From Simple System to Modern Flute

by David Brown

For the Boehm Flute Player (or those interested in the modern flute)

There are a wide variety of flutes. Some flutes are wooden simple system instruments, some keyless, some with anywhere from one to 8 or more keys. Depending on the exact model they are designed to play Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, folk, and particularly popular these days, Irish music. Sizes vary greatly, from high-pitched D fifes to deep, low C flutes requiring a great fingerspread. The special tone and feeling of a wooden flute is unique, and makes one understand the continued use of these instruments by many players in varied genres.

However, for some musical situations, the Boehm model flute, most commonly seen made of metal and ubiquitous in bands and orchestras, may be just the thing, particularly if you need to play in a variety of keys. Or you may already play several types of flute, including the Boehm system kind, but would like to know more about this common but not completely known instrument.

First, although considered "modern", the Boehm flute was introduced in an early form in 1832 with a conical bore and presented in a revised version with a cylindrical bore in 1847- in fact the 1847 model is virtually the same flute still played today in orchestras and bands almost exclusively. Only very minor alterations in Boehm's flute mechanism have become standard in the century and a half since its invention, the two most common being the closed G# key and the Briccialdi Bb key, and even these were both available before 1850. Boehm flutes have been made in metal, wood, or combinations such as a wooden headjoint and metal body, but today the all-metal construction is most common. Some flutes are made of precious metals such as silver, gold and even platinum. In all its essentials the Boehm flute was "finished" by the middle 19th century.

Thus the attitude of the metal flute not being a "folk" instrument is suspect- the Boehm flute is older than the piano accordion, and roughly the same age as the concertina and melodeon, which are considered traditional folk instruments. It's older than the tenor banjo, the steel guitar, the ukulele, the autoharp, the taragoto, and other "folk" instruments...including the steel string acoustic guitar. Nor is the complexity of its mechanism reason to disqualify the Boehm flute from folk instument status, as others bearing this qualification such as the accordion/concertina/melodeon family, the Uillean pipes, the hurdy-gurdy

Of course in the case of Irish traditional flute playing, the runaway preference if not absolute necessity is for a simple system large tonehole large bore instrument. At this point a few comments about the one area of music in which the modern Boehm flute is pretty useless are appropriate.

Indeed, the flutes made today called "Irish" are a relatively recent innovation, perfectly adapted to the needs of the player and the music. In one way of looking at things, the Irish flute, based on early 1800's English Classical large-hole flutes but further adapted to pennywhistle-style fingering with little or no use of the keys (most modern Irish flutes are keyless) is a far more recent instrument than the Boehm flute. Here I quote comments made about the post-1960's folk revival and the stimulus to modern makers to produce a flute for Irish music from "The Irish Flute Player's Handbook" by S.C. Hamilton, 1990:

"..the makers of "Irish" flutes soon grew away from the 'exact reproduction" school ....and concentrated on trying to make instruments that worked even if they varied quite radically from the original instrument."

Hamilton further defines these Irish flutes as basically copies of good 19th century flutes, but keyless, large hole, and pitched accurately at modern standard. He goes into more detail about the change in fingering from the keyed models to a more suitable one for Irish traditional music:

"Major problems are caused by the fact that it is not feasible for the traditional player to use the original fingerings for which the old flutes were designed. For a start, these fingerings used the keys, and if a keyless copy is made then this alternative is obviously eliminated. Even if you have a keyed flute, the fingerings are too complex to use in fast paced Irish dance music."

Irish flute ornamentation is very different from the 19th century Classical flute style in that little or no tongue articulations are used, but rather a bagpiper-style system of finger rolls, cuts, slides and other graces are employed to bring out the dance rhythms in each tune. Unfortunately, these ornaments are almost impossible to do convincingly on a Boehm system keywork mechanism.

Fortunately, the modern Irish style flutemaker does not need to worry about certain musical needs the 19th century flutemakers worked long and hard to supply on their flutes. The typical Irish flute player does not play in all 12 keys, usually only in D, G, A, E minor, A minor, B minor, etc. and does not play into the 3rd octave, so there is no need to compromise so that all 3 registers play tolerably well, if only the lower 2 are used. Finally, dynamics, the loud and soft contrasts, are not employed by Irish traditional musicians, and the wider dynamic range of the Boehm flute is of no benefit. There are now a wide variety of Irish flutes available to the traditional musician.

Now that I've talked you, the reader, out of even considering a Boehm flute for Irish music, let me tell you a bit about my interest in the flute. I had a student Boehm flute years ago, but never spend lots of time playing it, beyond learning the basic embouchure and lower octave fingerings. I also had a few odd bamboo flutes which I fooled around on. After all, I was primarily a string player, and still learning my skills on those vastly different instrument.

