Let me say at the outset, there is perhaps more written below than you want to read on the wood flute and its care. At the same time, you may be new to using wood flutes and perhaps have just spent money on acquiring one? There are simple rules for the care of the wood flute that are quite different from the silver flute, and the first short playing periods on your wood flute are going to put it at its biggest risk if you are not informed and apply good sensible habits. So please read this article to be informed, and do not regard the information as something to worry about, use it only to become knowledgeable as you launch hopefully into many years of enjoyment playing traverso!
Do not assemble or play your flute before reading this article. Your new flute is at its most vulnerable in its new dry condition, and overplaying in a new condition can seriously damage the instrument.
This article is comprehensive, and I know that you will be impatient to try your new flute! Please do take the time to read the article before you play your instrument. Do not be unduly alarmed by frequent reference to the various ways that the instrument can be improperly handled. It is simply that the new flute, at its best, is a delicate thin walled wooden tube that is beyond the reach of the maker, and as such the player must now be responsible for its care and handling. Almost all disappointments can be avoided by not assembling joints that are too tight, and by not playing a dry instrument too much, too soon. This is crucial, and is now the responsibility of the player...you! Be patient, and read on...
This flute is made from natural materials, which are affected by changes in humidity and temperature. If you follow a few simple rules, you can avoid risking permanent damage to your instrument, such as warping or cracking. We have many examples of fine-playing, original flutes from the eighteenth century, so it is clear that a properly cared for instrument will last many years. It makes good sense to read and adhere to the following instructions on care of your instrument:
Slower Schedules are also fine! This allows the moisture entering the wood to be limited in quantity, and to have time to permeate evenly throughout the total cross-section of the wood flute, slowly building up to an equilibrium saturation level, allowing the instrument to be played continuously. The process should be stretched out over about ten days. Keep the flute and its case in a plastic bag, while not in use. This helps retain the moisture in the wood so that playing-in is not required as rigorously if the flute is idle for a week or two. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
Remember that a flute which has remained un-played and allowed to dry out needs to be played in again just like a new flute!! It will surprise you how rapidly a flute will dry out to the “as new” condition when left out on the table for a week.
Players with a scientific mind will weigh their flute when dry, and graph out its increased weight against time as it is played in. Using this graph as a reference, the player will know how dry the flute is at any time simply by re-weighing it, See the paragraph on the effect of moisture in woodwinds for further information.
Never leave your flute near a central heating duct. With a new wood flute, it is a good idea to oil it a few hours after playing, each day, until it appears that the wood will not absorb any more oil. The flute will sound best a few hours after oiling. It is very important that you do not use linseed oil inside the bore of the flute!! This is because linseed oil is a hardening oil, and it will leave the bore sticky, and often contributes to gluing the silver key shut. Instead, use a non-hardening oil such as grape-seed oil, peanut, almond, or olive oil. One good way to oil the bore (the inside hole down through the body of the flute) is to use a chop-stick with a paper towel rolled around it. Add some oil along the length of the paper towel oil, introduce the towel with chop stick into the flute joint, hold the chop stick steady and use one hand to roll the joint around a few revolutions so that the oil is painted onto the bore in just a second or two. Repeat this operation after half and hour or longer this time using a dry paper towel and this will clean out any excess oil from the bore. When oiling the bore of the foot joint, slip a piece of stiff paper under the key-pad to keep the pad from becoming oiled and sticky. Sometimes the key-pad will be made from a foam material which seals very well. Leather is not a good material for keys but was all that was available in early times. In the event of any stickiness, use a little talcum powder on the pad and seat to prevent this. If it persists, soak a little acetone onto a small piece of paper towel, open the key and allow it to close upon the paper towel, which will start to dissolve any sticky oil and cure the problem.
