July 24, 2013

Flute Shopping in the Deepest Darkest Midwest

The standard advice for trying out flutes is “go to as many stores as you can and play as many flutes as you can so you find the perfect flute for you.” Great advice. Unless the nearest store with anything other than junker flutes is a day and a half away. Of course, taking a “flute vacation” in which the trip is planned partly around good flute stores is an option. If you have time to travel and don’t mind planning your trip that way. You can also see if there are any flute conventions or gatherings in your area. My favorite repair person Judi of Judi's Woodwind Shop sells some very good flutes (student and high end) and hosts a flute party once a year. If something like this happens in your area, it may be the best way to go. But you will be limited to the flute dealers who show up. And the smaller the gathering, the fewer the choices. So for all the musicians living in extremely rural areas, I’m sharing my advice for long distance flute shopping.

First, do your research. This will be in two parts. One half of this research is to read up on the top flute brands, see what other people are saying about them, compare prices and features of different models within brands and from brand to brand. Don’t rule out a brand or model because of one person’s negative comment but do look at what they criticized about it; if they didn’t like the tone, that doesn’t tell you much since everyone sounds different on different flutes. But if they said the keywork clacked or was awkward, that is something to keep in mind. Although again, what is uncomfortable for a person with small hands and long fingers may not be the same for a person with wide hands and short fingers. Always remember that different models of the same brand may be quite different (or not) and that sometimes newer versions are constructed differently than older ones. Important: You won’t be making your final decision based on this information! You will be using it to pick which instruments you want to test out. What you are attempting to do is select several different kinds of flutes that are all likely to be very good and have those sent to you to try out. Then, you will be in a position of having nothing but good flute options.
Now the second part of your research; picking a company to send you flutes. Each store and manufacturer has a different trial policy (and some don’t allow trials) so you want to figure out which ones will work best for you. Look at cost (shipping to and from, insurance, trial fees etc.), available flutes, how long you get to test flutes, how returning the flutes works (return shipping is sometimes more expensive) and of course if they are a reputable company. If you haven’t heard of them, look them up and find out what people have to say about them. I personally recommend the Flute Center of New York for several reasons. They have a very good selection of new and used instruments, their trial policy is the most affordable of any company I’ve researched and if you speak to them, they are very willing to work with you and be flexible about the details of the trial. Example; their website states that you must be a member of the National Flute Association to try out flutes (possibly worth joining just to do this) but they were very cheerful about loaning me flutes in spite of my membership lapsing several years back. They simply make it easy to play-test their flutes even by mail which is a big plus. If you find a company with a trial policy that seems ok but you wonder if they would modify it some, get in touch and ask. Many companies are willing to be a little flexible as long as you talk with them but be understanding if they say no. It's also a good idea to compare the prices of different companies. Flute World is another good company to compare prices and descriptions of flutes, new and used, although their trial policy is pricier and more complicated than the Flute Center of NY.
A note here about shopping for used flutes; for experienced players this can be a pretty good option. If you are patient about it, you may have a chance to play or buy a better flute used than you could afford new. However, there are a couple of possible issues with shopping used. One is that you are at the mercy of what instruments are available. Two different used flutes I looked at on-line were out on trial when I first asked about them. One was returned and I got to try it, the other was purchased and I didn’t. That is just how it goes. The second issue is that used flutes may not be in top playing condition. Most places try to get even their consignment flutes into decent shape. But since they don’t actually own those flutes, they can’t force the current owners to spend money on repairs or adjustments. More experienced players can tell when a flute isn’t playing well because it needs work but it is well worth asking a repair person to check out a used flute before purchasing it. If the repairs aren't that pricey, it may still be a good idea to get the flute. One final thing to keep in mind when looking at used flutes is that the tuning (also called scale) of flutes has changed over the years. I’ll let you look up the details of the Cooper, Deveau and other "modern" scales/tunings but basically, you want to make sure a used flute will play at A=440 without pulling the headjoint out insane amounts. Most flutes made today are set at A=442 which usually works fine. A short session with a tuner will tell you if a flute is too high or low.

So which brands are good? The trouble with this question is that new flute makers pop up, brand names are bought and changed and flute making techniques change so any list you find will be limited to the time it was made as well as the knowledge of the person making the list. Of course when a brand turns up on a “best” list year after year, there is a good chance they are worth considering. Again, I suggest looking up what people are saying about different kinds of flutes on-line. But remember that there will be a wide range of opinions on every flute out there. Example; some hate the “bright” Sankyo sound while others say it has the most beautiful soaring sound out there. Both groups are making subjective personal statements about how THEY sound on these instruments and your sound on that brand may not match either statement.
Here are a few brands that have good reputations. This list is mostly geared to high end flutes. If you're shopping for student flutes, you may want to look at this site too. Buying Flutes (Parents Guide)
-Brannen (these flutes retain much of their value used so don't expect much of a price drop)
-Burkart (older ones are called Burkart & Phelan-there are differences but both labels are the basically the same maker)
-Haynes (has changed hands some but the handmade ones are still considered good)
-Sankyo (known for being repairable as well as good sounding).

Don’t limit yourself to just this list! I don’t pretend to have researched all the different brands out there. And there are smaller flute makers (such as Lehner in Australia) that are considered good but aren't easy to find in some places. And some brands have student or intermediate models (such as Sonare Powell or Resona from Burkart) that are not the same as the higher end instruments. Which doesn't mean you should dismiss them, just be aware of which models you are looking at. And take notes. This is not a small project, you shouldn’t expect to memorize all this information in one go.

