by Leonard E. Lopatin
First published June, 2007 in Pan, the journal of the British Flute Society, reprinted with the gracious permission of Pan Magazine. For more information on the BFS, check out their website at http://www.bfs.org.uk.
Shortly after I got my first flute at age 12, I took it apart. That’s the kind of kid I was. This wasn’t the first mechanical thing I’d ever taken apart, but the difference between this and the broken watches and toasters I would happily take out of the trash and disassemble was that I knew I had to put it back together again. There were a few moments of frustration and confusion (not to mention outright terror!) but I figured it out and the flute was none the worse for it. It was only much later that I realized that this was not something all kids would think to do; it seemed normal to me.
Later, I put this ability to more practical use. If something wasn’t working properly on my flute, I would take it apart, clean and oil the troubled area, and on I went. I asked questions of my teachers and instrument repair people, and soon started to think more about how a flute could be made to work better. I wasn’t always convinced that the answers I heard were right. (I was a skeptical little boy!) By the time I was in High School, I was keeping a notebook about the flute and writing down ideas as they occurred to me, regarding possible ways to improve flute design. I wasn’t sure what would come out of this note-taking, but I felt compelled to do it. I suppose I thought that if I came up with something brilliant, one of the major flute companies would rush to grab the idea, run with it, and I’d get all the credit. (I was a naïve young man!)
I continued with my flute studies, first with Harold Bennett at the Manhattan School of Music, then with Arthur Lora at the Juilliard School. Just before my graduation from Juilliard in 1976, I auditioned for—and won—the position of third flute and piccolo in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Still, my flute notebook went everywhere with me.
On 26 May 1978, in Detroit, Michigan, while touring with the Met, an idea occurred to me: square tone holes. This idea seemed qualitatively different—even logical—and more significant than all the others I’d jotted down over the years. By now, I was not so naïve as to think that any flute maker in the world would want to try something so different. I felt that I would need to learn flute making myself, and that was going to take time.
I had met Bickford and Bob Brannen shortly before they started their highly successful company, Brannen Brothers, Flutemakers, Inc., and was one of their first customers. During the vacation that followed the 1977-78 Metropolitan Opera season, I went to work for them at their very first shop. It was very crowded, with Bick, Bob, me and four others all crammed into what had been a small retail space.
I worked in the back, learning to make posts, rings, and various other parts. I wasn’t yet sure I wanted to leave the Met, but I had to get a taste of what it was like to work in a flute-making shop. It was greasy, smelly, noisy and tedious—I was in heaven!
After that summer break was over, I was ready to quit the Met, but Bick advised me not to be too hasty, that I should go back and play at least one more season. I did go back to the Met, but the drive to become a flute maker remained strong, and at the end of the 1978-1979 season, I left the Opera and moved to Boston to start full-time employment at Brannen, which had grown considerably by then.
I found out that flute making was a great deal more involved and complex than I knew. It was not until 1988 that I felt ready to make the first experimental prototype of my square hole flute.
It should come as no surprise that the question I am asked most often is: “Why square tone holes?” There are a number of ways to answer that question.
The quick and easy explanation is that this gives a straight end to each air column length, so that the air arrives at the tone hole all at the same time.
Another is that the principal reason a tone hole exists is to simulate the effect of the tube ending at that point, and it should do so as accurately as possible. A round tone hole seems to suggest that a tube ending at that point should have a curved end!
Another way to explain is this: The square-hole flute is one step closer to the “ideal flute”, meaning a flute with the perfect acoustic for every note it plays. There’s a serious problem making that ideal flute, though, because “the perfect acoustic” would mean a different bore diameter for each note, a different size embouchure hole for each note, of course a different length for each note, which is to say a separate tube for each note.
You can’t have all that in one unified flute, and you would have some difficulty playing Brahms’s symphonies or the Ibert Concerto on roughly forty separate tubes!
So we play on a flute that’s all together as one unit, with a bore diameter that’s a good compromise for the whole range, with an embouchure hole size that’s a good compromise, and of course we use tone holes in the side of that one tube to stand in for all the different length tubes we’d like to have. But one element of that “ideal flute” was discarded unnecessarily: the straight end to the air column. With their straight edges, square tone holes bring our flute one step closer to the ideal.
