Buying a Headjoint
Boston. Home of the Red Sox, the Bruins, the bean and the cod, Puritans, Harvard University and MIT. Also the workshops and showrooms of just about every major American flute maker (plus a few Japanese makers too!). I was fortunate enough to visit a few shops in my search for a new headjoint a couple weeks ago, and I'd like to share with you my experience, as well as my thoughts and opinions about the selection process.
My selection started about a year ago at home in Toronto. There was a small flute fair at the University of Toronto that featured representatives from a few makers that don't regularly make an appearance here. I tried a few Nagaharas, that while very nice, didn't work for me. The Burkarts, which I was very excited to try, unfortunately were all too big to fit my flute, so no luck there. There was one by Dana Sheridan that I fell in love with, however the roughly $10,000 CAD price tag was a liiiiiiittle steep for me. But I swear, that thing read my mind.
Next stop was at Veraquin in Montreal. Although he is the only authorized dealer for Burkart flutes and piccolos in Canada, he had zero headjoints in stock, which made me very sad again. That's what I get for showing up unannounced. But he did have a lovely collection of Powells which gave me a better idea of what I was looking for and what that was going to run me. I learned: 1. Sterling silver is not a good match for me. Granted, I pretty much knew this already, but it was confirmed through some trial and error. 2. The cut and design of the lip plate really does change things, and that in the 10 years since I purchased my flute my needs in a headjoint have changed. I know, shock of the century.
At this point, I knew I was looking for something with at the very least a 9 or 14k gold riser and lip plate. I also knew that my chances of randomly finding something in Montreal or Toronto were slim, as there just isn't a huge selection available. What is here has likely been sitting on the shelf for a while. The next logical step was to make a trip to the source and try to narrow down my search where the greatest amount of selection is available.
After scouring Google Maps to find out where all the factories were, I realized I wasn't going to be able to make it to all the places I was hoping with the limited timeline I was on. Unfortunately I could only take a couple days off work and most of these places weren't open on weekends. I wasn't going to beg somebody to make an exception for me and open up their showroom on their day off if I wasn't fairly confident they had what I was looking for. With that in mind I was able to narrow my search to three stops: Powell, Burkart, and Flutistry.
First stop: Verne Q. Powell Flutes in Maynard, MA. I had the BEST time there. Not only did I get the red carpet treatment but Daniel was so well-informed and really understood what my needs were. After a couple hours I had four winners - two different models in both 9k and 14k gold. We (me and my partner) got a tour of the factory, met a couple of the technicians, found out how to get a job at Powell (apply through job postings on Craigslist, no experience required!), as well as some really solid restaurant recommendations and a lift back to the train station.
All I've ever wanted was sign with my name on it.
Our second stop was just a bit further out, in Shirley, where we visited Ethan at Burkart-Phelan Flutes. He was just as well-informed about the products they carried. After every few headjoints, he would pull out a few more, seemingly from nowhere, with different metals or metal combinations and different crowns that could be mixed and matched. In the end I found one that I really liked, made of their 998 silver tube with a 14k riser, lip plate, and crown (the 998 is so called because it is 99.8% pure silver - VERY different sound characteristics from sterling).
From there we headed home, making a detour for some fresh seafood and New England clam chowder. At our Airbnb I played around a little with the 5 (!!!!) options I had so far, narrowing my decision down to 3 picks.
I love that tiny Burkart headjoint case.
The next morning we headed to our final stop, Flutistry. I was so excited to go here, not only because of their great reputation, but also because I knew they would have a huge variety of things in stock for me to try, especially the makers I wanted to try but didn't have time to go out to. In addition to some more by Powell, Erica had me try headjoints by Haynes, Brannen, Lafin, and a few others. We were there for quite some time, but I managed to narrow down the selection to just one - a 14k rose gold Powell Soloist. We decided to pop in again the next day with all the final selections I had made to really put them to the test in one setting.
Within about an hour and a half my decision had been finalized. I was going with the Powell I found at Flutistry the day before. While the other five were beautiful and fantastic on their own, I kept going back to that one. Everything is smoother and easier, and the sound just rings so much more effortlessly. There's a lot of work that needs to be done before I get used to it - it plays much sharper than my old one, and the octaves are wider, meaning I don't have to compensate nearly as much to play in tune. As a result, much of what I have played over the last few weeks has been wildly out of tune due to some old habits. There's definitely a learning curve there, but I feel like for the first time I actually sound like me. It's like the difference between hearing your voice on an answering machine versus through good speakers and a microphone. Both sound like you, but the answering machine is distorted due to static and less advanced technology. When you upgrade your tools you get something that sounds more like how you sound when speaking directly to somebody.
Here are a few things I learned about the process:
1. You are going to switch around. A LOT. And you're going to keep going back to your original headjoint to keep things in perspective. Think of it as a control in an experiment.
2. Pick a piece you're comfortable with to test everything with. For me, that was the solo from Daphnis and Chloe. It has a little bit of everything in it, and the benchmark for me was playing those high G#'s at the beginning in tune and comfortably with an effortless, ringing sound. It was really inconsistent on my old headjoint so I wanted to make sure whatever I chose would help rectify that problem (caveat: there is no substitute for solid technique and lots of practice!). Once your decision has been narrowed down a little you can branch out to some contrasting music. I went with Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis, Mendelssohn Scherzo, Bach and Mozart.
3. If you can, bring along somebody who really knows your playing. For me, that was my partner who has heard me play for years and really knows how these pieces sound when I play them. His input was extremely valuable to me, especially near the end. While I depended on feel and what I could hear (which, as performers, can be distorted so close to where sound is produced), he heard things from a non-musician perspective. When it was down to the final two, the words that sold me on the Powell were "you sound like you're in HD."
4. Don't let your budget make the final decision. I've had my flute for over ten years. I plan on using this new headjoint for at least the same amount of time, if not longer. This is the piece of equipment I plan on building my career with, that will win me my first job, that will help create the sound that will define me as a musician. If you go over budget a little, it's ok. If you're serious about your job, your purchase will pay for itself. Obviously, there's a limit to this, but make a value judgement that works for you.
5. Listen to the sales staff. This isn't the kind of industry where sleazy salesmen try to upsell you at every turn. They are dedicated musicians who are there to find the right fit for you. They know their product well and can very quickly diagnose your problems and find solutions. They listen to people try instruments all day every day, and they can offer suggestions for pieces to try as well as playing techniques. They will give their honest opinions as well. If I had a quarter for every time I heard "It's beautiful, but not for you" during that weekend...
6. Don't be afraid to mix and match. Sometimes all it takes to transform a "decent" headjoint into "the one" is a different crown. There was a noticeable difference with the Burkart I liked when I switched from the standard silver crown to a gold one. All of a sudden the stuffy notes opened up, the sound was sweeter, and my reaction went from interested to "holy crap!" It's important to remember the embouchure holes are hand cut, so there will always be differences even in identical models. If you find one you like, try every single one they have available, because you never know.
So shiny, so pretty.
I have a summer project in the works at the moment, a 14-week challenge preparing for an audition or performance starting from scratch. The project is courtesy of Nathan Cole at natesviolin.com. Every week I'll be making a video charting my progress with various repertoire, etudes, and exercises. Videos will be posted here, so keep your eyes and ears peeled!