IS YOUR FLUTE PLAYING UP TO ITS POTENTIAL?
Any flute can slowly go out of adjustment over time. Felt, leather and cork compress, eventually causing the flute to go out of adjustment. As felt pads wear, they can shrink and expand due to changes in humidity, causing small leaks. With regular use, the mechanism is subject to wear that can lead to mal-adjustment and excess key noise. Additionally, the headjoint cork can shrink over time, causing air leakage in the headjoint.
Small leaks on several keys are often not as readily apparent as a larger leak on a single key, yet they can still affect response, pitch and focus of the tone. As these problems creep up over time, the flutist may not easily notice them. Many flutists tend to compensate for these changes by pressing harder on the keys and/or adapting their embouchure.
There are a few techniques you can use to evaluate and determine if your flute is playing up to its full potential:
CHECKING FOR PAD LEAKS
Visually inspect the pads. Look for tears or spots where the pads have worn through. Examine your flute under good lighting, possibly using a flashlight to see the pads more clearly. Tears or worn spots in the pad skin may reveal a small area of white felt showing through the pad skin. Also, inspect the pads as you lightly press the key cups down to the toneholes. Many pads have a ring on them where they contact the tonehole. This ring is dust which collects on the pad as it is repeatedly pushed against the tonehole while playing. Look for obvious dips and/or gaps between the pad and tonehole. If you are able to identify a leak by sight, it is most likely a very large leak. On professional flutes, technicians should seal leaks to a tolerance of .0005″ (1/2 thousandth of one inch.). Such small leaks are impossible to identify by sight alone.
To inspect for small leaks on your flute, perform a test consisting of a series of long tones. The low octave is especially helpful in identifying problems. Using a very light touch, press each key down slowly. If the pads are level and sealing well, the tone will fully respond just as the pad contacts the tonehole. If there is a small leak, the tone will initially produce a shallow, unfocused response just as the pad contacts the tonehole. As the pad is pressed more firmly onto the tonehole, the strength and focus of the tone will increase.
While all pads can go out of adjustment over time, traditional felt pads are particularly susceptible to shrinking and expanding due to changes in humidity. The exception are Straubinger pads, which are not susceptible to humidity changes. As a result, they provide a longer stability of adjustment.
Proper care of your flute pads is essential. Many flutists use cigarette paper to clean their pads of oil and dirt. While this is a useful technique, many flutists are not aware that improper use of cigarette paper may actually contribute to and/or accelerate wear and tear on pad skins.
EXAMINING THE MECHANISM
Regular examination of your mechanism will establish better knowledge of how your flute works and will help you identify problems.
Begin by studying your mechanism. Notice how certain keys move in conjunction with one another. Perform a series of tests with each key, noting closure of related or secondary keys. If in correct adjustment, these secondary keys should make contact with the tonehole as the primary key is depressed so that they are in sync with each other. Check for gaps in secondary keys, which may indicate the flute is out of adjustment. Proper adjustment can also be tested by long tones, as explained in the previous section.
A flute may be in good adjustment, yet the mechanism may have “lost motion”. Lost motion occurs when primary and secondary keys do not move at precisely the same time. Lost motion is most commonly the result of compressed felt, leather and/or cork. This is not an indication of a leak or maladjustment, yet lost motion can affect the action of the flute, making it feel sloppy and imprecise.
While inspecting your mechanism, take note of any excessive noise. Press and release each key quickly to listen for any unusual noise. Excessive noise usually indicates that the mechanism needs to be cleaned and oiled.
It is essential for pads to touch the toneholes in exactly the same place every time, thus proper key fit should also be checked. Check each key individually, holding it very gently. Try to move it back and forth along the rod on which it is hinged. Be careful not to exert too much pressure, as it will require only slight pressure if they key is going to move. There should be nearly imperceptible movement or none at all. With normal use, keys can wear over time and should be refit by a technician for optimal performance.
CHECKING THE HEADJOINT CORK
A secure seal in the headjoint cork is fundamental in insuring reliability in your instrument. Check your headjoint cork frequently with the following suction test:
Dip a finger in water and place it over your embouchure hole to provide an airtight seal. Place your mouth over the tenon of the headjoint (the tenon is the section that fits into the barrel of your flute). Suck in air to create a vacuum within the headjoint. If there is a good seal in the headjoint cork, you should be able to maintain the vacuum for at least 6 to 8 seconds. If there is a significant leak in the headjoint cork, it will be difficult to maintain suction for more than 1 or 2 seconds. We recommend annual replacement of the headjoint cork by a technician to maintain a secure seal.
Scheduling annual appointments for your flute with a qualified technician will insure that it is playing as well as it can. Some players may benefit from even more frequent check ups depending on the intensity of their playing schedule and/or acidity content of their skin. If you suspect that your flute might not be playing properly, the techniques outlined in this article should help to determine whether or not your flute is in need of service.