My flutes and why I hate talking about them.
(This post was inspired by Flutistry Boston’s BIPOC recording project and prompt, “What is your instrument journey?”)
Here's a shocker: I hate talking about my instruments. I know, early musicians are supposed to adore introducing their instruments to audiences, and talking about the unique provenance and story behind them. But usually there isn’t space for these conversations to go beyond the surface details of where and when an instrument was made, the materials, and perhaps some information about its design relative to earlier or later instruments. Both audiences and performers seem to love these specifics, these solid truths that seem to reveal something about the music. But what I find most interesting are the questions that playing the instrument raise, the things that aren’t so easy to answer.
Are there qualities about a flute that make it appropriate for certain repertoire beyond geographical and chronological proximity? How do we determine the most historically accurate instrument for a piece? What compromises do we make, and what would composers and performers contemporary to the repertoire have thought about those choices? What are the threads of continuity between flutes of different eras in various countries? Is there a common thread from early French flutes to the modern French school of playing (which I was trained in)? What can a flute reveal about a piece that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise? How does each flute inspire me based on its tone, range of tone colors, response of articulation, quality of different registers, quality of legato, etc.? These are just some of the questions I like to think about. I have many more questions than answers.
I came to the baroque flute my senior year in high school, when I was starting to burn out and watching my friends burning out as well. I had had enough of the pressure and competition of the high school flute world I had been in, and couldn’t imagine continuing with the same into conservatory. One of my friends decided to switch to baroque flute rather than give up flute entirely. I tried her instrument, and immediately fell in love. I felt like this simple, mysterious wooden flute held secrets that could unlock more of my musical voice, and I wanted to learn to play. Equally as important, I suddenly felt free. I found a teacher and bought a used G.A. Rottenburgh by Folkers and Powell. I played it for years, through college for most of the year that I studied in the Hague, where it finally cracked from practicing too long in front of the sunny window of my tiny third-floor room in Voorburg, where I always looked west toward home. I needed a new flute badly but didn’t have the money for one, so I took a train to visit Simon Polak, who bought me lunch and stitched my flute back together for me. It got me through until I could finally buy my beloved ebony Beukers by Simon. Then, gradually, my collection started to proliferate.
I started getting more and more gigs playing keyed, Classical flute. I gave recitals of music by Kuhlau, Beethoven, Hummel, and Schubert, and I knew that I needed to start expanding my collection to 19th century flutes. I had the chance to try original instruments in a few private collections and was amazed by how much unique character each one possessed, and how these very old instruments could still sound so fresh and speak so directly. I found an original 1840’s 8-key Viennese flute by J. Ziegler on eBay, and had it restored. The sound was incredible and I knew immediately it was a wonderful flute, but as I started to investigate repertoire on it I wondered how I would ever get used to the weight, the feel of the keys, the intonation, and make it sound like a real instrument. But I kept at it, and that flute, in many ways, is my very favorite. It just wants to sing and its tone is so sweet it’s almost otherworldly. I recently bought a sibling for it, an 1820’s instrument by the same maker. It’s my tiny original instrument collection and I plan to keep adding to it instruments that I love to play and perform on.
Recently I decided it was time to let go of my modern flute. I felt it was too special of an instrument to sit unused, and that I would like to build my instrument collection in other ways. My dream would be to replace my modern flute with a Louis Lot or other early 20th c. French Boehm flute. And maybe I will find that flute unlocks even more aspects of my musical voice, or becomes the flute that is the most “me”. And then my instrument journey will have brought me full circle… but perhaps then I will find the perfect early French baroque flute, and the circle will continue. And I will tell you the specifics of my instrument collection, but I hope to continue to tell you about how they inspire me.
(in the order that I acquired the flutes)
G.A. Rottenburgh copy in boxwood, 415, by Folkers and Powell.
W. Beukers copy in ebony, 415, by Simon Polak.
H. Grenser copy in blackwood, 430, by Rudolph Tutz.
R. Wijne copy in boxwood, 415, by Simon Polak.
Kirst copy in blackwood, 430/440, by Simon Polak.
J. Ziegler, 1840’s, 8 keys, blackwood 430-440 (original).
Palanca copy in blackwood, 415, by Simon Polak.
J. Ziegler, 1820’s, 8 keys, boxwood 430-440 (original).
Naust copy in boxwood, 400, by Simon Polak.