Is It My Imagination?

Is It My Imagination?

Over the many years I have played Irish music, I have experimented with many techniques and instrument configurations on flute. This activity has often been influenced by a hand condition I suffer that limits my sense of touch. As you can imagine, this complicates effectively sealing the holes. The problem is, every day I play, the response seems to change. I sometimes wonder if a perceived improvement resulting from some experiment is just my imagination, as the supposed improvement is not always consistent. Now we come to the heart this post: I find, on two 19th century flutes I own, they both project better and a bit louder if the low C# and C keys are removed. My notion is that the keys, when open, still inhibit the flow of air and sound. Have at it, fluters! All in my head or can you confirm?

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Re: Is It My Imagination?

You’ll see quite a few flutes with the c/C# keywork removed. So it may still be your imagination, but the idea might be shared.

I think that the physics and science behind the 19C conical bore wooden flute is so fine that everything is balances and compromises and the player was always expected to add the magic ingredient to balance out weak notes, lip up or down or push notes and balance the octaves by coercing the instrument into submission.

The imperfections or peculiarities in tone, tuning etc. add to the analog colour and character of the instrument and the tunes. Better than them on/off equal temperament equi-powered Boehm jobs isn’t it 🙂

If it was easy, they’d all be at it.

Re: Is It My Imagination?

I’m no expert but here’s a thought. How different do the upper notes above D sound when your C# and C keys are closed? That would be the maximum impact on volume or tone if there was any.

I only have this one keyed flute, an 8-key Aebi. In my practice session today I tried that, closing the two bottom keys and trying to hear if there was any significant impact on tone or volume with the upper notes. I did hear just a subtle difference in the E and F# notes, but I doubt anyone but me could hear it, and there was no change in volume. No difference at all in the sound of notes above there.

Every flute is different so I don’t know how much you could take from that, but it doesn’t seem to me that my partially closed C# and C holes are making any major impact on my tone and volume, or that it would be better if there were no pewter key cups hovering over the opening.

Re: Is It My Imagination?

Yes, it is all in your head Ailin. However if it makes you feel better you can always remove your C# and C keys and put them aside. You can always go full Tansey mode and plane off the wooden key blocks too.

Jesting aside, I doubt that having the C# and C keys in place has any detrimental affect as regards sound or projection. I play 19th century eight key Rudall flutes and they sound fine to me. Catherine McEvoy usually plays her Rudall & Rose and it sounds just fine, as does Patsy Moloney’s patent head Rudall & Rose, and Cathal McConnell’s Rudall & Rose with all keys in place. Just three examples.

Re: Is It My Imagination?

I have read that the scale of Boehm flutes with perforated keys have to be adjusted to compensate for the sharpening effect of such keys. It follows that there’s a flattening effect of "plateau" (unperforated) keys, which makes sense, there being an object the same size as the tone-hole only a few mm above it.

Thing is, the original maker would have that compensation built in to the design, so that by removing a key the note that emits from that hole ought to be a bit too sharp. It’s probably a very small difference, and if Bottom D on an old flute tends to flatness so much the better.

Re: Is It My Imagination?

Obviously a bagpipe is not a flute, but I can definitely confirm that the finger height above the chanter absolutely affects the intonation. It’s more pronounced on some notes than others but the effect is very real.

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Re: Is It My Imagination?

Two points worth noting: the simple system flute is a study in compromises, since the system of tone holes must yield to the limited reach of the fingers. Adding C# and C was a new innovation in the 19th century and the need for keys complicated the need for compromise. These keys are the only ones that are open-standing and, although their blocking of air could be tempered, the lack of venting may have been more than could be completely compensated for. The second point is that sound on a flute comes out every available orifice. Thus, the more holes covered, the weaker the sound. This is more dramatic on a conical bore than a cylindrical one. I have found surprisingly small modifications can have surprisingly significant consequences. Thus, I’m thinking (though still not convinced) that improved venting can result in a stronger and cleaner tone, especially for low F#, E and D. I’m hoping someone who has actually experimented with this will respond (Casey Burns, Terry M, Dunnp?)

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Re: Is It My Imagination?

I used to play two original 19th century flutes, both had those two low openstanding keys.

Unlike the keys on Boehm flutes, which when they’re open are pretty low and fairly parallel, these openstanding keys stayed at an angle and higher so they didn’t obstruct the holes as much.

Anyhow I did take them off and play the flute, easy enough to do with those old block-mounted flutes. I didn’t hear a difference. But who is to say, every flute is different. Anybody with an 8-key flute can try it and hear how their particular flute behaves.

And as we know many of those old flutes have flattish Bottom Ds that need all they help they can get.

Re: Is It My Imagination?

Thanks, Richard. That’s what I’m looking for. May I ask why you removed the keys?

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Re: Is It My Imagination?

I took the C and C# keys off my restored 1857 Metzler, mostly to just reduce the weight at that long moment arm.

Re: Is It My Imagination?

Michael,
No affect otherwise? The weight seems insignificant.

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Re: Is It My Imagination?

The weight out on that lever arm is not insignificant…

Re: Is It My Imagination?

Wow. Is your headjoint lined?

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Re: Is It My Imagination?

I usually find that the bottom D plays better without the lower C# and C pads looming over the holes. It does vary from flute to flute - I haven’t done any investigations, but I suspect the dampening of the lower D is greater when the two lowest holes are padded, rather than being pewter plugs. That would seem reasonable to assume for (at least) three reasons:
- pads (and their cups) have to extend considerably beyond the diameter of the holes, so increasing the overshadowing effect,
- pads are (relative to pewter) soft and absorbent, probably absorbing some acoustic energy
- pewter plugs are a bit streamlined, to the vibrating airstream, pads are "in your face".

I think differences would also be more dramatic in those flutes where the low D is distinctly flat compared to the middle D played with the xxx xxx fingering. Such flutes are losing out on resonance because the harmonics are not lining up. If removing the bottom key plates reduces that misalignment, we can expect a better low D resonance.

I also wonder (but again haven’t investigated) if playing style might change our perceptions of this issue. Some people play the flute non-aggressively, expecting the flute to rise to meet them. They look for and enjoy a flute that performs well naturally. Others drive the flute hard to extract every last decibel. This latter group often talk of the "back pressure" they sense from the lowest notes, although we know the flute is a flow-driven rather than pressure-driven instrument (like say the oboe). I’m guessing (nothing more) that this latter group is less likely to perceive the losses introduced by overhanging pads than the former group.

Finally, I wonder at the potentially differing perceptions of player and audient. We are closer to the flute, and perhaps in a better position to hear small changes than a member of the audience.

As usual, it’s hard to get past remembering how much we still don’t know about our favourite instrument!