Recent events in my life have triggered a rather introspective train of thought, which has been travelling to some unexpected and rather surprising destinations. Rather than bore you with the details of said events, let me say simply that I am now compelled to make music with someone who … well, let’s just say we don’t get along very well. My initial reaction to this situation was: “Okay fine, I have to be here, but I don’t play well under duress, so be forewarned, my playing is going to stink, and that’s just the way it’s going to be.” 

But that was just my initial reaction. And now with the benefit of about 12 hours and a little sleep under my belt, I find myself thinking differently about this situation. As I showered this morning, the thought actually occurred to me: “Yes, I am being made to do this against my will, but what about the musicians, trapped in Nazi concentration camps, destined to be executed, waiting to die, living in miserable conditions, being compelled by a cadre of jackbooted thugs to write music and play for them?” And I began to wonder not only how they felt about the situation, but perhaps an even bigger question – how could they even have summoned the creative spirit required to compose and perform such amazing music. 

After a great deal of thought, it seems to me they could only have created and performed under such conditions if they were firmly in the grasp of the belief that the music was somehow above the situation. Somehow they instinctively knew the music was greater and more important than all of them, that it would in fact elevate their own existence (and perhaps their captors’) through its creation and performance. 

Try to put yourself in this same situation. You’ve been taken prisoner by a nation of people who, in your opinion, are under the sway of a mass hysteria – murderous, brutal, ugly. You were never a combatant, but regardless, you’re now their prisoner. They hold you in squalid conditions, body stacked on body, rat-infested quarters. Sporadic food arrives, and even then, it’s barely edible, barely enough to survive. You and your friends are slowly starving. Your quarters are freezing cold. You sleep on a bed of solid wood, and no one has blankets, much less mattresses or linens. They wake you up at all hours of the night, just to interrupt your sleep. From time to time, they come grab your best friend and bunk mate and take him away for a beating because they think he has information they want. Every time he returns, his bruises are so severe, he can’t even lie down.

Now the next day you wake up and there is the most hated guard of the bunch, holding your saxophone and saying, “play something pretty for me.” 

How does that feel? What would your reaction be? Really. 

It is almost inconceivable to me that anyone could play a single note, much less beautifully, under such conditions. Yet somehow, those prisoners did. 

Now, when I think about my current situation, I’m actually ashamed of my own thoughts – that I would even have considered playing an instrument with anything less than my level best. Even under duress. Even when I don’t want to be there. Even when I can’t stand the site of the person in front of me. Even when I don’t like the way the conductor conducts. Even when I think the play is kinda stupid. Even when I have a cold.

Like the prisoners in those concentration camps, I think it’s incumbent on us as musicians to put aside the problems of our own lives, and realize that the music we play is greater than ourselves. We owe a certain debt to it. It gives us so much. By being better than us, it shows us how good we can be. We are servants of the music, and by being a sincere vehicle of music, it can elevate us above the hatred, the jealousy, and all the other negativity and brutality that pervades our daily existence. And if we do it well, our audience can join us in this divine journey. 

It is a massive privilege to play music, and in doing so, somehow, for a few brief moments, float above the crap that surrounds us, oblivious to it, enraptured. Don’t take it for granted. Find the music, somehow. Serve it. Love it. Live it. It’s bigger and better than you and me. It deserves everything we can give it. Play your heart out, every time. 

Well I have had a great time here at NFA 2013 in New Orleans. Today is the final day, and I think the Gala final concert is wrapping up right now as I type this. I’m pretty exhausted, and my feet are really hurting, so I’m in my hotel room with my feet up, sipping an adult beverage and relaxing.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I spent most of my time in the exhibit halls, visiting vendors, trying out gear, and talking with the vendors. The amount of flute knowledge in that room was truly astounding, and these past few days have taught me so much about flute, alto flute, and piccolo that I don’t know where to begin.

So in this post, I will just run down a few of the vendors that stood out to me as having an especially good or innovative product, or were extremely knowledgeable, or interesting, or just plain easy to work with.  

These headjoints were fascinating, and unique, and just plain awesome! The booth was staffed by Michael Geoghegan and his daughter Kate. Michael is the engineer, and personally makes all the headjoints himself. The company is named after flutist and pedagogue Brad Garner, and the headjoints are the result of a long term collaboration between Brad and Michael. They’re unique in many ways, but what’s most fascinating to me is that the headjoints are all manufactured to the exact same dimensions within a thousandth of an inch of each other. In other words, they are all cut exactly the same. (Handcut is great, but only if the craftsman is great, and plays flute exactly like you!) The only significant difference in them is materials. So you are really comparing apples to apples when you try these headjoints. To my knowledge, there is no other headjoint company making headjoints with such precision and repeatability.

