Is your flute holding you back but you can’t afford a high end flute? A new headjoint is an option to consider.
New flutes are expensive. Any parent of a beginning band student can tell you about sticker shock. Shelling out seven or eight hundred dollars for an instrument your child can’t even play and might not stick with is an act of love. If it does stick, invariably the student will want to upgrade some time during the high school years. Now the price is well into four digits. If your parents ever helped you finance a flute, go and thank them.
Many of the adult flutists that I play with own intermediate flutes and are happy and content. For the most part these are well designed, quality instruments often manufactured by the same companies that make high end handmade models. But some players start to feel the limits of their intermediate flute and wish they could upgrade.
Professional caliber flutes command a hefty price tag, sometimes five figures. If you truly are a professional, and can justify the cost as a business expense, then a new flute makes sense. For us amateurs with limited disposable income, it’s an extravagance.
Buying a new headjoint is an excellent compromise. The headjoint is largely responsible for the tone, color and response of the flute, yet it represents a fraction of the flute’s silver content and there are no moving parts. Upgrading will result in a much better flute at a price that many of us can afford. And it doesn’t close the door on buying a new flute in the future. Most high end flute makers would be happy to sell you a flute body down the road to go with an existing headjoint.
The primary difference between an intermediate and a professional flute is that an intermediate flute is machine made whereas a professional flute is handmade. A handmade flute can be built to a very high standard with great attention to detail. Personal craftsmanship allows for subtle variations in the size, shape and cut of the embouchure hole. The thickness of the wall and the type of metal used can also add to the customization of a high end instrument.
Most high end flute makers offer several styles of embouchure cuts. These cuts will vary from one manufacturer to the next, but are all a variation on several factors. The shape of the hole can vary from almost rectangular with rounded corners to a neat oval. Embouchure cuts vary in size as well as shape, some options being noticeably smaller than the cut of your intermediate flute. Additionally, the angle of the cut can vary. The embouchure hole on a machine made flute will always be straight in, but handmade flutes often have angled cuts. This is referred to as an undercut or an overcut.
Many manufacturers will have descriptions of the various cuts on their websites. They use adjectives like bright or dark to describe the tone. The cut will be resistant or free. The sound is appropriate for orchestral playing or for chamber music. These descriptions conger up very nice images, and may give you an idea of where to start, but don’t get too hung up on the labels. Keep an open mind and try every option that is available to you. You might be surprised where it takes you.
For purely aesthetic reasons, you may want to consider a little bling. A gold lip plate will not affect your sound, but it will make your flute stand out. I’m always intrigued when I see someone playing with that extra golden sparkle. It makes me wonder what kind of flute they play. Another option is engraving on the lip plate. A little filigree is an elegant touch. Both of these options will add to the cost, but if you can afford it, buy what makes you happy.
Wall thickness is another choice you have from high end flute makers. Standard wall thickness is .016”. Some manufacturers offer the option of thinner or thicker walls, generally .014” and .018” respectively. Thin walls are associated with a brighter, more responsive tone whereas thick walls are said to be darker and less responsive. However, every flute is different as is every flute player. If you have the opportunity to try out a flute with a non-standard thickness, then you should judge it on its own merits. Keep in mind that a non standard sized joint (or even a standard size) may not fit your flute perfectly. That’s generally not a problem when trying them out as the difference is two thousandths of an inch. However, if you purchase a headjoint that is not a perfect fit, you’ll want to take it to a qualified repair person to have it properly fitted.
Fine flutes are available in a variety of precious metals, but for most of us, sterling silver is the only affordable option. Solid silver headjoints produce a beautiful sound and are the standard for most professionals and virtually all amateurs. The world’s most elite performers often play gold flutes which are said to give a warmer, richer sound. Whether that’s due to the metal content of their flutes, or the great talent of these performers is difficult to say. Most high end flute makers will make platinum flutes upon request. Platinum flutes are not common in part because platinum is very dense and adds to the weight of the flute. It’s also said to produce a tone that is not as warm as gold or silver. If you get the chance to test out a gold headjoint, take advantage of the opportunity. But don’t get too attached. As of this writing the price of gold is 45 times that of silver.
The first thing you should do when starting your search for a new headjoint is to service the flute body that you’re going to use it on. If your flute is in marginal repair, then no headjoint in the world is going to sound good on it. You might just find that servicing your flute improves your sound so much that you no longer need to upgrade. At the very least it will make the selection process more enjoyable.
Once you’re ready to start shopping, you’ll need to find a dealer in your area. Professional caliber flutes are not something you’re likely to find at your local music store, but they may be able to direct you to a dealer. If you know any flute players who have purchased a high end flute recently, they may be able to point you in the right direction as well. If all else fails, look on the web sites of some high end flute makers. Many will have a page that shows dealers in your area.
Contact a nearby dealer and arrange to come in to try out their stock. Make sure they have a number of headjoints available to try out. Bring along an experienced flute player to help you with the testing process. Your flute teacher would be ideal, but another experienced player would work as well. Be sure to bring a variety of music and exercises along to the trial.
If there are no dealers in your area, and travel is not an option, many dealers are willing to ship instruments to prospective buyers for a trial period. If that’s the case, you may only be able to test one or two headjoints at a time, and the shipping process is costly and tedious. But in the end, if you try out enough headjoints and test them well, you should be able to find the right fit for you.
The testing process should start after you are thoroughly warmed up. Start by playing a piece that is familiar and comfortable. Feel how the flute responds. Do you like the tone? Is it easy to play? If you like what you hear, try pushing the limits. You’ll want to test the extremes of register, articulation and dynamics. Try some interval exercises as well. Expect to spend at least 15 minutes on each headjoint you’re testing.
If you find one or two candidates that you really like, arrange with the dealer to take them home on trial. Play them as much as you can during this trial period in all of your usual playing situations. Quality time spend with a new headjoint will tell you if it is the right choice for you. If you’re not perfectly happy, then contact your dealer and ask if they can provide you with a new batch to try.
Once you choose and purchase a new headjoint, be sure to take it to a qualified technician to check and adjust the fit if necessary.
Enjoy getting to know your new flute!
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