You may be tempted to leave your flute assembled when not in use, perhaps even leaving it out to be seen on a bookshelf or table. This is not a good idea, especially if you live in a dry climate, air conditioned, or centrally heated house. It is safer to place your flute in its case, and place the case in a plastic bag with a slightly damp cloth. Don't forget to close the plastic bag to keep moisture from escaping. Obviously those living in humid areas will not need the plastic bag. Don’t overdo the damp condition and end up with grass growing inside your flute! Be sensible and just remember that a damp condition on the outside of your flute is safer than a dry one, because the natural condition of the inside of your flute is to be flooded with moisture during playing, and we want the wood both inside and outside to be in a balance state of moisture content to lessen the stresses that cause cracking. This balanced state is what we call “played in”. If you find yourself in a predicament where you must go to a long rehearsal with a flute that has not been played recently and therefore at risk of cracking, yet you must take that risk, then better to have a wet cloth with you and wipe the outside of the flute, particularly the head-joint from time to time. This may dull the outside luster but in delivering moisture to the outside and keeping pace with the moisture entering into the interior from your breath, you may stand a better chance of avoiding a crack. The flute may be polished up later. I know from experience, that professional players find themselves in this situation quite often.
The head joint, as its name implies, is the top joint of the flute and contains the mouth hole. Notice that the mouth hole of the traverso is much smaller than on the silver flute. This, plus the conical bore, gives the traverso its dark tone color, and also allows for rapid correction of pitch. The top of the head joint bore is stopped off by a well fitted, greased cork located approximately one bore diameter's length from the center of the blow hole. The exact position of the cork is crucial to the tuning of the flute. This is described in a following page on the Screw Cap. Silver flute players please note that the cork position is not at all standard on the traverso, and can vary one flute to another from about 18mm to 25mm, plus the setting will vary quite a bit between individual players on the same flute.
Many of the originals of the period were equipped with up to seven interchangeable middle joints. This allowed the flute to be played at any pitch over a range of about one semitone (there was no standard pitch in the eighteenth century). Our modern pitch standard of A440 is not a very warm sound for the traverso, yet many players today require an A440 joint to allow them to play with friends who may not be equipped at the A415 baroque pitch. If your flute has A415 and A440 middle joints, these would be the equivalent of numbers 1 and 7 of a typical set of seven. This means that A415 and A440 demand that the flute play over the widest practical jump of pitch (one semitone). You will find that the traverso manages remarkably well at both pitches, considering that only one part of it is replaced. A415 is usually the most centered pitch, and you will be drawn to it quite naturally.
The foot joint of your flute may be equipped with a Foot Register. This is the name for the sliding extension at the end of the foot joint, usually including the lowest imitation ivory ring of the flute. The foot register and its use are described fully in a later page.
You will see marked rings on the foot-joint when you pull it out a little. The register should feel stiff enough to be secure in any one position, but not too tight. It will pull out about 20 mm before it comes off from the foot-joint. It is okay to take it off and on, and to add a little Vaseline once in a while as the fit is one thin brass tube inside the register sliding upon another brass tube attached to the foot-joint. Notice that the wood of the flute extends all the way to the bottom of the foot-joint, even inside the brass tube, although it is very thin wood at that point, and so protected by the brass tube. Thinness is important here, as the register will have more influence in lowering the D notes if its bore is not much larger than the foot-joint bore. Some flutes had no brass-to-brass registers and only wood-to-wood. To maintain strength, the wood had to be thick, and so the register’s change of pitch is not as much as we might need. A further complication with the ‘wood-only’ register is that it can warp easily, and affect the fit. I believe it was Grenser who incorporated the thin brass strengtheners. Although there may be subtle small changes in other notes when the register is moved in or out, the main effect will be to sharpen or flatten the D notes. Use of the register is very simple …. move it in or out, until your D notes are as close as possible to being in tune with the rest of the flute. Longer middle joints will require lowering the D notes, and hence the register will be pulled out a bit for long joints, and it is usually pushed all the way in when using the shortest middle joint. The position will be influenced by your embouchure, and may vary between one player and another, so those rings on the register are only to help you remember where to place it for your best settings. If you have, say, a CA Grenser flute at A415 with an additional A440 joint, then the register will be pulled out about 8-10mm with the A415 joint, and all the way in for the A440 joint. Individual players may vary in these setting to get the best D tunings in any chosen playing pitch.
