Flute workshop

Sticky Pads: A Perennial Problem

Flute workshopSticky pads can be infuriating. However, they are something that nearly all flute players have to put up with to some extent. Very few flutes have no stickiness at all, and to be honest, there is not that much that you can do about it!

To look at what can cause sticky pads, let’s first look at the pad itself.

Most pads are made up of the following parts :

1. A card washer to give the pad some stiffness.
2. A felt washer (usually about 2mm thick) that sits on top of the card washer.
3. Two layers of ‘Gold Beater’s Skin’ which is stretched tightly over the felt washer and glued on to the underside of the card washer holding everything together and providing an airtight surface that will seal the tone hole.

When a pad becomes sticky, what has happened is that the surface of the skin has become dirty. This causes slight holding of the skin when the pad comes off the top of the tone hole, so that when it releases it makes the characteristic sticky noise.

The dirt usually gets on to the pad when the pad is damp. Dust in the air, or in the flute case, settles on the skin and it gradually becomes slightly sticky.

Another cause is players consuming sweet drinks or food before they play the flute. Stickiness seems to follow soon afterwards! To prevent this clean your teeth, or at least have a drink of water before playing after eating sweet things.

Probably the best way to clean the surface of a pad relatively safely is to use lighter fluid on a cigarette paper:

1. Buy a can of lighter fluid and some cigarette papers from any good newsagent. Make sure you buy lighter fluid, not gas.

2. Put two drips of lighter fluid on to a cigarette paper, and slide this between the sticky pad and the tone hole. Close the pad on to it and gently hold it closed for about 10 seconds. Open the key and then close it again with the paper in a slightly different position. Take the paper out, blow on it to evaporate the remaining lighter fluid, and replace it between pad and tone hole and close the key for the last time on to the paper to blot up any remaining fluid.

You should find that now the pad is not sticking, or at least the noise is reduced.

At no time pull the paper out from under the pad when the key is closed!

My feeling is that the above method is the safest for repairing sticky keys, but some people recommend the following tips. I am not certain that I can recommend these myself, and I have said why here.

‘Put talcum powder on to a cigarette paper and close this between pad and tone hole. The talc will stick to the sticky parts of the skin reducing the stickiness’

Whilst this does reduce stickiness, I feel that adding more ‘mess’ on to the skin surface is asking for trouble later on. Also, I’m sure the pad cannot seal as well after this treatment.

‘Wipe a soft pencil on to a cigarette paper and then close this between pad and tone hole’

Again, this is adding more and more mess to the pad surface. I cannot recommend it.

‘Place a dry cigarette paper between pad and tone hole, close the key and pull the cigarette paper out’.

Don’t do this! It ruins the pads very quickly. Paper is surprisingly rough and acts like sandpaper on the pad skin. When this has been done only a few times the surface of the skin looks frayed. This pad will not last long and will certainly not seal as well.

I hope the above helps with your sticky pad problems. Do remember though, even if using the lighter fluid method, that you should only do this occasionally.

This article was originally written by Ian McLauchlan for the Flutewise magazine.

Yamaha Pocketrak C24

Assessing Your Practice through Recording

Sometimes the best teacher you ever have will be yourself. Yes, it’s true! Many of us are used to listening to recording of ‘the greats’ performing the pieces that we are learning, and we know how they sound through our headphones, stereo or computer speakers. Why not listen to yourself like that too? By doing so, you have the opportunity to find out what it that ‘the greats’ have that you don’t (or even vice versa!).

Here is my attempt at trying to persuade you to do some homework and record yourself. How to do it, however, is another question, so I will give you a common set-up which you can follow.

Firstly, the recording equipment you use is very important. Your computer microphone can be of use, but due to the limited frequency range of the small mics, you may not hear what you actually sound like. It will give you an idea but for the purposes of learning you need something better.

Don’t get me wrong, the recording doesn’t have to be done in a professional recording studio (but if you can afford a couple of hours at Abbey Road go for it!). The best thing to do is to buy a stand-alone HD recorder like the Yamaha Pocketrak C24 or the Zoom H2N, or, if you want a little more flexibility, go for the Zoom H4n. All of these include an SD memory card slot and a USB plug, so that, after you have finished playing, the recording can be transferred directly to your PC or Mac.

The Equipment

Yamaha Pocketrak C24 Recorder

Yamaha Pocketrak C24 Recorder

The Yamaha Pocketrak C24 Digital Recorder is a great machine with two medium sized mics and a frequency response range of 20Hz-20KHz, which is suitable for most uses. The USB stick is built in, so there are no cables co carry. The whole thing is powered by a single AAA battery (which lasts a long time), takes up little space and weighs virtually nothing.


