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!