If necessary, use the extra thread supplied to adjust the fit of the tenons You will be tempted to use the socket to help squeeze a new layer of the thread into shape. Don't do this. It might result in a cracked socket. Instead, add a few turns at a time, grease, smooth down the windings with the fingers, then carefully fit the socket. Do not cut off the thread until you are satisfied that you have a good fit. The joints need only feel secure, not tight.
Use: Again, cork position varies greatly from player to player, so make sure the cork is set to work well for your embouchure. The position of the cork face … its distance to the center of the mouth hole … affects the best speaking of the octaves, as you play in different registers. As a general rule the cork is, on average, set nearer to the mouth hole with a long middle joint and further from the mouth hole with a short middle joint. You will want the cork as far away from the mouth holes as good intonation will allow. Large distances will give a warmer tone on the low end, but you will get quickly flat in the upper registers by exploiting this too much. As a minimum, with your register set properly, your middle d, to high d’’’, must play a good octave for your embouchure, and hopefully your three g’s will be at good octaves. A is not a good stable note to tune to. Middle d is more stable. Very often, even experienced players try to use the cork position to sharpen or flatten the flute. It will do this, but will completely ruin the octaves and tuning in the process. Use the cork position only to get the octaves in as good a tuning as the flute allows, and if you are still sharp or flat, then try yielding to the flute instead of pressing on with your accustomed blowing style. If this does not work, then it would be wise to send the flute back for length adjustment to match your style.
A word of warning …. silver flute players coming new to the traverso will often blow very hard and hence sharp, and complete newcomers will not have yet developed a technique, so first impressions can be quite wrong as to where the playing pitch is going to end up once your style is established under the direction of a good teacher. As a general trend, playing pitch drops flatter with the years, and varies a great deal between good players. If you are new to the traverso, go for poetry rather than power. And try to swell the fork fingered notes, rather than blowing them hard and hence sharp.
Remember that the traverso is a simple looking instrument but it is called upon to behave in a very sophisticated manner. It is not like a piano, or for that matter a silver flute with large individual holes for each semi tone. Playing in tune is more akin to using a violin rather than a guitar … the traverso does not have exact ‘frets’ in its speaking. I like to quote my colleague, Philippe Alain Dupré, holding up a very good flute and saying to his class, “This flute is not in tune! It is your job to play it in tune!” A good flute will allow you that flexibility to play in tune, and do it with pleasure. A poor flute will resist your best efforts. Philippe gives very good advice here.
Until such times as players adhere to a relatively uniform style of playing (hopefully, they will not!) it is best to let the flute maker know your style of playing beforehand. As a generalization, American players play the same flute sharper than Continentals, and the British play lower still. Your flute has been made with a definite sound center at the correct pitch, but it may not necessarily work there for you. If this is the case, try living with the instrument for a few weeks to see if you find that center. After that time, if you wish to have the overall pitch or intonation adjusted, please contact the maker. Ideally, the flute should work for you at the correct pitch, with the head pulled out about 1 mm when it is warmed up, and in a playing room which is at a comfortable temperature (68 degrees F.) The pulled out head allows you some latitude for colder rooms. Remember the flute's pitch is a function of air temperature, humidity, and your playing style. The pitch of a flute rises with temperature. Try to avoid testing your flute by blowing at a 'Korg' tuner, or some other meter. It is 99% certain that you will play sharper into a test meter than you will in a musical context, and A is not the best note to test. Middle d is more stable. This is true in my experience, even for very experienced professional players. It takes a lot of practice to avoid regarding the sound meter as a test of strength and support. The best way to test if the flute is centered at the correct pitch is to test it in a musical context, preferably with a fixed pitch instrument, such as a harpsichord. The flute should be warmed up, the harpsichord must be stable and its pitch measured by a meter, and the room should be at a temperature which is characteristic of your normal playing environment. Now play a few sonatas. If under these conditions you feel you have to press hard, or hold back, then an adjustment should be made. Remember that your playing style is another variable. A beginner would do well to question their style as part of the test. A good teacher is an asset here. The beginner is usually puzzled by the apparent flat F# and sharp F natural, until they get used to the meantone tuning, and the technique of rolling in and rolling out. Again, a good teacher should be sought where possible.
