adapted to suit beginners only. Designed to fire the imagination it’s so useful on so many levels. Do give it try! Buy Now

Running a flute ensemble is a great way to make music so I hope that you and your students enjoy these pieces. Then your audiences will love them too!

Important New Regulations on Wooden Instruments

In January 2017, new rules came into force regarding the wood used to make some musical instruments. We’ve put the following advice together which we recommend reading carefully as it may affect you and your instrument.

What’s happening?

From January 2nd 2017 new regulations were introduced concerning all forms of Dalbergia (rosewood), a genus of plants from which many woodwind instruments are made. This includes African Blackwood (Grenadilla), Cocobolo, Rosewoods/Palisander and all other woods from the Dalbergia genus.

Why?

Woods in the Dalbergia genus are used in many products, from furniture to car dashboards to umbrella handles. Illegal logging by less scrupulous individuals has resulted in rapid deforestation in some countries (mainly of palisander woods rather than grenadilla) . As a result, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) introduced regulations, bringing the genus Dalbergia to Appendix II.
More information regarding CITES can be found at www.cites.org

What does this mean?

Appendix II status that any product containing these woods require certification. Manufacturers and suppliers will need to obtain permits to import and export instruments in and out of the EU. In the UK, this costs £59.00 each way – if you are based outside the EU and buying from us, the export licence will be added to your basket.

We will also need to keep precise records of wooden instruments we stock, and where it originates from. We have therefore updated our invoices to show this information.

Any instruments that are affected by the new regulations will be supplied by us with this style of invoice. Customers who have already purchased instruments from us can request copy invoices / documentation that shows this information if required.

What if I want to travel with my instrument?

Currently, it is our understanding that instruments weighing less than 10kg are exempt from these regulations if they are being shipped or carried for personal use. Instruments being shipped within your own country or within the EU can also be sent without documentation.

However, it might be beneficial to check with the relevant CITES Management Authority in the destination country to ensure no extra paperwork is required. CITES have a  list of national contacts.

What happens next?

This is a developing situation, as the CITES regulation was only confirmed in October 2016, so what is written on this page is very likely to change. The music industry is still developing the administrative procedures needed to deal with these changes. We will be keeping this page updated as we learn more about the process. For further information, please contact your local CITES Management Authority.

Haynes Flute

8 Top Tips on Testing a New Flute

When it comes to testing out a new flute, the experience can be overwhelming – what is the best way to test a new flute? We’ve put together our top tips to help you narrow down the choice and find your perfect upgrade flute. Whether you are looking for a step-up instrument or a professional model, follow these pointers to help you on your way!

1. Warm up on your current flute first

It’s natural to be excited about trying new flutes, but don’t test one of the new flutes with Flight of the Bumblebee quite yet – hold back! Get your chops warmed up on your existing flute with some long notes first. This has the added benefit of giving you a reference point for what you are comparing the new flutes to.

2. Scales. Sorry!

Once you’re warmed up, hold off the tunes for a little longer. Play some slow scales on each flute – this will give you an idea of how the instrument sounds across its entire range, and may expose weaker areas.

3. Check the dynamic ranges

This is something that can be done while you are playing scales. Can you play the low register with a strong, full sound? Can you play high notes quietly and sweetly?

4. Test the articulation

How responsive and clean is the articulation? Again, simple scales played slowly and tongued will give you a good idea. Also, try without tonguing (diaphragm only).

5. Get an idea of its tone colours

Play low, simple tunes (good ones are Fauré’s ‘Pavane’ or ‘The Aquarium’ from ‘Carnival of the Animals’), and aim at a very hollow, open sound. Go up an octave and see if you can produce the same sort of sound. It is very important that an instrument is capable of producing a similar quality of sound throughout the full range. Next, try a much harder sound with lots of harmonics, again in different octaves (Moyse 24 Easy Melodic Studies No. 10 – strong and trumpet like, is ideal).