How much a flute costs matters far less than how well it fits you. A story about this. When I was in college, a fellow flute player and friend played the same kind of flute as me (Sankyo Prima) but we did not sound the same at all. Because of this and since we both liked the other's sound, we often tested out instruments together to see what would happen. When she got a Muramatsu, she sounded wonderful on it; beautiful tone, great dynamics, just all you could want. I however sounded rather wispy and shy on that flute, nothing too special. Another time, she played an all wood flute that made her sound like, in her words, "a 3rd grader on a recorder." But when I played it, in a crowded room full of people tweeting on flutes, nearly everyone within hearing range turned around and asked about the flute because they liked the sound so much. Both flutes were good and we both played well. It was just the difference in how we interacted with the flutes that created such a change of sounds on the same instruments.
A story about my search for a new flute. At one point I had three wonderful flutes on trial; a used handmade Haynes, a used Sankyo 601 and a Powell Conservatory. All three had beautiful sounds, a wide dynamic range and a good key layout. The Haynes had the most covered (darkest) sound that was oddly reminiscent of an oboe. This flute had the smoothest transition to the top register of any flute I have every played. But the top three notes above the high C were rather difficult to get out. The Sankyo was very bright and open sounding which surprised me since it had a "heavywall" design that is supposed to create a dark sound. It almost had a brassy sound or an edge to the tone. The layout of the keys on the footjoint was simply perfect (Sankyo does that well) and extremely comfortable under my fingers. The top three high notes spoke the easiest of all the flutes. It was also very heavy and made my hands tired after awhile. The Powell spoke easily, had an open sound but no edge. The quiet tone in the low register was fantastic. The sound was quite consistent from the low to the high range. All of these flutes were a delight to play and would have been good choices but you can see that there was still quite a bit of difference between them.

Some links to get you started in your research.
Head Joints-Minor Music and Flutemonkey-Headjoint
Some info on head joints. Just buying a new headjoint instead of a whole flute is sometimes a good choice.
Parts of the Flute-on the Larry Krantz site
Many flute players pick up these terms but if you haven't (since we don't need to know all these words to play after all) this chart may help when reading descriptions of flutes. The Larry Krantz site has a great deal of useful flute information and is well worth exploring for its own sake.
Articles About Flute Construction and more-Miyazawa site
There are many different articles about the terms used by flute sellers, different key options and so on here. Keep in mind this IS the Miyazawa site so they talk up their own flutes in these articles.
Modern Flute Scales-short intro
This is a post in the Powell blog so again, they talk up their own flutes.
"Best" Flutes
This is a very short (5) list of well liked flute brands. Even these brands have their detractors so don't let this limit you.
Gold or Silver-Jennifer Cluff
The debate over gold or silver flutes is long and heated. This post has links to several articles on this issue AND a sensible summary. The Cluff site can be difficult to navigate but has lots of good information.

Links from earlier in this post:
Buying Flutes for Students
This is written for parents of younger players, but there is plenty of good info about shopping for flutes.
Judi's Woodwind Shop
Repairs and good flutes in the Kansas/Missouri area.
Flute Center of New York
Good flute selection and long distance trial policy.
NFA-The National Flute Association
Not directly related to buying flutes but of possible interest.
Flute World
For pricing of new and used flutes, descriptions of flutes, flute music, basically all things flute.
There are other good companies that sell flutes. Here are a couple that are highly spoken of although I have no personal experience with them.
Carolyn Nussbaum Music Company and J L Smith Wind Specialists

The goal is to learn enough that you can have only good flutes sent to you and increase the odds that you will find a flute that you love, that makes you sound your best and that you can't wait to play. Good luck!

July 13, 2013

With the Music

Moving while playing is a bit of a thorny issue. Many musicians have a tendency to move while we play. Part of the brain that processes music also controls physical movement so this is not at all surprising. The trouble occurs when the movement becomes distracting to the audience.
Now in Classical training, teachers are more likely to be strict about not turning your body into a metronome or standing on your toes when you’re playing high notes (though it is fun to hit those high notes on your toes, let me tell you!). But in folk music, tapping the foot is almost part of the music. There’s a big difference of opinion about whether or not keeping the beat with your body is acceptable. Folk music tends to have a strong steady beat that people can clap along with. Classical music may have a regular beat but it also may use complex rhythms that show off the performers ability to play against the beat. With this in mind, the different opinions about moving while playing makes a fair amount of sense. When musicians are playing against the beat, it is more impressive if they don’t show where the beat is with their foot or by swaying. When the audience is supposed to feel the beat as part of the music, showing that beat adds to the music.
I was never happy with the idea of holding rock still while playing. My teachers, thankfully, didn’t want to turn me into a statue but they did want me not to keep time in an obvious way. So I learned to be aware of when I was moving to the music and to make conscious decisions about how I was moving.
The more I play for live audiences, the more I’ve learned that “dancing” to the music adds to the show. And knowing when I’m moving is vital and lets me make sure it works with the music. I do tap my foot for some songs to make a point about how the piece is speeding up or slowing down or to add to the piece in some way (bells tied to an ankle are a standard trick to create your own percussion line). For other songs, I walk and move all over the stage to show some of how I am feeling the music, not to keep tempo. And for some songs, I hold still and let the music speak for itself. But I try to be aware of each and every choice I make.