The Vertical Flute Headjoint
Written by Maarten Visser   

vertical-1My specialisation in adaptive instruments for players with disabilities led to the development of the Swan Neck flute head back in the 1990s. This proved to be a relief for many players with shoulder and back problems.

However, not everybody could handle this type of flute. In 2003, a young lady named Marjan came to see me in my workshop in Amsterdam. She had been in a car accident and she was horrified by the idea she would never play the flute again. We tried the swan neck flute, but she was unable to lift her right hand high enough.

Then Marjan asked my if we could try out a flute that would play completely vertical as a recorder. I told her it would be quite impossible to manufacture, but I did make on the spot a simple plywood dummy head that we could test. Marjan was exhilarated, and she begged me to make one in silver for her.

Although I had my doubt about the feasability of the project, I obliged. Making this headjoint was every bit as difficult as I imagined.

vertical-2 After a lot of drawing and calculating I arrived at the design as illustrated.

Right next to the embouchure I made a tenon that allowed the player to adjust the embouchure angle. And immediately after that was a very tight bend, which was made with two half toroidal shells joined with silver solder. Having the 0.4 mm (1.6 thou/inch) walls meet exactly was the most difficult solder joint I had ever made.

After joining all the pieces, I had my first surprise: this did not sound as bad as i had imagined, although not really very good. Also the tuning was acceptable, after pulling out the head by half an inch. I presented the result to Marjan. She was delighted, and has played this headjoint ever since.

Since then the vertical flute headjoint has become a regular product. It is mostly being used by people with some serious movement restriction in the arm or shoulders.

vertical-3The ergonomics of this design is as not as simple as it looks.

When you pick it up, the first thing you notice is the absence of the usual control location at the base of the left index finger. If you press the side of the flute like on an ordinary flute, you have to contort the left wrist to an unpleasant position - and would just serve to push the flute sideways. So the left hand hovers freely in the air.

Lower down, the right thumb finds its function has altered as now it has to control most of the weight of the flute, assisted with a thumb rest. To lessen the weight on the thumb and at the same time redefine the function of the left hand I added a left hand support to the flute. This device clamps onto the flute body and transmits some of the weight to the left hand. 

vertical-4The weight on the right thumb can be something of a problem.

For this I made a simple contraption: A plastic-covered metal tee that can be affixed to a music stand. This converts an ordinary music stand into a vertical flute support. The flute is only held up loosely, so it allows the player a lot of freedom of movement.

For those who play sitting, a leg support can be made.

The biggest concern players have when they are considering a vertical headjoint, is "how will I sound?" Some people expressed fear that such strong bending of the headjoint, with its sensitive taper, might impede the air flow inside the tube.

The thing to remember here is that it is not air travelling down the tube, but pressure waves. And these pressure waves obey Pascal's principle that pressure goes equally in all directions. But these waves do have a tendency to cut corners short and makers have to compensate for that in bore length and conicity. Consequently, the vertical headjoints have a taper that is longer all over, and have a reduced taper in the bends. (So for all the people who ask me to rebuild their headjoint into a vertical: sorry, no can do.)

vertical-5The curved appearance of the old vertical headjoints has made way for the current angular design which allows for more precise manufacturing. The vertical headjoint has come a long way since Marjan, and sounds and tunes very good.

There are two more acoustical phenomena that need mentioning: first, there is a slight improvement in the lowest tones. The reason is that sound originates at the embouchure. When pressure outside the tube goes up, the pressure inside goes down and vice versa. The waves inside and outside the flute tube are in opposite phase, and where they meet there is a cancellation effect. The bend changes the outside distance of the standing wave, but the inside acoutical length remains the same. This reduces the phase difference and thus the cancellation effect.

A second effect needs our attention: a classical flute is, to some extent, mono, while the vertical flute is stereo. As most of the sound originates at the embouchure hole, this is only partially so, but nonetheless, one has to get used to it.

Going back to the question of "how will I sound?" , the tone quality is, as we are used to, mostly influenced by player and embouchure cut. Overall, the vertical headjoints sound good, but have more resistance in the third octave.

vertical-6One needs to realise that the new way of holding does have an effect on tone formation. In the straight flute, the left hand provides counter-pressure to the embouchure. That is lost, so players will have to contend with a light lip pressure.

Also turning the flute in and out becomes very difficult. To adapt to different playing habits, the lip-plate part of the tube can be turned as on an ordinary flute.

It must be said that playing with open holes is possible, but it will require more getting used to.

Use of low B will require an adaptation of the B key.

After all is said and done, the vertical flute offers players with serious physical restrictions a way to play with full musical possibilities where otherwise they may have had to give up playing the flute altogether.


All photos copyright Maarten Visser

All photos by Maarten Visser, except image 7, which is by Jeroen Scheelings.

Maarten VisserMaarten Visser (Amsterdam, 1959) graduated in 1983 from Newark Technical College in Woodwind making and repairing.