6. Get a friend to help

A listener comes in useful when testing the projection. Some instruments appear to play loudly close up, but cannot be heard at the back of a concert hall. Others don’t sound loud close up, but the sound travels better – this is projection, and can be very deceiving. A good way to test this is to compare instruments while you have a listener outside the room with the door closed: which sounds louder?

7. Be prepared to compromise

You may have a pre-conceived idea of your ‘perfect’ instrument, (in terms of sound, feel or any other area really!).  But – take our word for it – it probably doesn’t exist!

8. Be realistic about what an upgrade offers

A new instrument can’t compensate for shortcomings in your playing – only hours of careful practice can do this. But a new instrument gives you the potential to improve your sound in all areas – practice will then make this a reality!

7 tips on choosing a beginner flute

Yamaha YFL-211 Flute

This article was first written in February 2011, and has been updated in February 2018.

Buying your first flute can be daunting: there are so many different makes, models and types of flutes available, and the variations in price can be hundreds of pounds. Below, we’ve compiled our top tips to help a complete newcomer decide on a new flute.

1. Do plenty of research on the different brands available

The ABRSM Viva Woodwind forum has a lot of helpful information from players and teachers, detailing some good and bad brands. If you already have a flute teacher lined up, they should also be able to offer their own advice on what to buy.

2. Be careful of flutes which look too cheap…

This is important. Some supermarkets, high street chains and online-only warehouses sell their own brand of flutes. In our experience, these flutes should be avoided: while the quality of Chinese flutes has undoubtedly improved since this article was originally written, there are still many poor-quality, cheap flutes around, and while the initial outlay is low, the running costs can quickly overtake the price of a good branded flute.

As well as the high running costs, cheap flutes are not as easy to play, and can be difficult even for an advanced player to make a decent sound on. We see so many players on the verge of giving up because they thought they were just no good at the flute – when in fact the problem was caused by a poor-quality instrument.

Our own-brand budget flutes may be priced a fraction higher than the very cheapest flutes available – but they have been designed by flute players (us!) and will give a student a good start.

We recommend that you should budget between £250 – £500 for an entry-level flute, although rental schemes, Take It Away and buying second hand can help to reduce the up-front strain on your wallet.

3. …But don’t buy something that’s not designed for a beginner

It should go without saying that flutes classified as ‘beginner flutes’ have been designed specifically for beginner players. A good quality beginner flute should be easy to play, lightweight, and be able to withstand knocks and bumps.

On the other hand, step-up flutes, professional flutes and so on, have been designed for players who can already play the flute to an extent. They’re not designed to be as easy to play, but they don’t need to be – they tend to be heavier, offer the fuller sound and increased projection that an advanced player needs.

4. Stick to ‘traditional’ specifications

There’s a whole raft of options available on flutes. Open holes, C# trill keys, E mechanism, B footjoint, D# roller, silver this or that.

In our opinion, a beginner should start on a silver-plated flute with closed holes, E mechanism (sometimes called a Split E) and C footjoint. If you want to know what these terms mean, read our Jargon Buster, but basically a flute with these specifications will be (a) easier to play and (b) easier to re-sell at a higher value when the time arises.

5. Get the right size

Flutes don’t come in different ‘sizes’ as such, but you can get curved headjoints for a small beginner. This brings the keys of the flute closer to the body, reducing the stretch. If your child needs a curved headjoint, the truth is that it will cost more; but the problems if you don’t get a curved headjoint could far outweigh the price difference. Neck and back pain from over-stretching can arise, and players can easily get into the bad habit of poor posture. It can take many years to sort out a poor posture that wouldn’t have arisen with a curved headjoint.

For very small players (ages 5 to 7), you could start on the fife or Apprentice flute, both of which are affordable ‘mini’ flutes.