Secondly, the headjoints have a massive brass stopper in them, which adds a lot of weight to the headjoint. This is disconcerting at first, and quite frankly, I’d rather not have this weight to hold up, but it really makes a huge difference in the way the headjoint plays. (How do I know this? Well keep reading!)

There are a lot of other features that make these headjoints innovative and cool, but you can read about these on their web site, so let me move on to the playing characteristics. First, I found these headjoints to have a big, heavy core to the sound. I don’t know how to explain this except to say that the sound is more “full” and “present.” Some other words I might use are “powerful,” or “strong” or even “masculine.” They can be played delicately too, but what I’m trying to say is that, when you push the headjoint harder, instead of the tone just spreading out and getting buzzy or fuzzy, it stays big and full. It’s a really interesting effect, and I think if you go the their web site and listen to some of the sounds/videos of Brad playing, this will make more sense to you. 

Another extremely cool thing about these headjoints is that they don’t require so much changing of the direction of the airstream up and down. (This is due mainly to the cut, according to Michael, rather than the materials.) As you ascend or descend, you barely have to think about sending the airstream higher or lower. It actually took me about 10 minutes of playing before I finally “got it” and was able to stop doing what comes naturally with my current headjoint. This also comes into play as regards playing in tune. In other words, the flute plays in tune with less effort, and this eliminates the need to roll in/out for pitch assistance. Even if you don’t roll in or out any more, you are probably re-aiming your air stream as a way to control pitch, but this need is greatly reduced or eliminated on these headjoints. 

And lastly, these headjoints homogenize the tone between the “short” and “long” notes. I literally could not hear a tonal difference between my C# and D when playing these headjoints. You have to play one to believe it. I noticed it instantly, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever played. The pitch of the C# falls into place too, so you don’t have to make a big deal of pointing the airstream down for the C#. How many hours and hours have you spent in the Moyse De la Sonorite trying to fix this problem??? (I’m not saying you should stop using Moyse, but when a headjoint comes along that can reduce or eliminate this problem, this is a real game changer in my opinion.) 

So I am kind of raving about these headjoints, and you’re probably wondering which one I bought … well unfortunately I couldn’t buy one – but only because I don’t have enough money right now because (a) I’m trying to get a better flute, and (b) bought a new headjoint for my alto flute two days ago, and (c) I bought a new (to me) piccolo as well. But one of these headjoints is most definitely in my future. The sooner the better!

But in the mean time, I had a suspicion that part of the magic of these headjoints is due to the massive brass stopper.  And I was right! How do I know? Because I talked Michael into selling me a stopper and crown, and it improved my current Altus Z-cut headjoint significantly. The new stopper has immediately: 

  • Added some of that big core to my sound.
  • Given me the ability play much louder.
  • Significantly homogenized the tone between “long” and “short” notes.
  • Made the headjoint much quicker to articulate.

If you ever have a chance to try these headjoints, you really should. If you’re a seasoned flute player, you may have to dispense with some of your normal embouchure changes to make it work. But if you’re like me and appreciate things that make your playing easier, I think you’ll really enjoy these headjoints. My favorites were the solid silver, and especially the silver with gold riser. They’re very reasonably priced at $1800 and $2600, respectively. 

Oh, and by the way, I was a little put off at first by the feature they call “Power Bands.” But in talking to Michael, I found out they serve a very functional purpose. In a nutshell, some of the risers can’t be soldered to the body tubes because the metals have different melting points, so these “Power Bands” are only there to hold the riser onto the headjoint tube. My understanding is that they’re going to start putting these bands on all the headjoints anyway, because they perceive an improvement in the way they play. 

Jim Schmidt is a fearless innovator, and I have so much respect for him. Jim is simply unconcerned with how things have always been done. He is about one thing and one thing only – finding the best way possible to solve problems with musical instruments. And he does this in the face of incredible odds, not to mention a clientele that is extremely resistant to change.

The product of Jim’s that is most exciting to me is his line of pads, both for flute and for saxophone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been the victim of swelling and changing pads. They’re always warping and changing with the humidity. (What do you expect – they’re made primarily of felt and cardboard!) If I played every horn every day, this might not be such a problem, because playing helps keep the pads seated properly against the tone holes. But, as a person who owns 14 woodwinds, sorry folks, that just ain’t gonna happen! 

