The headjoint of the flute is probably the most ‘personal’ part of the instrument: a headjoint that plays well for one person might be another player’s idea of hell! For this reason, no hard and fast rules can be given as to what makes the “best” headjoint, but a few guidelines might be useful.
There are really four basic things to think about when trying headjoints:
1. Dynamic range
3. Tone colour
I’ll deal briefly with these, point by point.
1 Dynamic range
A good headjoint should be capable of producing a good dynamic range. It should play very loudly in all three registers with a good quality of sound. It should also play quietly in all three registers whilst being controllable regarding pitch. As we all know, when playing loudly it is all too easy to go sharp, so how easily can you pull the pitch down to concert pitch at the extreme of loudness (use a tuning machine as a guide to help you). Obviously try the same test with soft playing. Here, the ability to keep the pitch up is important.
Always compare the results with your existing headjoint as you cannot expect a new headjoint to cure your own playing difficulties! Don’t forget to try all three registers.
Compare the ease of producing good, clean starts to tongued notes with your existing headjoint. Simple scales played slowly will be a good guide. Try both loud and soft in all registers. Also try without the tongue, diaphragm only. This is a very good test.
3 Tone colour
Try to get an idea of the range of colours available. Play low, simple tunes such as Fauré’s ‘Pavane’ or the ‘Aquarium’ from ‘Carnival of the Animals’, and aim at a very hollow, open sound. Go up one octave and see if you can produce the same sort of sound. It is very important that a headjoint is capable of producing a similar quality of sound throughout the full range.
Next, try a much harder sound with lots of harmonies again in different octaves (Moyse 24 Easy Melodic Studies No. 10 – strong and trumpet like, is ideal).
Less easy to check for this one! The help of a friend is useful here. Some headjoints appear to play very loudly close up, but cannot be heard at the back of a concert hall. Others don’t appear so loud close up, but the sound seems to travel better, it ‘projects’.
If you are able to take a headjoint home for a few days to try it then use the opportunity, if possible, to try it in a big hall. Choose a friend you can rely on to give good ‘musical’ advice. (String players seem particularly good at this, but in my experience don’t ask a flute player!)
Ask them which headjoint sounds louder at the back of the hall, and also which sounds ‘best’ to him, which he prefers. A string player will give you an honest answer, a flute player may have too many preconceived ideas.
If you can’t get into a hall, the next best thing is to ask someone to listen to you from outside the room you are playing in with the door closed. Now which is loudest?
Remember when trying out headjoints to compare them to your own. A headjoint can’t compensate for shortcomings in your playing – only hours of careful practice can do this. But a headjoint can give you the potential to do more things. Practice makes these a reality.
This article was originally written by Ian McLauchlan for the Flutewise magazine.