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We know that you studied flute repair and headjoint making at the RNCM. Who were your teachers and who influenced you the most?

I did indeed! I had a great time whilst I was there and met many interesting people. My first flute teacher at the Royal Northern College was Trevor Wye who I had for my first year. Trevor was very influential in my ideas on headjoints and on the flute making side of things. I was very lucky whilst at college to work at the International Summer School course that took place at that time in Ramsgate. The principle tutors at this time were Trevor Wye, Wibb, Geoffrey Gilbert and Kate Hill. It was fascinating listening and talking to these people about flutes and headjoints (along with many other things!) and picking up thoughts and tips about what people like. Fascinating also to meet so many other players on the course who came from all over the world and often played in a very different style. This often meant a different style and design of headjoint was favoured. At this time I had the great pleasure in meeting Jack Frazer who was an amateur flute player and engineer. He was a keen experimenter and made some very beautiful headjoints in Phosphor Bronze, usually made with a seamed tube, as making the tube from sheet was really the only way to access this material economically. I spent many happy hours with Jack talking headjoints. His enthusiasm was immense. Whilst at the RNCM I also had the pleasure to meet and spend time with Albert Mitchell who was one of the makers at Boosey and Hawkes. He worked there at the time when the pre war 1010 clarinets were being made which were much revered for many years afterwards and I believe are still sought after by devotees to this instrument now. When I met him he had stopped working for Booseys and worked from home repairing instruments. He was much sought after and known for the quality of his work. He taught me a huge amount about what to strive for in instrument repairs and was able to show me many of the techniques that have been passed down the generation of makers in England. Although this was strictly on the repairs side of my business, the ‘approach’ to working is a skill in itself.

Finally and very importantly would be Albert Cooper and Bick Brannen along with the team at the Brannen Cooper Factory in Boston. Albert Cooper, who I did know but sadly not well, was a huge influence on the flute making world, revolutionising the way both makers and players thought about their instrument. He was able to move the art of flute making forward, taking it out of the area of blindly making instruments in the way that they have always been made, particularly in terms of tuning and scales to an era of reappraisal. Nothing was beyond the scope of re-evaluation or completely re thinking. If something has always been a bit of a problem on the flute, perhaps flat low notes, sharp C#, high F# etc then he would set about trying to improve it. He did this and set flute players talking and working with the makers. Albert was asked by Bick Brannen to be head of design for the Brannen Cooper Flute Makers company that was started in 1978. I had the privilege to visit the factory and stay in Boston to see and understand how a modern flute factory works. The way headjoints were made was a real eye opener to me and has greatly influenced the way I make them now. My headjoints are a real mix of techniques, taking the efficiency of the Brannen way of making with the ideals of the British flute players and makers. I hope therefore that I am able to produce a unique product.

 

What are the aspects of the headjoint which really make a difference?

To be honest, there is not one particular area that is most important. I think that every aspect of the headjoint makes a significant difference and therefore one has to look at the whole. Obviously the design and shape of the embouchure hole is a critical part, but this can be divided into so many variables that you just need to look at each of these in turn, which is beyond the scope of this article I think. Having said that, it is possible to generalise about what changing a particular aspect can do.

The most obvious one would be to perhaps look at the depth of the embouchure hole. Most makers I would suggest have a depth here of between about 5mm and 5.3mm. Basically the deeper you make the hole (which incidentally is usually measured at the sides of the embouchure hole half way between the strike wall and the rear wall) the stronger the low notes will be but the harder the high notes will be to get. Now it has to be said that this only applies if you do not change any other parameter. This issue of the ease of playing of the high notes can of course be compensated for in another way using a different variable, perhaps the undercut on the rear wall, or the angle at the strike edge, but this will then lead to another side effect. Getting the balance of all these variables is what makes a headjoint unique to a particular maker.

The tube taper and hardness are an important influence on how a headjoint plays. The taper will particularly have an effect on the overall tuning of the flute. It is important to bear in mind that if the pitch is altered then the best way of blowing the headjoint for a particular note will also be effected. The taper then has a most important effect on the balance between the octaves of the headjoint.

The material of a headjoint makes a big difference to the way it plays and the sound that it makes. In my opinion, there is no “best” material. Headjoints are so much a matter of personal taste that it must be over to the player to make the final decision on which headjoint is for them. I have tried excellent headjoints made from most available materials, silver, gold, platinum, nickel silver etc. Indeed one of the most memorable headjoints that I tried was a pottery one made by Chris Mckenna. I tried it at an NFA flute convention years ago and always regret not having bought it. It was blue! Equally though I have tried bad headjoints in most materials. It must therefore be how the headjoint is made that matters rather than the material. Of course his begs the question, what is a good headjoint? Is there really any agreement on this?

What does the “taper” mean and do?

