Observations from the Head Hunter: What is best for you?
There has been a lot of buzz in the flute world recently in response to Paul Edmund-Davies' post on the Just Flutes blog "In My Opinion"(www.justflutes.com). You can follow this scintillating thread yourself, but one of the most interesting and important themes that emerge from this is that ultimately each player brings to the table such a unique combination of attributes that there is not one flute or head joint that will respond the same for all players. This seems obvious, and following this line of reasoning it should follow that we, as sensible and well educated players, would search for the instrument that best fits our characteristics and style of playing without regard to the influence of image and market trends.
That is, however, not consistent with my observations. I come into contact with flutists from all over the world, professional and amateur alike, while touring to give my presentation "Head Hunting: How to choose the best head joint for your flute". From the U.S. to Germany, the Netherlands to Slovenia, I encounter players, both professional and amateur alike, who are more influenced either by what instrument another flutist plays or by guidance from a well-meaning teacher, than by their own ears. I have at times witnessed a wonderfully accomplished player questioning his/her own abilities because the 'recommended' flute or head joint did not work well for him/her. I have also witnessed players who are uninterested in trying anything other than what someone has recommended because they are certain that is what they should have. Both reactions are severely limiting.
I speak about many aspects of searching for a new head joint, but if I could pick the most significant point – the one that will have the greatest effect – it would be to trust your own judgment and your own ears. Yes, there are many other details that will help you in the process. Yes, great advice from an experienced, impartial advisor is priceless. Yes, listening to how others sound on various instruments can give you a place to start. And yes, listening to the advice of your teacher is usually a good idea.
However – and I speak to players and teachers (who I assume are also players) alike – it is imperative that we keep in mind that finding the right head joint is like fitting together the pieces of a triangle. The head joint, the flute body and the player all work together to produce a unique result. Any one of these pieces, when changed, produces a unique result.
Let us consider each of these pieces separately and it will soon become apparent why trial (and error) is such a large part of the process when searching for a new head joint.
The player is perhaps the most variable part of the triangle. The variable physical characteristics between players that affect the quantity, shape, and quality of the air stream include the shape, surface and control of lips; shape and size of mouth; tongue size, placement and use; the resonating bodies within the head and nasal cavities; the general overall air speed/intensity of the player; and the angle of approach to the embouchure plate and riser. Add to this the expectations of the player due to geographical and cultural influences and personal aesthetics. You can see already how complicated this can get.
The flute body also has its own set of characteristics including, but not limited to, the scale to which it is built (the size and location of the tone holes), drawn or soldered tone holes, thickness and material of tubing, quality and weight of the mechanism, height of each of the keys from the tone hole, and the type of pad used on the keys.
And finally the head joint - the most acoustically active piece which is at the source of the vibration that initiates the unique sound of the flute via the air stream. The quality and cut of the head joint determines subtleties of both sound and playing characteristics. It determines the flute's responsiveness and flexibility and strongly influences the mix of harmonics in the sound as well as the overall tuning of the flute. There are a number of reasons for the varying characteristics between head joints. In addition to the varying tapers of the tube which affect the tuning of the flute, there are varying embouchure hole sizes, angles and depths, also referred to as the 'cut' of the head joint. Additionally, any part of the head joint can be made of a different material such as wood, silver, gold or platinum, each imparting its own special characteristic. Certain makers have identifying sets of these characteristics that give their head joints a particular overall character, although each and every head joint is still unique.
While the potential for an infinite variety of combination of these factors exists within the head joint alone, when combined with the variables of the flute body and the player, it can easily be understood why there is no replacement for trying and listening. There is no formula that can determine how these variables will interact. It is entirely possible that one combination that is undoubtedly perfect for one person can be utterly useless for another – even if the head joint and body are of the highest quality.
My straightforward advice to teachers who influence students and to players influenced by teachers and other players (I think that covers all of us), is to allow for the possibility that what you thought would work, may not work for you or your student. Understand that it is not a fault within you or with your playing, or within your student as it may be. There is no other time in flute history where we have been so fortunate to have so many excellent choices of head joints available. There is no reason to limit the possibilities. Try as many head joints as you can and listen for what works the best for you. As always, it comes down to our trained musical ears and sensibilities.