Flute tone exploration project

Yesterday I began a project with flute player and composer Amble Skuse to explore flute tone. As part of the project, we’ll be recording and blogging about our thoughts and experiences. This is the first of a number of entries about the journey and Amble is also blogging about it.

Amble comes from the Boehm flute tradition, but also plays wooden flute and tin whistle. A particular interest of this project is how to arrive at the dark, reedy sound beloved of traditional flute players and how this differs from the more open and bright sound associated with classical music. As well as looking at wooden flutes, we’ll be exploring different headjoints for her Yamaha Boehm. She brought along a grenaditte headjiont, grenaditte being a form of plastic designed to have similar properties to wood.

As often in these situations, it’s an exchange of ideas, a dialogue or discussion. I have always been interested in tone, almost above everything else. I am self-taught, play with an assymetrical embouchure left-handed on a right-handed simple system flute, so I have questions of my own. By better understanding my own approach I can better communicate that to others.

For many years I believed that only one sound was possible on a Boehm flute, that associated with classical music. This is largely because my experience of that flute has been almost exclusively been through players from that tradition. However, it was hearing Joannie Madden on the radio that convinced me otherwise as I had no idea she was playing a metal Boehm system flute.

So on a rainy Saturday afternoon we tried various combinations of flutes and piccolos, including those by Yamaha, Wilkes, Olwell, Rudall and Rose, Cotter, Thibouville-Lamy and Camac. We broke for tea and whistle duets on Burke whistles.

Some things I noticed from our first session.

  • When I pick up a flute to play I need to securely locate the bottom D and find as much room as I can with it. For me this is the touchstone of the flute and seems to inform everything else.
  • I need to stretch out in that space to know its limits and I do this by giving as much energy to that note as I can, overblowing without forcing it into the next octave. That point where the octave breaks is in interesting one, full of hidden harmonics. It’s like a house with a hidden room.
  • How easy is it to locate that area and then remain there are key to both the flute and my relationship with it.
  • That area is where some of the ‘dirty’ or ‘dark’ sounds come from. I need to explore that idea bit more. It may be that ‘dark’ comes before ‘dirty’. Dark and dirty are terms used to describe the accenting of lower harmonics as opposed to upper harmonics in a sound.
  • Space and room are terms I find useful in thinking about the tone. I tried a headjoint by Chris Wilkes once that I felt provided more headspace by raising the ceiling. It allowed me to become more expansive and flexible in tone and volume without compromising my core tone.
  • We may all have our own ways of visualising our own sounds. Amble thinks in terms of shape — smooth roundedness and edgy corners.
  • Square embouchure designs on flutes appear to promote the open, brighter tone. The more closed, darker tone appears to be associated with elliptical designs. This is supported by what Abell flutes (and others) say about their designs. The square embouchure design is the default one on Boehm system flutes and I believe this not only makes the sound easier to obtain, but is helpful with volume.
  • The Rockstro position is helpful, but it then depends on what you do with your shoulders and arms.

More questions arise, but I’ll leave it there just now. Amble’s blog has sound clips, more discussion and observation and some photos. We’ll add more as the project progresses.

Photo of Amble Skuse  and flutes by Gordon Turnbull.

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