The taper of the headjoint is the way that the headjoints internal diameter changes from one end to the other. The bore of the flute body is generally standard at 19mm. This diameter is constant for the length of the instrument from the bottom of the headjoint socket to the open end of the footjoint. The headjoint however changes from 19mm, where it meets up with the main bore of the flute, down to usually about 17mm at the crown end of the tube. This taper is required to keep, particularly the top octave, sharp enough. If the headjoint had no taper the third octave of the flute would be unusably flat. The amount and shape of this taper affects the degree of sharpening. The length of this taper is an important consideration. The tenon on the headjoint (the part that fits inside the socket on the body of the flute) needs to be parallel for most of its length so as to give an airtight seal and not wobble about. The taper on my headjoint does actually extend very slightly into the socket area of the tube as I think this has a beneficial effect to the tuning and character around D above the stave. The taper I use for my headjoints is broadly based on a Bonneville headjoint that I particularly liked and measured up. Characteristically this has a taper that is not as aggressive as on some of the modern flutes and will therefore play slightly flatter in the third octave. This I think to be beneficial for most players.

 

Can one really “cut” the headjoint to a players specification?

If a player comes to me and says that they would like me to make them a headjoint that is particularly powerful perhaps in the lower register, or is very resistant when being played etc, then these characteristics can usually be built into the headjoint. It is however a dangerous game as headjoints are so personal to players. I make a number of different designs of headjoint which hopefully go some way to providing a headjoint that will suit most players. My first suggestion would be to get the player to try examples of each type to see if there is one design that he favours. If so, the best bet here would be to try playing on it for a while and see if it does what he hopes. If it is close but still he would like the bias of the headjoint to be towards the low notes (for example) then it would be possible to make a headjoint very similar to the one that they had tried but to perhaps make it a little deeper. This will favour the low notes and the response in the top register, which may be affected, can be compensated for as well. The trouble here is that the headjoint is now not a standard design and cannot then just be put into stock if the player does not like it. For this reason any custom designs or customisations have to be done as a special order and the player then must go and learn to play it!! I have had many satisfied customers going down this route, but my recommendation would always be to try headjoints before you buy them so that you know exactly what you are getting. This is the safest route, and with so many headjoints on the market there must be something that will suit your playing. On this point it is worth mentioning that any new headjoint you purchase you are going to have to get used to. It may not immediately feel safe to play on. Practice is usually the cure for any problems at this stage rather than looking for a different headjoint. Remember, the only headjoint that you are likely to feel safe on is the headjoint that you already own and have learnt how to play.

 

How long does it take you to make a headjoint?

If I were making a headjoint from scratch then I would normally allow about two days to do the work. This would include making the lip-plate, tube, crown and cork assembly, preparing the parts, soldering them together, cutting and voicing the headjoint and then polishing it out. Rechecking is important and I usually do this the next day. If any tweaking is required (which usually happens) then this is done at this point. However, I would not normally approach making in this way. For efficiency of time I would always make a number of the same parts in batches. This is quicker because the tooling is set up to do one particular job and to make, say, ten tubes is much quicker than doing them one at a time. Another point that I have to take into account is that I am not an engraver. The logo that appears on my headjoints is done my very good friend Rodney, one of the best engravers around. It is always important for me to have a group of headjoint tubes that are already finished, polished and engraved so that I can then solder on the lip-plate and riser assembly and finish the headjoint off, ready for sale.

 

Does the finish on the outside and inside of a headjoint make a difference as to how it plays?

Yes, I think that it does. The outside finish of the headjoint is purely cosmetic unless we are looking at a plating of some sort or another metal bonded onto silver, along the lines of Powell flutes Auramite instruments.
The finish on the outside as a matter of good craftsmanship and personal pride matters a lot. This is what people see before they ever have a chance to play the headjoint. Care is therefore needed when finishing a headjoint.
The finish inside does have an effect on the way the headjoint plays. I personally feel that a very slightly frosted finish (i.e., not fully polished) seems to me to give a slightly better result. Whether this is because a small amount of resistance is added to the headjoint, or whether it is an indirect effect of not spending as long polishing inside I do not know. I use a rotating mop inside the headjoint which has rouge polishing compound on it. Using this method it would mean that the edge of the embouchure hole where it meets the main headjoint tube may not be as rounded off as it might be if more time were spent in getting a mirror finish on the inside of the headjoint. This effect is perhaps the more likely cause of a change in character than the slight resistance that is probably introduced. Either way I go for the slight frosting. It works well for me.

 

What would be your main advice for anyone looking for a new headjoint?

The headjoint of the flute is probably the most ‘personal’ part of the instrument. A headjoint that plays well for one person may be another player’s idea of hell! For this reason no hard and fast rules can be given to choosing a headjoint, but a few guidelines may 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 wide 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.
Now try a much harder sound with lots of harmonics, 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 consider them in comparison to your own. A headjoint cannot 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.
A final comment would be that if you are trying headjoints, if you keep on coming back to a particular one then it is very likely the one that you should go for. This ‘gut reaction’ is usually correct!

 

Visit Ian’s site http://www.headjoints.co.uk

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