Jim’s flute pads are amazing. First, the precision in construction is outstanding. The main part of the pad is a hard plastic that will never warp. On top of this, there is a tiny bit of padding covered by an extremely thin skin of some type. The skin does not wrap around the backer material like other skin pads. It’s bonded to the surface of the plastic backer (but only at the edges) so wiping down your flute does not risk tearing or contaminating the skin. Also, the padded space between the backer and the skin contains an extremely fine powder. This powder constantly lubricates the surface of the pad, so the pads will not stick, or even make that little sucking sound when lifted off the tone hole. Overall, the feel of the pad is firm and precise. Once I get a better flute, and it comes time for an overhaul, these are going on it.

Jim’s sax pads are a little bit different, but the concept is the same – to create a precision, inflexible backer, covered by a similar material, impregnated with a non-stick material. More about these when I cover the next vendor…

I’ve talked about these guys before, so I won’t bore you by repeating too much. They came to NFA primarily because they make and sell a lot of materials and tools for repair technicians and instrument manufacturers. They make the fabulous “Roo” pads, and they’re also starting to use Jim’s gold and silver sax pads in overhauls. Conversing with Curt Altarac today about it, he says the Jim Schmidt pads seem to make the saxophone overall a good bit “brighter” sounding – maybe because of all the metal present in the entire surface of the pad. He says they work especially well on tenor and bari sax. I hate squishy and/or sticky pads, so these are going on my bari some day for sure!

Final Thoughts

I’m really just scratching the surface of what went on here at NFA. This is just a small sampling of the friendly, knowledgeable, helpful people I met here at NFA, and I’m quite sure I’ll have ongoing relationships with many of these people for the rest of my life. I hope you’ll consider attending the convention in the future. I don’t think you’ll regret it. 

This is my first time to attend the the National Flute Association convention, so I’m still learning my way around, but here are my thoughts after spending most of the day Thursday at the convention.

To be blunt, my purpose in coming here is almost exclusively to find a better flute.  I’d been told that I would never find another opportunity to play so many flutes on the same day as I would here at NFA.  They were right!  Everybody is here with a booth and a complete lineup of all their flutes.  

But even with all those downsides, I’m really glad I came, and will continue to go play flutes and headjoints for the next few days.  Why?  Because I live in rural Mississippi, and you don’t get to play a Muramatsu or a Sankyo every day down here!  As I’ve been considering upgrading my flute for a few years, I’ve read TONS of commentary on the web during the last few years, and now that I’m playing these flutes I’ve been reading about for so long, the number of flute prejudices I’ve dispelled in the last 24 hours has been ENORMOUS.  In other words, there is simply no substitute for playing them.  No one else’s opinion will do.  You MUST play the flutes to find out if they work for you.

  • Example Myth #1: Altus flutes have clunky keywork. 
  • Example Myth #2: All Miyazawa flutes are “bright” sounding. 
  • Example Myth #3: Plastic piccolos are garbage. 

You know what I say to all three of those myths?  Well, to borrow from Colonel Potter: “Horse Hockey!”

Not only has the trial experience been amazing, but I’ve also met some great resources that I am certain I’ll be using in the future.  I found one gentleman running the booth for a large professional flute maker, BUT he also teaches headjoint design and cutting, and he will do this on a one-on-one basis in his shop in Tennesse – very close to me.  He was extremely knowledgeable about exactly how headjoint modifications affect tone, articulation, tuning, etc. and also had done a magnificent job in setting up incredibly tuned actions on even the cheaper models in his booth.  That’s just one example, but in a nutshell, this gentleman is the kind of resource that is invaluable to me, and I’m thrilled to be making these connections close to home.

Aside from the exhibitors and other resources here, I attended the opening Gala concert event last night, and was completely blown away.  I did not come here to be inspired, but last night, quite frankly, really made me want to go home and practice!  It was a jazz themed event, and the featured flutists were Ali Ryerson, Hubert Laws, Jim Walker, and Maraca.  In all honesty I believe I heard the most amazing jazz flute playing I’ve ever heard in my life.  The top highlight for me was when Maraca came out and smoked through Giant Steps.  If you know me, you know I hate this tune, and also that virtuosity for its own sake really turns me off.  But I have to say, even at this breakneck tempo, Maraca made BEAUTIFUL music out of it.  It was almost unbelievable. And Hubert Laws was amazing as well.  He played the most gorgeous version of Lush Life I have ever heard (and I have heard a bazillion).  Before he played, he explained how he had recently been learning about Billy Strayhorn’s life and struggles, and how deeply this had affected him personally – and you know, this really came through in his playing.  It was an amazing moment I will never forget.

Well that is just a brief note about my day 1 at NFA, but I can say, if it was over right now, it would have been worth it.  If you’ve ever been on the fence about coming to NFA, I would say DO IT!  You won’t be disappointed.  

This is my first time to attend the the National Flute Association convention, so I’m still learning my way around, but here are my thoughts after spending most of the day Thursday at the convention.