Two Heads Are Better Than One

The value of collaboration

Jon Walpole arranges flutes for measuring.

I’ve been singularly fortunate throughout my flute-making career in terms of creative relationships, especially with musical artists.  Having skilled musicians play my flutes, provide feedback and suggestions, and through their own endeavors promote my work has been invaluable.   I consider myself very fortunate in this regard and I can clearly see how these relationships have advanced my art.

But in the Fall of 2012 I formed a collaboration that stood out in many ways, because it was the first such relationship that spanned two distinct aspects of my craft: musical inspiration and technical applications.  This made it unique.

I met Jonathan Walpole through The Flute Portal, an online flute resource that I had co-created with Jeff Ball in 2006.  It was participation in the online discussion forums that first brought me into contact with Jon, initially through conversations about rim blown flutes.  He bought a couple of flutes from me back in 2010, and at one point we had a phone chat and talked about digital recording applications.   And that was it.  We participated together in some discussions on the Flute Portal forums, but we didn’t really have any more contact.  I saw that he was making his own rim blown flutes and he posted sound samples of his playing from time to time.  This was impressive because he was clearly making good flutes and playing them incredibly well.  I took note.

At some point along the line I mentioned on the forums that I had begun a new phase in my flute making wherein I was striving to craft an Irish flute.  By “Irish flute” I meant a conical bore instrument based upon the work of 19th century makers in the pre-Boehm flute era.  I had been in contact with Australian flute maker and researcher Terry McGee (who also deserves a major hat-tip as being a font of inspiration and technical advice—he was responsible for setting me on this path in the first place) and Terry had sold me some blueprints of a 19th century Boosey&Co. R.S. Pratten’s Perfected flute which I was using to craft my first prototype flutes.   It turns out that Jon was also very interested in Irish flutes, both as a player and as a maker/restorer of antique instruments, and he had begun to amass an impressive amount of knowledge on the subject.  When he discovered our shared interest he made the staggeringly generous offer to pay me a visit, bringing with him his entire collection of antique and modern flutes so that we could examine, compare and measure them together.  This was a defining moment in my flute making journey, though I didn’t fully realize it at the time.

Jon had been bitten by the Irish flute bug and his interest transcended simply playing the flute (though he is a dedicated player and student of Irish Traditional Music).  He wanted to know how they were made, and he approached the subject in a singularly organized and systematic fashion.  This is not surprising given his background (he is a professor of Computer Science at Portland State University), and when this organization was coupled with a natural talent for the technical side of flute making it made him a formidable advocate of the craft.  He also turns a mean wooden bowl!

So Jon made the eight hour journey to my home and we proceeded to dig into the task of blueprinting his flutes.  This presented a number of challenges, particularly the task of measuring the inner bore profile of the flutes (the subject of another blog most likely).  However, we set about it with enthusiasm, plying the ruler and gauge plugs and organizing the data.  It was a lot of fun and a great pleasure to be able to handle so many amazing flutes, both antique and modern, but this was simply the beginning.  Things really took shape when Jon got home and set about entering the data into spread sheets and creating visual aids such as graphs that plotted variations in the bore profiles.   That’s when I began to realize that I had stumbled into a collaboration that had a lot of potential, but even then I didn’t imagine where it would lead.

As the months rolled by and we exchanged a multitude of e-mails on the subject of flute making, I experienced a growing degree of wonder at Jon’s modesty.  He was (and is) a seriously talented flute maker with a fund of knowledge that is probably equaled by a tiny handful of people in the ITM world.  He not only has made a study of antique instruments and their modern offspring, but he also taught himself the art of restoration which he has used to rehabilitate  a number of the older instruments that he has acquired.  As we delved more deeply into the study of these flutes it became obvious that I had associated myself with someone who shared my interest in advancing flute making methods, and who brought a high level of outside-the-box thinking to the table.  I’ve often joked to him that if he ever quit his day job and “hung his shingle” as a professional maker, he would likely end up being mentioned alongside the most well-known makers of modern Irish flutes.

Luckily for me he has no such ambitions!  Because his motivations have to do with love of the craft and the music, he is the ideal collaborator and brings no ego to the task.  He just enjoys the process and is always willing to share his insights and to brainstorm with me on whatever problem I’m trying to crack, and he has provided me with priceless feedback on my prototype flutes.  I can’t stress enough how crucial it is to have this type of minute observation from an informed source.  Anyone who has strived to master a craft will understand what I mean.  It’s easy to find people who will say “This is great!” and not so easy to find those who understand the goal and will say “This is great, but it would be even better if you could tweak this tiny little thing over here”.   And he is also the first person to give me the secret to making a world-class Irish flute.

So what is the secret?  Funnily enough I didn’t really credit this as much when he first made the observation, but time and experience has changed that.  He said “If you want to make a great Irish flute, you have to be able to play them the way they are meant to be played in ITM”.   As he put it, there is no way to really know if you are hitting the bullseye unless you can personally learn to push the flutes to the edge and make sure they do what they are supposed to do. 

I’ve never been more than an adequate player of most of the different types of flutes that I make and I found that my mediocrity as a player did not create any problems.  As long as my embouchure was developed enough to produce a good solid tone, I was able to effectively voice and tune the different flutes that I made, and the feedback I got from professional players reinforced this delusion.  Well perhaps not a complete delusion, but certainly a half-truth that I had not yet recognized.  When it came to the Irish flute, being a mediocre player might allow me to craft a good flute—even a really good flute if I’m working faithfully from some proven technical drawings—but I would never make a great flute.  I might get 95% there, but that last 5% would never be achieved until I could play it competently.  A couple of years later I had a chat with Blayne Chastain (owner of the Irish Flute Store) who also teaches the flute and he echoed this advice practically verbatim.

Mind you, it’s not necessary to set the world on fire with one’s playing, but I would have to be sufficiently immersed in the music and have developed some solid technical skills in order to understand what players expect from a top-notch Irish flute.  When Jon first suggested this I simply didn’t buy it.  I saw the logic of it, and I already had a fair bit of evidence that it was true, but part of me wanted to get there without all the extra effort.  It was already challenging enough trying to master the many new technical skills that were required in order to make these flutes effectively.  But now I have to play them skillfully as well?  Is that really necessary?  Whine, whine, whine.

In short, yes.  Totally necessary, unless I’m willing to be content with “really good”, which I wasn’t.  So now I practice the flute a lot and I’m doing my best to develop the skills as a player that will help hone my judgement as a maker.  To encourage this interest, Jon had early on gifted me a number of flute CDs from amazing ITM artists and suggested that I really listen to them and get a feel for the music.  He especially suggested checking out some live ITM if I could because it would really fire my interest.  He never spoke a truer word!  I got to see the amazing Kevin Crawford and Lunasa perform locally and it was incredibly inspiring.

Not surprisingly, the value derived from my dedication to improving my playing has not limited itself to the Irish flute.  Since all I make is embouchure flutes (no more NAFs or whistles), the quality of all of them has improved.  My fussiness about voicing and intonation has been amplified radically and the bar for what I consider to be a good flute is much higher than it has ever been.  So our collaboration has been a real game-changer in many ways.

Some of the cool technical stuff that Jon and I have worked on together such as reamer manufacturing, materials selection, etc. will be the subject of future blogs for those who take an interest in the nuts and bolts side of the flute making process, but I wanted this blog to focus on this, my most valuable collaboration to date.  Thanks, Jon :-)


Geoffrey Ellis Flutes

Contemporary World Flute Store

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