Zoom H2N Handy Recorder

Zoom H2N Handy Recorder

For a more sophisticated machine, one should look at the Zoom H2N Digital Recorder. This features 4 microphones, two of which are at a 90° angle, the other two at 180°. The 90° microphones are ideal for solo recordings, and the latter is suitable for recording larger ensembles, such as a quintet or even a chamber orchestra. Power supply is by mains or batteries, which last for about a day of recording.

The H2N has the capability to record at different ‘sampling rates’. The sample rate is the number of times a second that the audio is ‘sampled’; the higher the sample rate, the better the quality of the recording. 44.1kHz is CD-quality, or you can opt for 48kHz or 96kHz, which is DVD-Audio quality. A higher sample rate means that the end audio file will be larger. Now, the SD card that comes with the H2 has 512MB of storage space, which is enough for general recording, but not enough if you are recording at higher sample rates, so a 1GB or 4GB SD card is preferable.

Zoom H4n Handy Digital Recorder

Zoom H4n Handy Digital Recorder

The H4N, also from Zoom, does even more. Apart from having two XY formation microphones, which can be adjusted from 90° to 180° degrees, at the back of the device there are two XLR inputs (for connecting external microphones) and a built-in four-track recorder. On top as this, it has a built-in effects module, with which you can add reverb, echo, chorus, fizz-wah and distortion effects to your recordings. Essentially, you could plug an electric guitar into it and use it as an amp!

Furthermore, if you plug the H4N into a computer, you can use it as an audio interface, enabling you to record straight into your computer using the Zoom’s mics.

The Basic Set-Up

So you are in your practice room. You have your music stand, the music, the instrument in your hands. The best place to put the recorder is about 2ft away, directly in front of you, preferably at the same height as your instrument when you’re playing it. The microphones on the recording device need to be pointing straight towards you: if you are using the Zoom H2N or H4N, make sure the mics are set to the 90° angle and not 180°; if you are using the Yamaha Pocketrak C24, you can clip it to your music stand.

Next, set the ‘gain’ of the input. This is the level at which the mic will record the sound, and on most devices there are three settings: low, medium and high. Use ‘low’ if you are recordings something loud; ‘high’ is used for very quiet audio sources. If you are not sure how loud or quiet you play, stick to ‘medium’. Press the record button and off you go!

Assessing Your Practice

Sometimes it can prove useful to record just one piece, or even just one movement, although it is highly useful to record long chunks of practice too – for example 15-30 minutes at a time. If you think about it, with one hour recording and one hour listening back to it and analysing, you can say you practiced for two hours! When listening, have the music in front of you: it is incredibly useful to mark wrong notes, rhythms and articulation, as well as make general notes. Don’t forget to stick the metronome on every now and again to check the speed. You can also use these devices to record your lessons (with the teacher’s consent), concerts and recitals.

I find that it is best to listen back to the longer recordings a couple of hours later, or maybe even the following day. Doing so gives you a better perspective on all aspects of your playing.

You can listen back to the recording on the actual devices, or you can connect to a speaker system or headphones, but what if you want to transfer it to your PC and edit, enhance or simply send it to someone? Here is where the USB connection comes handy: simply connect to your PC or Mac, and the recorder will mount as an external hard drive, then it’s just a drag and drop action to transfer the files to your computer. Editing software (usually Cubase) is provided with most recorders, but if you are unsure of what to do, I would suggest steering clear of this part.

Hopefully you now have enough information to give you confidence and encourage you to get recording; many professional musicians in orchestras today have used this method while studying at conservatories, and these days the hardware and software is priced so competitively, one can’t afford not to try it!

Zoom and Yamaha digital recorders are available from Just Flutes.

Composer Profile: Amanda Jane Fox

Amanda Jane FoxI absolutely love the music of Amanda Fox. She is a wonderful combination of classically trained flute player and natural jazz pianist. She has an amazing way of performing her own music, her rhythmic understanding being instinctively different from the ordinary musician. She once described to me an astonishing list of styles that she has drawn from. These included Bach, Rachmaninoff, Elton John, Carol King, Debussy, Chaminade and several jazz musicians – very much a mixed bag. She is also quite a character! She never stops talking, and is infectiously enthusiastic about all she does.

