Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Bionic Flute Finger

By Steven Wasser

Innovations sometimes come like a lightning bolt from the sky, but more often are the result of a sustained, disciplined approach to testing ideas.  At Powell we know that each flutist blows differently and touches the flute keys with differing pressures.  In order to control variables like these we develop tools and techniques that come to close to replicating the “typical” flutist, but also allow us to accommodate other playing styles.

Powell is currently investigating the quality of the seal between pads and tone holes.  In order to conduct the necessary tests we developed a simple “bionic finger” that close a key with pressure that is equivalent to finger pressure and also comes from the same angle as a flutist’s finger.  The device uses a series of weights on a shaft which approach the flute key from a tangent position.  We add weights until the key closes securely then we total the amount of weight required.   

The bionic finger device does not result in an innovation, but allows us to test other ideas that could well improve the quality of the flute.  Stay tuned…

The "bionic finger" aims to replicate human finger pressure and position.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Verne Q. Powell and Dr. Albert E. Sloane

We’ve read many historical accounts of Verne Q. Powell’s life – namely about his first “Spoon Flute” and his early days as a flute maker in Massachusetts.  We’ve also read about the inspiration for some designs (like the “gizmo”) and historically significant flutes.  When looking through our archives, we found a very interesting account of Mr. Powell and how he inspired one very unlikely student as you’ll see from the letter below…

When my young son needed a flute for his music lessons around 1948 I was sent to the Powell workshop where I was told he had an old used flute for sale.  He was located on Huntington Avenue close to Symphony Hall and en route to my hospital.  My medical bag in hand, I met Mr. Verne Powell as arranged.  He was a dignified, white-haired gentleman who was in obvious great discomfort.  He was squinting one eye which was red and tearing copiously.  I was told that he was being treated for an infection for three months and it was getting no better.  Infections that lasted a long time were not uncommon in this period before anti-biotics were available.  

The presence of a doctor’s bag, like the gun in the holster of the policeman, gives the owner the feeling that he can ask questions or give orders that he would otherwise flinch from doing.  “Let me look at your eye”, I dared to say.  The same bag which gave me the authority to make my request had an opposite effect on the patient to become submissive and show respect.

So, without further ado, I put a drop of anesthetic from my bag into the sore eye so I could better examine him.  Of course, the severe pain in his eye immediately disappeared.  Mr. Powell was enormously impressed with my skill at so quickly removing his discomfort.  A magnifying glass and a good light, in addition to the sight in my young eyes, showed that what he had was not an infection, but a tiny sliver of metal deeply imbedded in the front surface (cornea) of his eye.  I went to my bag, put another drop in his eye to insure good anesthesia and then, with a sterile instrument, promptly removed the foreign body.  In twelve hours he was completely cured and free of symptoms.

Well, from then on we had a special relationship which led to me taking flute lessons at age 42, and of course buying a Verne Q. Powell flute - the Commercial type.  In 1952 I decided I had to have the French open key model.  My teacher was Jimmy Pappoutsakis who was also a patient of mine and lived six doors away.   The normal wait was two years, but Jimmy recommended a flute which had just been made for him - #1142.  Mr. Powell was kind enough to engrave this flute with his own signature - a sort of personal special thanks for helping him overcome his eye problem.  And, incidentally, the only Powell flute with such an inscription.
Albert E. Sloane, MD
Past Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology
Harvard Medical School
P. S. On a number of occasions I had the use of his original first flute made by him from melted--down family silver, for which he said he was never forgiven.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Clean, Dry, Polish

How do Powell flutes get so clean and shiny?  Well, in the process of making flutes, the bodies and keys may start out looking a bit different, but they certainly are shiny in the end!  When flutes are sent back in for a COA or overhaul, we work to bring them back to their original shine.  We caught up with Rachel Baker as she was going through the cleaning and polishing process with a few flutes in for a COA.

First, the flute bodies and footjoints are placed in a tarnish removal solution.  It doesn't take too long -- about 20 seconds will do according to Rachel.

After the tarnish removal bath, the bodies and footjoints are rinsed in the sink.  Then, they are placed in the ultrasonic cleaner, which we took a look at in this previous post:  After the ultrasonic, they go through another rinse and are dried.

Drying the flute in this process is a bit different than one might imagine.  In the photo above, we see Rachel drying a footjoint.  How exactly does this work?  Well, in her right hand, she is holding the nozzle of an air hose that is attached to an air compressor -- so these flutes get dried quickly and thoroughly.  You'll see a close-up of the air hose in the photo below.

After each piece goes through the cleaning and drying process, they are put on a rack like the one in the photo below.  Then, it is time to take them to the polishing room.

Keys that are cleaned are much smaller than bodies and footjoints.  They are placed in baskets (as we see in the photo below) before going into liquids. 

The bodies and footjoints that Rachel was cleaning have been taken over to the polishing room.  She polishes them with a buffing wheel that is coated with polishing rouge.

In the photo below, we see Rachel polishing a footjoint.  The two footjoints on the rack in the bottom right corner of this photo have already been done.  As she finishes polishing, she puts each piece back on the rack -- and they are done!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

PS-750 Testimonials - Technicians

The Powell Sonaré PS-750 piccolo has made quite an impact in the piccolo world.  Its innovative design certainly distinguishes it from the traditional Powell Custom and Signature piccolos.  The stainless steel mechanism features square keys, yet the tone holes are still round.  How do the keys feel?  Well, we’ve taken the piccolo to shows, and many flutist/piccolo players have felt that the keys were quite comfortable.  Several male players in particular have been surprised by the comfort level of the keys for their hands – perhaps because there is more surface area with the square-shaped keys.

Another distinguishable feature of the piccolo is the wood.  The American hardwood used for the body is available in three different color stains – Indian Onyx, American Amethyst, and Tuscan Umber.  Regardless of the color, the piccolos perform equally from a mechanical standpoint – so the color is purely for aesthetics.  Speaking of the mechanics of the instrument, what do professional repair technicians think?  Well, we had the chance to gather some feedback, which we hope will be the first installment of “PS-750 Testimonials.”

The Sonaré Piccolo has gotten excellent reviews from our customers and teachers.  I have found it  very easy to play, and as a technician, I really like how well it set-up it arrived and how stable the mechanism is. 

Miles DeCastro 
Repair Shop Manager
Bridgepoint Music

The Powell Sonaré is very innovative and rather extraordinary with the key design and art deco feel.  From a technical standpoint, it seems to be very well made.  My customer was willing to wait 3-4 months for the piccolo

Tim Anzalone
Repair Technician
Music Center Deerfield

Powell Sonaré piccolos in production.
Close-up on the piccolos in production.