A further benefit of the square shape is that many of the tone holes can be made substantially larger without coming any closer to the edge of the body tube (which would reduce its rigidity and structural strength). I didn’t make this change right away, though.
On the first of my square hole flutes, I simply made each hole the same area as the corresponding round one would be. I wanted to keep the number of variables to a minimum, to be able to judge clearly how the changed shape performed. Once satisfied with that, I made the next flute with slightly larger right hand holes and foot joint holes. I didn’t go very far this time, so I’d be able to use the pad cups I already had. But even this slight increase in size made a discernable improvement, so I decided to go as far as I could.
I now make my flutes with right hand tone holes that have an 18.3% greater area than their round equivalents, and foot joint tone holes that have a 27.5% larger area than their counterparts. I have allowed the left hand holes to remain the usual smaller size, as I feel this is better for the easy response of the high notes. But the right hand notes and the foot joint notes are strengthened considerably, and have a better tone quality, counteracting the usual tendency of the lower notes to become progressively weaker.
This goes along with the premise that was at the very core of Theobald Boehm’s work. In The Flute and Flute Playing he says “The holes should be as large as possible, since the effective shortening of the tube is proportional to the ratio of the size of the hole to the diameter of the bore.”
There is even a side benefit to this enlargement. The bigger tone holes are moved lower down the tube to correct for pitch, so a slightly longer air column is being used for those lower notes. I feel that this further adds richness to the sound. Or, as Theobald Boehm phrased it on page 16 of his book: “…the strength, as well as the full, clear quality of the fundamental tone, is proportional to the volume of the air set in vibration.”
All of the above would simply be a nice-sounding theory, if it didn’t actually make a difference in the way the flute sounds. It does make a difference, most strikingly in the clarity of the tone, meaning the relative lack of extraneous noise, such as airiness or hiss. And it’s easier to keep the clear quality of tone at the extremes of the dynamic range. The “puff-puff-puff” often heard when we tongue is reduced.
There is also less hesitation (or what I like to call “blowback”) in the attack. It doesn’t feel like a lack of resistance, though, it feels like a lack of stuffiness. This is especially noticeable in the low register. The attack feels more secure, as if we’re aiming at a bigger target. I also find that the legato is improved, both between neighboring notes and between registers.
I attribute all of this to the fact that my SquareONE flute is going from one length of air column to another length, rather than one collection of different lengths to another collection of different lengths. It stands to reason that the change will be quicker and smoother; the flute is more in agreement with itself as to what note is supposed to come out!
The main difference I noticed when I began to use the square hole flute in group settings was that I could hear myself better. I can’t explain why that should be, but I can say what it did for me as a player. I didn’t feel the need to force my sound in order to be heard. That made for a better tone quality and I found it easier to tune with other instruments. I feel that many flutists push too hard and play slightly sharp all the time in order to hear themselves. I firmly believe that it’s what the listener hears that matters most.
After more than 25 years as a flute maker, I still consider myself a flutist first, and have always continued to play professionally. Once I had finished the first production model square hole flute in 1989, it became my personal flute. While in the Boston area, I was a regular extra and substitute player in the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops Orchestras. The Metropolitan Opera continued to tour each spring, and I got calls from them, too, to sub in my “old band” if they needed an extra. I won the seat I hold in the Asheville Symphony Orchestra playing on this flute.
As a professional musician, I could not afford to play this flute if I didn’t believe it to be the very best flute available to me. The SquareONE flute is not some kind of advertising “gimmick,” it’s an idea that I found worth leaving a major professional position to pursue, and it hasn’t disappointed me. People’s reactions to the concept have often disappointed me, but not my flute. I recently designed a SquareONE alto flute and it sounds and plays better than any alto I’ve ever tried. I’m looking forward to expanding my “family” of SquareONE flutes to include a piccolo, and even a bass flute; not because I believe it’s the best marketing strategy, but because I want to play them. That’s been my intent all along. That I’m able to earn my living making the flutes and head joints I love is simply an added benefit.