Existing original renaissance and baroque woodwinds are not sealed against moisture in the bore. They require conscious care in order to prevent cracking, both while playing, and while in storage. The same applies to present day woodwinds which have a bore treated only with natural oils. Quite simply, if you wish to have a flute modeled as closely as possible on an original, the bore must not be too smooth, and it must be soaked in a non-hardening cold pressed vegetable oil, such as peanut oil. Such a flute can give many years of trouble free service when treated with care, yet it could possibly be damaged in thirty minutes no matter what its age if it is subjected too quickly to changes of temperature and humidity. Some priceless originals have been cracked by too much playing too soon by eager musicians in the process of re-discovering their fine qualities. It is best to bear in mind always that a flute is a delicate thin-walled wooden tube which has to be continuously subjected to big changes in temperature and humidity, factors which result in very definite changes in its physical geometry. There is a limit to what the flute maker can do in preparing the instrument for such an environment, and proper care for the flute by its owner over the whole life of the instrument is to be encouraged. I have met many players who have good care habits, but my experience has been that the average player's treatment of his or her instrument tends to be a little forgetful. Here is a good test for the experienced player: When did you last oil your flute, and what condition are the winding in? When where the tenons last greased? Do you keep your flute within its case, all within a simple plastic bag?
Indulge me here as I repeat some of this subject again, as I want to drive it home and get your care habits to be second nature….
A further complication exists for players who live in conditions where the air gets much dryer than was experienced by those who lived and played in Europe two hundred and fifty years ago. This is the case in much of the interior of North America, and in the East Coast of the US. where in winter the humidity drops very low, and wood dries out fast. Remember also when traveling by air, cabin pressure is equivalent to standing at the top of a very high mountain, and the air pressure surrounding you and your flute is quite low. This sucks moisture out of the flute in a rapid drying process. The prudent flute player will always carry the instrument in a plastic bag to seal the moisture in. In areas of dry winter months, keep your flute in a plastic bag when not in use.
You will have noticed by now that the subject of 'too much playing too soon' and its danger to woodwinds has been repeated often in this text. This is being done with purpose, not to be alarmist, but so that the subject becomes second nature to you as you enjoy your new flute. This way, your flute will last a lifetime. Here is some more information about wood and water:
The question is sometimes asked, whether early instrument makers had a particular way of treating wood, now forgotten or lost, which allowed a woodwind to resist damage from moisture. 'Burying boxwood in a pile of manure for twenty years', is often quoted in this respect, from Bate's book on the flute. This in fact was a good way to store the wood without cracking. Variations of this storage are still used in Georgia. It may be that there were effective ways of dealing with moisture in wood, however serious investigation has not uncovered them. The behavior evidenced by surviving originals shows susceptibility to moisture and damage. Opinions and positions abound on this topic, and there is always the tendency to inject some magic into the mysterious process of producing the definitive instrument. Magic is a wonderful ingredient to include in instrument making. It is best added after the details have been handled.
This article covers more than is strictly needed for the enjoyment of your flute, and it is offered here mostly for your interest. Use this information to be informed, and do not hold it as too much to worry about. If you worry about caring for your flute, then you will be limiting your enjoyment and self-expression, and that would be a great pity. So now you have read this article, simply absorb the few rules and enjoy your flute! Happy playing!
Please let me know if you can improve my understanding on all of the above.
12 September 2006