Govern These Ventages with thy Fingers and Thumb, Give it Breath and it will Discourse Most Elequoent Music.

August 16, 2009 at 1:37 pm (By Theo Boehm) ()

I’ve been very busy the last few weeks preparing for and attending the National Flute Association’s annual convention, this year held in New York.

This is a not-to-be-missed event for serious American flute players and makers. It also attracts a large international following. It may seem strange to have a convention for devotees of a musical instrument, but every year 3,000-odd flutists and flute makers cram themselves into a hotel in some sweltering city in August to hear concerts, go to lectures and workshops, and attend a trade show with every conceivable type of flute and flute-like instrument on display.

I realize this may sound to many, especially to musicians who don’t play the flute, like a particular circle of hell. But flute players have always been highly social creatures, seeking, I think, more than other instrumentalists, both to compete with and to be approved by their peers. It’s been this way for a long time. The first periodical journals devoted to a musical instrument were early 19th century British flute magazines. The flute has been a popular amateur instrument for a long time, so it isn’t surprising that music magazines aimed at this particular audience sprang up in the era of the rise of the middle classes, many members of which now had the leisure to devote to doing things like learning to play the flute or the new piano in the parlour.

The flute makes players insecure because it is, of all the woodwind instruments, the one with the greatest tension built into its very concept. Other woodwinds use mouthpieces and/or reeds that the player interacts with to produce the basic sound. These are ephemeral things that constantly need renewal, and over which players can exert considerable control and personalization. There is also an intimacy to making a sound with something vibrating in your mouth that is different than that experienced with any other musical instrument.

But the flute is oddly extrinsic. The sound is to a very real degree built into the instrument, and the job of the player is to discover it, shape it, and bring it out. Although this is extremely personal, it resembles the interaction of the player with practically every other musical instrument, and not the intensely internal kind of relationship other woodwind players can have with their instruments. The slightest physical problem, especially with the lips or mouth, can make it almost impossible to play the flute, but at the same time, there’s always something out there, just beyond the player’s grasp, that needs the best posible physical control. The tensions inherent in this situation tend to make players insecure. So it’s very common for flutists constantly to be seeking new headjoints (the top part of the flute, where the pedal hits the metal, so to speak), or to be on the lookout for a new instrument.

This is a very good situation for flute makers, but highlights another tension in flute playing: The instruments are expensive.

I’ll get into this in more detail another time with one of my usual musical instrument posts, but the basics of the situation are that the modern, metal flute was invented in 1845 to be made, not of just any metal, but of silver. The techniques used in making it are variants of silversmithing methods, and those alone, combined with the price of the precious metal, tend to produce instruments that are costly. The best flutes are also made to a very high standard of craftsmanship, which has been the tradition of flutemaking since the days of boxwood and ivory flutes in the 17th century. Related is the problem that the post-1845 Boehm flute (named after its inventor, Theobald Boehm) has a very difficult-to-make mechanism, whose complexity and subtlety of interaction with the player are found nowhere else among woodwind instruments.

Here’s a picture of old Theobald, looking very determined, and holding the wooden version of his new toy (developed AFTER the metal one):

A good, professional modern flute will start at about $10,000. There are usually a number of options of precious metals and variants of mechanism that most makers offer, so it is not uncommon for a player to spend $15,000 or more for a fine instrument. The reasons are, of course, the high cost of silver, gold, and platinum (the metals used to make flutes and/or various bits on them), and the fact that a truly well-made instrument can take hundreds of hours of skilled craftsmanship to produce.

There are perfectly good cheaper instruments, but the reality is that it’s necessary to spend at least $3,000 to get a flute made of silver that approaches professional standards. You can get $149.95 flute-shaped objects at Target, usually made in a sweatshop in China out of some dubious nickel alloy, which may or may not be radioactive because of the medical waste in it. But you can depend on these excuses for shipping toxic waste from China to ultimately end up at the bottom of a pile of junk in the basement or forgotten in some closet, long after poor Buffy has given up playing the damned thing. It just was a lot harder to play and so much more out-of-tune than anyone expected, especially the unsuspecting kid on whom it was foisted.

That is not to say that decent instruments are not made in China. But, while they may be cheaper than similar instruments produced elsewhere, for reasons that Chinese goods are always cheaper these days, the fact remains that you get what you pay for, and you are going to have to spend upwards of a minimum of $1,000 to get something functional and which resembles a musical instrument.

So there you have some nice reasons for insecurity: The nature of the instrument, the player’s interaction with it, and the expense.

If those don’t make you want to seek help, I don’t know what would. And what better place to find it than among 3,000 of your best flute-playing friends?

(Cross-posted from A Quiet Evening)


  1. Rod said,

    Theo: I am guessing you are either related to Mr. Theobald Boehm or named after him, or both. He must be at least four generations removed from you. Has he inspired you?

  2. Theo Boehm said,

    Nope, Rod, “Theo Boehm” is a screen name and nothing but a screen name. It DOES correspond to my initials, and “Theobald Boehm” makes some cool anagrams that map to other family names. But otherwise, it’s like the nom de blog “amba,” except I hold my real name closer to my vest than Annie does.

    Actually, I was not inspired so much by the real Theobald Boehm, as impressive a character as he was, as by a pre-WWII picture I saw when I was 10 years old. It was of craftsmen working on bassoons and special one-off clarinets at the Buffet factory in France. “That’s for me,” I said, and, despite a detour through academic music and a few years of playing and teaching the flute, that’s more-or-less where I’ve wound up.

  3. PatHMV said,

    I always wondered where your screen name came from… Interesting.

  4. Rod said,

    It is a strange, yet common combination, the anonymity of a nom de blog and the desire for self expression at the heart of blogging. I don’t get it myself, because I think words are more carefully considered when there is personal accountability. Of course, in some circumstances you cannot get to the truth without offering anonymity.

  5. Donna B. said,

    Though I went thru the phase of learning to play a scale on every wind instrument, I found the flute much more forgiving than the reeded woodwinds. I almost gave up on the clarinet. And I won’t say that the trombone was easy.

    My instrument was the french horn. It’s not the easiest of the horns and that is relative to it being one of the most expressive, IMHO.

    But, I gave new thought to everything when my daughter took violin lessons. Oh, I surely had to control embouchure, but that was nearly as difficult as getting the string to sing for you. I am sure that many violinist will tell you that holding your mouth a certain way is quite important along with the other skills they must learn.

    I do not mean to diss any wind instrument players, but as one, I hold the non-fretted string players in very high regard.

    And I am in awe of those who make any of these instruments. A more intertwined product of skill, artisanship, art, recognition and use of fine materials, and engineering, I cannot imagine.

  6. Ennui said,

    You’re a flute maker? Damn. Yet another occupation I hadn’t considered.

    The question that next comes to my mind – Ian Anderson, net positive or net negative for the flute playing (and making and listening) world?

  7. Maxwell said,

    Theo, I think you just described every professional convention I’ve ever been to. Though especially the ones in August, of course.

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