Amanda’s writing for the flute is impressive. Take “Infinity” for example. This is a big work and a great test of stamina for all those not blessed with her natural capacity for long phrases! She has an undoubted talent for melody, and all her flute music has gorgeous tunes. The opening of “Infinity” is stunningly beautiful – the kind of tune that you could sing walking down the street and feel happier for having done so. She also has a formidable flute technique, so plenty of notes woven around the jazz-influenced cross-rhythms add to the challenge. It’s a real crowd pleaser!

If you want something a little quieter, “In the Clouds” is my favorite of Amanda’s slower pieces. Dedicated to her father and composed shortly after his death, it’s a very moving piece with an abundance of yet-more–beautiful melodic themes accompanied by strong romantic harmonies. Or you could try “Reflections,” with its tranquil melodies and subtle, gentle colouring.

Her most recent piece is “Levitation,” which was written for me to play at last year’s NFA Convention in California. It starts with another one of her sensual melodies, and her special blend of harmony and rhythm conjures up all kinds of swirling emotions. If you look closely, you can certainly see influences of Gaubert and Poulenc, but it is really her natural jazz/funky style that shines through. Frequent changes of both key and tempo take place as, section by section, it all seamlessly flows like a journey to end triumphantly on a high. “Levitation” is an uplifting piece celebrating Amanda’s fight to recover from her constant battle with ME.

Amanda can play and sing all her own music, and a visit to her website will unearth gems of popular songs that she performs in her own inimitable way. Her latest mp3 download available there is “Destiny”, yet another example of wonderful writing for the flute. The tune is so lovely that you just don’t want to end!

So if you hadn’t heard of Amanda Fox before, perhaps now is the time to discover her, and indulge yourself in beautiful music!

Amanda Jane Fox’s music is available at Just Flutes: Infinity | Reflections | In The Clouds | Levitation.

Open G#: To open, or not to open?

If you look at your flute, you will find that all the keys are sprung open except for D#, G# and the trill keys. The reason for this is that Theobald Boehm, the inventor of the mechanism on the modern flute, designed the keywork on the principle that all the keys should be open, and that the keys should only be closed to shorten the effective length of the flute to change the pitch.

His reasoning was broadly based on two counts.

1. The more keys open (and the larger the holes) on the instrument, the louder it will be.
2. By having all keys below the first hole open (as far as possible), this will reduce the ‘veiling effect’ produced by closed sections of tube.

In Boehm’s original design he had the D# key sprung closed, but held open at all times by the little finger (except when playing D). This was to give a physical support in the right hand, thus making the instrument more stable when it is being played. The G# key he had open which fitted in with his ideas perfectly.

As the Boehm system flute became more popular and larger numbers of players transferred from simple eight-keyed flutes to the Boehm system, they had to learn a number of new fingerings. The key that they seemed to have had the most difficulty transferring to was the G# key, which had always been sprung closed on the eight-keyed flute.

After a number of experiments by different makers, a closed G# version of the flute was produced. This involved duplicating the G# hole on the rear of the instrument, and it is this design that is used almost universally today.

There are three main problems with the closed G# system:

1. The system spoils top E, because the G# hole on the top of the flute is open when playing high E. A split E mechanism is required to correct this.
2. The closed G# mechanism is unnecessarily complicated – there is more mechanically to go wrong.
3. The closed G# is illogical. When going from G to G# you put another key down to go up the scale.

Why then is the open G# flute not the standard flute?

The open G# system is used by a growing number of players, especially in Britain. However, due to the huge number of players on closed G# instruments and the lack of open G# flutes – particularly at the student end of the market – I don’t see the current situation changing. Perhaps one day a quality, open G# student flute will be made available, and this could produce a new and well-deserved interest in this superior system.

This article was originally written by Ian McLauchlan for the Flutewise magazine.

Open G# flutes are available by special order from Just Flutes, on most brands in the intermediate bracket upwards.

Headjoints: A Guide to Choosing

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
2. Articulation
3. Tone colour
4. Projection

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.

2 Articulation

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).

4 Projection

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.

Happy Hunting.

This article was originally written by Ian McLauchlan for the Flutewise magazine.


Welcome to the Just Flutes blog.

The Just Flutes showroom in Croydon, London, UKOur plan is that this blog will develop to become a huge resource for flute players, comprising of ideas for flute music, books and recordings, instruments and accessories – some of which will be new, some not so new, some hidden gems you may have missed, others old favourites that every flute player should have in their library.

So, watch this space, enjoy, and feel free to register, comment and make suggestions!