Some years later I developed an interest in Klezmer music and found that the pictures of the old Eastern European bands showed flute players with old simple system keyed flutes. I found out later this was because the Yiddish musicians were part of the German tradition in that they retained the wooden flutes long after the English, French and Italians had switched to the Boehm flute. (Odd that Boehm, a German, had his work accepted faster in the other countries than his own.) Well, I wanted to play one, so I bought one from Lark about 1983 or so.

It was fun- it had a unique tonal color and felt somehow more direct than my metal flute. As the years passed I also developed an interest in Cuban music and found out that many, if not all, of the older flute players such as Jose Fajardo and Johnny Pacheco used simple system keyed flutes (from the French orchestral tradition introduced to Cuba via Haiti) for their high-register musical gymnastics. Well, I began to learn that style too, and found out how difficult is to play in the highest octave...not to mention playing in tune across the whole compass of the flute or the triple-tongueing used in fast passages.

After many years of playing I even sold my Boehm flute, and devoted myself to the wooden flute. I still was a string player, but more and more I was doubling on flute, and found myself collecting information about the flute and its playing, paying particular attention to anything pertaining to the simple system flute. I found that there were many alternate fingerings on the keyed wooden flutes, and found myself trying to sort out which ones were best suited to my flute and to what musical applications they were best used. I found myself more agile, but still short of my musical goal of sounding like Fajardo.

Then I aquired another Boehm flute and began to play it a bit, at first just for variety and later for an honest comparison. In a way, I felt myself paralleling the 19th century flautist, comfortable with the old system flute but curious about the advantages, if any, of the new flute. Initially I was put off by the feel of the keywork, as I had grown comfortable with the direct feel of the open wooden holes, but the evenness of the tone of the Boehm flute was pleasing, even if it was a somewhat different tonal color than the wooden conical bore flute. Fortunately the tonal differences were less pronounced at the upper end of the flute's register, were my attention was focused. I even read Boehm's own book on the development and playing of the "new" cylinder flute, and was intrigued by his comment that it would take about two weeks for the player of the old system to adapt to his mechanism and altered fingerings. I also was impressed by his rational approach to solving the musical and mechanical problems in redesigning the flute.

I decided to take two weeks and try it out. I was motivated by a few factors....I'd seen videos of recent Cuban musicians and the flute players under 50 or so were ALL playing metal Boehm flutes (Nestor Torres did use a thinned wooden headjoint). Plus, I had heard a tape of the band I was playing in and was dissatisfied with the intonation of the simple system flute, particularly in the upper register. Plus it was hard to mike well, as it was much louder in the highest range than in the lower ones.

Well, after a few weeks I was convinced. Indeed, the Boehm flute is much more accurately tuned across the 3 registers, and the notes of the 3rd octave are much more solid and consistant. It also made playing in all 12 keys much easier and had greater dynamic range in all registers. I found myself coming to the conclusion that for my purposes I could gain greater technical facility faster with the Boehm flute. Then there was the added attraction of being able to use common flutes, rather than rare antique instruments or expensive modern handmade wooden flutes. In many repects, I could understand the mass switchover to Boehm flutes made by symphony musicans, as the instrument works very well.

In doing my research I discovered a few other things relating to the flute. First, there was one problem area (a minor but evident one!) in most Boehm flutes- the high E is a little harder than the other notes in the same register to hit cleanly. This is because almost all modern Boehm system flutes are made with a closed G# key, not the open one Boehm had intended, affecting the venting of the high E note. Now I have no problem with the closed G# in general, since it’s one of the notes fingered the same as on the simple system flute, but since I play in the high register a lot, I was interested in options to improve that note. The most common solution is a complicated keywork mechanism called a "split E".

Another area of interest of mine has been the ergonomics of playing music. I guess I got into this the hard way, as years of playing solid-body electric instruments, acoustic bass, fiddle, and other body-unfriendly instruments made me aware of the physical demands...and damage... possible from traditional instrument designs.

I had also read a book called “The Musician’s Survival manual” by Richard Norris MD. Norris, a flute player, described in some detail the physical troubles the flute can cause. He also developed a 30 degree angled headjoint that eliminates almost all the tension in the neck and shoulders endemic to flute playing. As it turns out, Emerson is also supplying these angled headjoints, both as an add-on to your old flute or with new ones. They also make 90 degree headjoints for vertical playing and curved ones for young players. For anyone with neck, shoulder, or jaw pain use of an angled headjoint will minimize porblems associated with playing the flute.

By the way, I still like playing the simple system flute, and am glad to have one. I'm also happy to have spent so much time playing the wooden flute as it was great embouchure training. Now though the Boehm flute is my basic gig instrument...and even the keywork is starting to feel natural.
Lark In The Morning
PO Box 1176, Mendocino, CA 95460 USA
(707) 964-5569

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