Minor Music
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Flutes and Headjoints
Categories: Woodwinds

The flute is one of a few instruments that has been found in almost every culture since the beginning of time. For centuries, the instrument has been evolving, and manufacturers are still coming up with ways to achieve even more sophisticated qualities of sound.

Of course a serious player needs to start with a quality flute. But if you’re looking to explore the instrument’s complexities, you may want to consider adding a new headjoint. Keith Anderson is the headjoint maker for Burkart Flutes. In an article originally published on the Burkart site, he offers these tips when considering a new headjoint:

Embouchure hole size and shape
The size and shape of an embouchure hole lends itself toward certain distinctions:
A large hole has a big sound.
A small hole has a sweet sound.
An oval shape tends to be fluid and perform well in the upper octaves.
A rectangular shape tends to be strong in the mid and lower registers.

Blowing Edge
The angle of the blowing edge affects how much you have to roll the headjoint in or out to find the “sweet spot” with the best focus and tone.
The blowing edge angle also impacts how much resistance is given to the air stream and the overall quality of articulations.

Materials
The main reasons why different metals produce different sounds are density and stiffness.  Both density and stiffness are inherent properties of the material. Stiffness can be affected by how that material is alloyed and heat treated.  Higher density tends to favor the lower harmonics; lower density, the opposite. In practical terms, a denser metal would have more resistant qualities than a less dense metal but the sound also has potential to carry farther and possess more complexity.  Higher stiffness tends to favor higher harmonics; lower stiffness, the opposite.

RISERS & LIP PLATE
A gold riser on any kind of silver head will add color and nuance by using a denser metal for the most critical part of the whole flute, directly where the sound originates.  Gold is perceived by many to “darken” the sound and add a profound color palate at an economical price.
The gold embouchure is a gold lip plate in addition to a gold riser resulting in subtle additional benefits over a gold riser alone.  It supplies gold at the exact tip of the blowing edge. The weight adds substance to the sound and the aesthetic is admirable.
The platinum riser is the densest material.  The projection and color added are both striking and beneficial and can be appreciated by orchestral player, soloist, and chamber musician alike.  Platinum is widely known for its free-blowing fortes, but its subtlety of color and ability to facilitate upper octave pianissimos is also unparalleled.

TUBES
.016 Sterling silver is the standard material for professional flutes.  Containing 92.5% silver, the sound produced is one of classic brilliance.  Thin wall .014 silver tubes offer a delicate shimmer and the least amount of resistance in sound production.  The thick wall .018 tubes offer a darker more resistant sound that carries well in the concert hall.
5-95 tubes are 5% platinum and 95% silver. They have a nice mellow color while maintaining good projection.  5-95 or platinum risers are optimal combinations and give a rich, velvety tone with great resonance.
998 alloy is 99.8% silver and achieves a more complex sound than sterling silver with amazing projection capability.  A platinum riser with a 998 tube is a popular combination for soloists, though any of the embouchure enhancement choices are a clear step ahead of their sterling silver counterparts.
10K gold is not quite as resistant as 14K. It has the added color depth of gold while embodying the projection qualities of silver and, therefore, is a great middle ground for a diverse musician.
14K and 19.5K heads achieve a dark “Full-On” gold sound with significant resistance, inspiring color and a luscious heft no matter the cut style.
Platinum headjoints are made with 14K embouchures so that their sound does not become too dark.  This combination enables an unlimited palate of color and flexibility for the performer from delicate pianissimos to the most aggressive fortes.

I first learned of the history behind the Burkart company through a piece I wrote for the New Jersey Flute Society’s newsletter. Local flutists of all ages and abilities should consider joining The New Jersey Flute Society (and others like it). These organizations provide an encouraging environment for students, amateurs, and professionals. They’ll keep you informed of local concerts, masterclasses and trade events.

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