Thursday, September 27, 2012

Piccolo Headjoints

By Tim Burnett - Powell Flutes Wooden Instrument Manager

It is common enough to say the piccolo is different from the flute and that playing techniques must also differ. But why, essentially, should this be true? There are, of course, obvious physical differences between the instruments: The piccolo is commonly made of wood or a substitute, and most often has a conical bore, rather like many pre-Boehm flutes. These, in themselves, are enough to give the instrument a different response and feel from those of a cylindrical-bore, metal flute. But there still is the basis of tone production, the headjoint. What differences are there, and what choices does a player have?

Close-up on Classic style headjoint.
Traditional piccolo headjoints are essentially cylindrical, or, more properly, several shapes revolved around an axis. The bore is cylindrical (unlike a flute headjoint bore), but, of course, the outside varies in diameter, so that it looks like, well, a piccolo headjoint. Powell Classic piccolo headjoints have a slight swell near the embouchure, giving the head an elegant appearance, and helping a bit to focus the air stream. This feature is sometimes seen on late 18th century Classical-era flutes and occasionally on instruments from other eras. Despite such refinements, however, the essential headjoint shape remains cylindrical, and the relationship of the embouchure hole to the player's lips is constrained by this fact.

Piccolo specialists often prefer the plain, unadorned embouchure hole of such a head. Many players say they feel they have the best focus and control with a minimalist setup. But, there are also very many flute players, and even serious piccolo players, who prefer something closer to their flute headjoint.

Wave style on the left, Profiled on the right.
For such players, Powell offers two styles of piccolo headjoint in addition to the Classic shape. These are the Profiled, and the Wave. The Profiled features a miniature flute-style lip plate carved from the solid wood of the headjoint. The Wave is a more simple and elegant version of the so-called Reformmundstück often seen on German piccolos.

Classic, Wave, and Profiled styles.
The Profiled piccolo headjoint immediately gives the player more of the feel of a flute. This type of head minimizes the adjustment needed between instruments. Many doublers, especially, say they can put down their flute and pick up their piccolo and instantly feel secure. This head can produce a clear, well-projecting sound with great comfort.

The Wave accomplishes similar things, but with more of the feel of a traditional piccolo. This head also easily produces a clear, well-projecting and articulated sound, with perhaps a little more sweetness to it.

The thing both these heads have in common, however, relates to the geometry of the embouchure hole. The walls of the embouchure must be approximately the same depth or thickness in a traditional piccolo head. There are some refinements possible, but essentially the depth of the embouchure hole is symmetrical, because it is cut approximately into the center of a cylinder.

It is easy to vary the relative heights or thicknesses of the walls of a flute headjoint, however, because the parts are made of metal, and they can be designed and assembled to differing specifications. Thus, it is possible to make flute headjoints with the “front” wall (the side opposite the player’s lips) higher or lower than the “back” wall (the side toward the player).  Many players are accustomed to flute headjoints, such as the Powell Philharmonic-style head, that have a slightly higher front wall. The feel and focus necessary for such flute headjoints is rather different from that of a traditional piccolo head. Because both the Profiled and Wave piccolo headjoints have front walls that are higher than the back walls, these heads retain more of the feel of a flute. For many players, such headjoints offer the best of both the flute and piccolo worlds, without the trouble of the often difficult journey between them.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wooden Flute Finishing

Since we've spent some time looking at flute finishing, we wondered if the process for finishing a wooden flute differs from that of a metal flute.  We stopped by one of out flute finisher's benches earlier this week, and he happened to be be working on a Handmade Custom grenadilla flute with a sterling silver mechanism.  He said there are not too many differences, but there are a few -- namely polishing and corks.

With a metal flute, the ribs are soldered to the body and cannot be removed, but this is obviously not the case with a wooden flute!  With a wooden flute, the ribs are attached to the body with screws to hold them in place.  In the finisher's role, s/he must remove the ribs from the body and polish them.  After this is complete, the ribs must be reattached.  There are also metal rings on the body that are polished by the finisher as well, but these rings are not removed -- so this polishing process takes extreme care and skill so as not to damage the body. 

