Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Spoon Flute

Barrel engraving
We recently caught up with Richard Powell, Verne Powell's grandson, at the Mid-Atlantic Flute Fair.  He shared an interview with us that his father, Edward Powell, gave in 1988.  The excerpt below is Edward's account of the development of Verne Powell's very first flute, "The Spoon Flute" -- along with a short recap of his path from Kansas to Boston.

This goes back to Fort Scott, Kansas, where I was a small boy, and my dad was a jeweler, had a jewelry store, and played a wooden piccolo in the town band.  Among his works of jewelry, he made himself a medal which is the source of humor when we bring up the subject.  But, he played the flute.  This is when they had already experimented with, more than experimented with, making silver flutes or flutes of other materials and precious metals in combinations in Europe -- in Germany and France.  But, in the United States, it was mostly old fashioned wooden flutes.  And the chief manufacturers at that time were in Boston.  The names of the companies who were excelling at it were, first of all, Bettoney.  Bettoney was a bigger name than Haynes, but this story has to tie up with the Haynes Company.  My father happened to be in Chicago on some business trip when he went to hear the Chicago Symphony.  There was somebody there like Barrere, old Georges Barrere, who was playing on a silver flute which made my dad, Verne Powell, "flip" (in the vernacular).  He could hardly wait to get home to his jewelry store and make a silver flute.  Now I was, say, 10 years old.  I was in and out of his jewelry store, and I loved to go in the back room there where he had a hand rolling mill, rolling out this silver.  He melted up old spoons and coins and jewelry and parts of watch cases.  Melted it up, and I remember rolling.  I even had a hand in turning the rolling mill to thin out this metal for him to make his silver flute, which of course had to be twisted around an arbor and hard soldered.  We could make a story out of that for anybody who technically wants to know more about getting the curvatures in there.  But I remember Sunday mornings, my dad sitting at home, with a little leather mallet, and hammering out the taper of the headjoint of a flute.  And so quite a laborious job to create the handmade flute, which he ended up engraving -- being a master engraver -- and inlaid the keys with little gold buttons.

The Haynes Company at that time was a second rate company, but George Haynes was the brains and talent of the Haynes family.  William S. Haynes was the businessman.  It came to Bill's attention that my dad had this handmade silver flute.  So, he wrote to my father to see if he would send the flute for examination.  And immediately following that, he made him an offer to bring the flute and the whole family, and whatever he could -- and sell his jewelry store.  Haynes and my dad got together on an agreement, and my dad was to go there as the foreman.  Then the whole family, all six of us (one brother and two sisters), piled in the drawing room of a Pullman and made it to Boston.

D# Cluster
G# Key
Trill Keys
Headjoint Engraving

Friday, February 15, 2013

Changing the Crown

We recently opened up a discussion on our Facebook page inviting readers to post questions for our blogs.  The question selected for this week's Flute Builder came to us from Cara West.  She asked, "Could changing the headjoint crown be a good alternative to changing a headjoint?"

We checked in with Rebecca Eckles on this one.  Rebecca told us that there are several things that could make a difference with your headjoint, including the cork assembly.  She said that many people haven't had their headjoiut corks changed in a long time, so it's possible that air could be leaking from a loose cork.  When this is the issue, once the headjoint cork is replaced, the headjoint seals properly, and air flows freely.

As for the crown specifically, Rebecca tells us that it is a good place to start -- especially if you do not have the money for a new headjoint.  Obviously, there is a big difference between a few hundred dollars and a few thousand dollars!  However, the effects of changing the crown are really subjective and depend on the player.  Rebecca tells us that crowns are "different things to different people."  When it comes to headjoints, a new crown can certainly "give it new life."  She says, "Sometimes the crown is called the magic button."  We thought that summed it up perfectly!  So, if you are curious, try some different crowns, and see what they can do for you!

Many headjoints without crowns in the testing room!
A few crowns to try on the headjoints in the testing room.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Left Hand Low B

We stopped by the Powell repair shop at the end of this week and were surprised to find a flute with two keys for the left hand pinky.  Of course, one was the G#, but there was another -- a left hand low B!  Multiple keys for the left pinky are no stranger to other woodwinds, but we usually do not see them on a flute.  So, just what is the purpose of this key?  Well, it gives you an optional fingering for low B.  It also could be used in place of a gizmo key.  So, you could use the left hand low B key instead of the gizmo, and it would have the same function.  The left hand low B is built into the low B key mechanism.  The left hand low B key mechanism has additional tubing, posts, and ribs that connect it to the body of the flute. When the key is pressed, a lever section next to the low B mechanism on the footjoint is activated and closes the low B key.

Although there is additional material for the key mechanism, it really does not change the weight of the flute overall.  Our Repair Technician, Rachel, tells us that this left hand low B key is not as common today as it was in earlier decades.  Aside from this key, Rachel mentioned that she has also seen a left hand low C# -- but flutes with these left hand pinky keys are a pretty rare occurrence in her shop today.

Left hand low B is below to the G#.
Left hand low B is built into the low B mechanism.
Close-up on the bridging lever portion of the mechanism.
Front view.
Close-up on left hand low B key.
Additional posts (and ribs) are at the top and bottom of this mechanism. 
Front close-up on the footjoint.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Flute Scales

By Steven Wasser
The flute scale determines how well the notes play in tune to each other, octave to octave, and also determines the timbral balance of the notes.  From a mechanical standpoint the flute scale is a function of the following:
  • the diameter of the flute tube or “bore”
  • the size of each tone hole
  • the linear location of each tone hole along the flute tube
  • the height of each tone hole
Theobald Boehm developed the basis for today’s flute scales.  Verne Powell initiated an improved scale when he started producing his own flutes with the Powell Scale in 1927.  The next major improvement in scale design was accomplished by Albert Cooper in 1974.  Powell was the first major flute maker to introduce the Cooper Scale, and did so in 1975.  There are several other “modern” scales in use today, including the Bennett Scale used by one Japanese flute maker, and the Deveau Scale used by Haynes. 

Today Powell uses a modified and (we believe!) improved version of the original Cooper Scale which we call the Modern Powell Scale (or just Powell Scale, for short).  When testing instruments for scale we strongly recommend that you consider not only intonation, but timbral balance as well.  A new flute should sound like one instrument, not three separate instruments.

Scale should not be confused with the pitch of an instrument.  Pitch relates to which “A” the instrument has been designed to produce (e.g., A-440, A-442, etc.)  Powell instruments made for the U.S. market are typically pitched at A-442, and play well in tune from A-440 to A-444.