6. A good brand will hold its value

Unlike many things in this modern world – cars, computers, phones etc – flutes can hold their value very well. Many model numbers have been around for years – so you shouldn’t worry about your flute being obsolete in six months’ time. In fact, because of increasing metal prices, some customers have been lucky enough to discover that a Yamaha 211 flute bought new a few years ago is now worth more second hand than they paid new!

7. Think ahead

Hopefully, you’re buying a flute with the intention of sticking at it and developing your ability and sound. Certain beginner flutes – notably the Pearl PF-505 and Yamaha YFL-212 – are upgradable by replacing the headjoint (the part that you blow in to). Putting a handmade silver headjoint on one of these is like loading it with rocket fuel – the improvement is immense, for a fraction of the price of an intermediate flute.

Follow this advice and you’ll have an instrument that will give years of use and enjoyment. What’s more, it will give you room to develop your playing skill, too.

Now that you know what you are looking for, view the selection of beginner flutes on offer at Just Flutes

Not So Shiny Silver

We are often asked in the shop: “why has my new flute turned black?” One moment your silver flute is nice and shiny. The next, a cloudy colour all over. What’s going on here?

Silver. Chemical symbol Ag, atomic number 47. Used for thousands of years in ornaments, utensils, trade, and as the basis for monetary systems. In this blog we have already covered the allergic effects silver can have on the human body, but we haven’t yet covered the effects that the human body and everyday circumstances can have on silver.

Over time, silver reacts with air to produce a thin surface layer of oxidisation in the form of silver sulphide. Depending on the type of silver used, this tarnish can appear as black, brown or cloudy grey patches.

This is a totally natural process which occurs through normal use and it is not unusual for some people’s flutes to tarnish within weeks of purchase. It is not a manufacturing defect, but a property of silver. Tarnishing is purely cosmetic and does not affect the sound, but it can easily be removed with a silver polishing cloth

Silver-plated flutes are the norm for student to intermediate level instruments. These flutes have a layer of 100% pure silver to give a bright finish.

Sterling silver is the most usual metal for higher-level and pro flutes, and is formed of 92.5% silver with 7.5% other metals, often copper (100% pure silver is too soft to use in a musical instrument). With this addition of copper, you are weakening the silver’s resistance to tarnish.

Some flute manufacturers, primarily those in the Far East, use a process called “flash plating” on solid silver flutes, which involves silver-plating (again, with 100% silver) on top of the Sterling silver. This results in a brighter finish than Sterling, and has the benefit of slowing down the tarnishing process.

Many American flute companies do not use flash plating, so these flutes will react differently. If there is a spell of hot humid weather, the tarnish can appear much more quickly, sometimes overnight.

As a result, players who move from a Japanese flute to an American flute are often surprised to find thatf their new flute needs more regular polishing than their old one.

What can cause tarnishing?

As I mentioned, tarnishing is a natural reaction of silver with air. There are other things that speed up the process:

  • Acid in fingerprints. This varies from individual to individual, but it is a fact of life that everyone’s skin’s oil contains acids. Some people have more than others (which is why some people can turn a flute black almost by looking at it!), and these people need to take more care with their instrument.
  • Heat. As with most chemical reactions (think back to your school chemistry lessons spent with a bunsen burner), heat speeds up the process, so the tarnishing process is often faster in summer.
  • Moisture. Your breath contains hydrogen sulphide (the main ‘tarnishing agent’ in air), and any moisture left in the flute or case will speed up the tarnishing process.

While you cannot escape tarnishing entirely, you can help keep it at bay. This is why we recommend thorough cleaning of your flute both inside and out after you finish playing, and keeping it in its case when not in use. You can buy anti-tarnish strips (which work by absorbing the hydrogen sulphide in the air) to slow down the process, but at the end of the day, it is nothing to worry about and certainly doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the flute or the quality of the silver. In fact, it’s a sign that your lovely shiny flute is definitely silver!

Unless like some people, you find you prefer the tarnished look (trust me they’re out there), a silver polishing cloth will usually do the trick.

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.

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!