Another difference with the wooden flute involves corks -- the most noticeably different being the tenon cork.  Metal flutes do not have tenon corks, so this is an extra step for the finisher.  The flute arrives at his/her bench without this installed, so the finisher must cut, fit, and shape the tenon cork to size and then glue it to the tenon.  There are several other corks on the wooden flute that get some "special" attention -- corks under the arm of the G# lever, under the low D# key, and on the trill keys.  For these keys, a layer of foam is glues to the bottom of the cork (where it would meet the body of the flute).  The purpose of the foam?  Just to keep things quiet since the cork is touching a large surface area of wood on a wooden flute body.

Other than corks and ribs, there really aren't too many differences.  When the wooden flute arrives at the finisher's bench, there is no additional work required on the tone holes (no leveling, etc.).  The bodies and tone holes are finished by our wood specialist.  The processes involved in producing a wooden flute are different but certainly result in a beautiful instrument!

Finishers will add the tenon cork to the body.
Ribs must be removed and polished.  Also in this photo, a piece of the (beige) foam that is attached to corks.
Foam is placed under cork on G# lever arm.
Foam under trill key corks.
Foam under D# key (clearly reflected in the ring!).

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Flute Finisher - Part 2

In our last post, we took a closer look at the role of the flute finisher in the manufacturing process.  After the finisher receives his/her flute kit, there is a methodical, organized series of steps that are taken to finish the flute.  This is important to keeping the process consistent and ensuring quality.  Flute finisher Karl Kornfeld shared the sequence of steps that he takes as a flute finisher:

1) Inspect the body and keywork -- correct polishing as needed.  Signature and Conservatory flutes will come to the finisher polished but may need corrections.  For custom flutes, bodies and keys are polished by the finisher.

2) Make sure the tone holes are level and inspect the undercutting.

3) Fit the headjoint and footjoint to the body.

4) Fit keywork to the body to ensure a smooth and quiet action.

5) Install springs on body.  Signature, Conservatory and Custom flutes all use 10k white gold springs.

6) Install pads in keys.

7) Install corks.  Corks are all hand-shaped by the finisher.

8) Shim and adjust pads to ensure an air-tight seal and proper key adjustments.

9) Have the flute "played in."  There are professional flute players at the shop who are given the flute by the finisher at this step.  The "play in" is a step that helps the pads and adjustments settle.

10) Send flute to another finisher for a peer inspection.  Make corrections as necessary.

11) Have pro flute player perform a customer "stand in."  In this step, the player evaluates the flute and then sends it back to the finisher to make any necessary corrections.

12) Clean and send to customer.

The finisher's job involves many important steps -- and finishers recognize the responsibility they have as the last people to touch the flute before it goes to the customer.  Supported by a great team of peer finishers and players, they are able to make sure the flute is just what the customer ordered!
Springs installed
Key pads installed
Inspection before stand-in test by pro player
Pro player tests and evaluates

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Flute Finisher - Part 1

Building flutes requires much time, dedication, and materials.  There are many steps involved in the process and much hand craftsmanship.  If you've heard the term "flute finisher," you may wonder what that person's role is in the process.  It seems logical, based on the title, that this person would be the last person that touches the flute before it goes to the customer.  But, alas, there is much that the flute finisher must do first...

Flute finishers receive a "flute kit" that has all the parts necessary to finish a flute.  The flute kit consists of the body, keywork, and steels.  The parts of the kit have already gone through several steps from raw materials to finished parts.  In the flute kit, the body has tone holes -- whether they have been drawn or soldered.  Ribs and posts have been soldered to the body as well.  The keys have been formed and are attached to the mechanism tubing.  The steels are finished and shaped to fit into the mechanism tubing.  When it arrives at the flute finisher's bench, the parts of the flute in the kit are covered with protective blue film to prevent scratches while the finisher completes his/her work.  With Powell Signature and Conservatory flutes, the bodies and keys have already been polished.  With Powell Custom flutes, the body and keys will be polished by the flute finisher.

The flute kit has many essential elements, yet there are a few that the finisher will add as well.  Finishers add springs, hand-shaped corks, and felts.  They pad the keys, adding shims as necessary so that the pads are seated correctly.  Finishers also have to make sure that the keys are fit properly to the body.  In our next post, we'll take a look at the exact series of steps a finisher goes through -- beginning with the flute kit and ending with a completed flute ready for shipment!

Aurumite Conservatory "Flute Kit"
Flute kit contains body, keys, steels.
Bodies have tone holes, posts, ribs. 
Another view of the flute kit.
Close-up on keys and steels.
Close-up on more keys and foot joint.