The Flute That Changed Everything

Shop Notes Blog

Every artist can tell you that at some point in their career they have encountered some piece of art that inspired and motivated them. Whether we are motivated to simply improve our own art, or to change direction entirely, it is almost universal. It’s the way of human beings and it is how the arts develop and evolve. Standing on the shoulders of giants, as it were.

That moment for me was when someone gifted me a simple bamboo flute.

I had already been a professional flute maker for fifteen years when this happened, and I was feeling pretty good about the instruments that I was making. So when the gift was first given, I was pleased, but totally unaware that I had actually been given a puzzle that would perplex and challenge me for the next five years and more!

The flute was made by Patrick Olwell. For those of you unfamiliar with the name Olwell in connection with flutes, you should know that he is one of the most respected and sought after makers of wooden flutes in the world, specifically among enthusiasts of Irish Traditional Music. He is a maker who I admire greatly and whose name is synonymous with quality. He no longer makes bamboo instruments, but earlier in his career he made quite a few and he achieved a truly impressive level of skill at it.

The bamboo flute is a deceptively simple thing. I’ve played a number of these types of simple flutes over the years, and have found some that are quite nice, and some that are simply functional. Bamboo is a wonderful material, and it takes real skill to utilize it well, because no two pieces are the same. This obliges the maker to develop a strong understanding of the various parameters that shape the voice and tuning of a flute.

This flute that I was given had a sweet voice and was very free-blowing and pleasurable to play. But the thing that made it unusual was the superb intonation. Normally, bamboo flutes (or cylindrical bore wooden flutes) tend to go quite flat in the second octave, especially the top half of the second octave. It’s not a shortcoming on the part of the maker—it’s simply physics. This tendency is difficult to overcome without radical measures. The North Indian bansuri flute does an excellent job of achieving this by having very thin walls and very large finger holes, plus a wide bore for a given key and a stopper that is positioned relatively close to the embouchure hole. These characteristics make for a pretty well-balanced flute, but they also change the timbre of the instrument and limit the style of play that can be executed on the flute. With the type of bamboo flute that I was given—one that was geared toward a different style of music—these design features were not appropriate. So I fully expected it to have the same problems that similar flutes are plagued with.

But it didn’t.

It had a tuning balance that was superior to many more sophisticated, conical bore instruments that I had played, and this fascinated me. I wanted to know why, and if possible to emulate it. This seemed at first to be a simple task, but it was not.

The thing that made it complex was the fact that the bore of the flute was completely “organic”. It was not a pure cylinder. It was oval, for starters, and it was not the same diameter throughout, instead exhibiting a tendency to flare out slightly as it approached the distal end of the bore. And as I came to discover the flute also tapered up at the head as it approached the embouchure hole. This is what the headjoint on a silver (Boehm) flute does as well, and it is this characteristic taper that creates the superior tuning balance. Indian bansuri makers who design flutes for the Carnatic style of music select similar bamboo pieces (those that have a natural taper in the head) and they take advantage of this natural taper to make balanced instruments because the Carnatic flutes are a different design than the North Indian bansuri I described previously.

But this Olwell bamboo flute was not really measurable. The tools to actually graph the bore of such a flute would need to be highly sophisticated—probably some type of laser device. These devices exist but are prohibitively expensive.

So I began a process that spanned about five years, wherein I made more than a hundred flutes in an attempt to consistently create a one-piece flute that had this same excellent tuning balance.

Of course it was not just about the tuning, even though that was the part that fascinated me at first. It was also my goal to create a flute that had the response and projection that would take it beyond the realm of a simple “folk” flute. I wanted it to be a flute that professionals could use in all kinds of settings, be it performance or recording. But I loved the simplicity of the one-piece flute and I wanted to keep that aesthetic.

In the end it took a lot of experimentation with bore sizes, wall thickness, head bore taper, finger hole size and placement, and embouchure cut. Because I chose to give the flutes a Boehm-style parabolic taper in the headjoint area I was obliged to manufacture specialty reamers of different sizes in order to test some of my theories, and this task alone had a steep learning curve.

I nearly gave up the project on a few different occasions because I was not completely happy with my results. I had gotten very close to the goal, but I hadn’t reached it. Eventually I finally had one of those outside-of-the-box intuitions that lead me to try some design changes that had never before crossed my mind in my years of trial and error, and that finally produced the “Eureka!” moment. Suddenly these simple flutes not only achieved that superior tuning balance I had been striving for, but they actually went a step farther. The new flutes have a more robust tone than my bamboo flute, especially on the lower octave which allows them to be pushed when needed. In short, they have the response and projection that I had hoped for all along.

A friend of mine who is a professional player with vast experience in the realm of wooden flutes spent some time playing the new design, and he summed them up beautifully when he said, “These things have scary good intonation! They’re like a wolf in sheep’s clothing!” As you can imagine, after years of struggle this was music to my ears.

These flutes fulfilled my idea of what the archetypal flute should be and I felt I needed to give them a name. I had been calling them my “transverse folk flute” for lack of any other useful descriptor, but that didn’t really capture their essence. They are more than a folk flute, and their apparent simplicity is quite misleading. So what are they?

I spoke of capturing their essence, and that seems to me to sum them up in a word: essential.

The Essential Flute.

Return to Shop Notes

Published Thursday, October 25, 2018