Frequently Asked Questions

While many questions are answered here, I encourage you to visit the Catalog and About pages. If you have a question that is not answered here, please contact me! I look forward to speaking with you soon. Sometime soon I will update this page (April 7, 2015).

[turning a boxwood flute foot joint at the lathe]




Flute Models

What is a Pratten (or Boosey or Rudall and Rose, or...)? What is the difference between these different types of historical flutes?

All of the flutes we now call "Irish" or "Celtic" flutes were actually the mid 19th century equivalents of the modern flutes used in orchestral work. Most of these were originally made with 6 simple finger holes and usually 8 keys allowing the flutes to be theoretically played in all keys. This style of flute was still to be found in some orchestras well into the 20th century as the Boehm flute gained hold. Most of the flutes favored by the Irish musicians were made in London by the firms of Rudall, Boosey, Prowse, Clementi, etc. who held their own proprietary designs. At the time of manufacture, many of these designs were in great flux as the musical demands of these flutes became more and more complex.

Flutes made by Rudall and Rose underwent considerable evolution over time. Most modern makers prefer to copy later period flutes with larger finger holes and embouchure holes that radiate well. Casey's Rudall flutes are based on a late period version by Rudall Carte.

"Pratten" flutes by Boosey and Sons were named "Pratten's Perfected" - an endorsement by the mid 19th century flute impresario Robert Sydney Pratten. John Hudson was the maker of these, who designed this flute around Prattens desire for big tone, big tone holes and big embouchure. Pratten was built like an English Bulldog and could handle this large flute! But instead of evolving the 8 key flute, Pratten-endorsed flutes pursued a development paralleling the development of the Boehm flute.

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If a flute plays easily for a beginner, doesn't that mean that it can't be a professional instrument? Likewise, isn't a professional flute likely to be difficult for a beginner to approach?

These are both forms of an unfortunate but persistent myth that flutes that play well for beginners are necessarily compromised forms of professional-caliber instruments. The subtext of this question is frequently concerns of economy, or justification of the purchase of a less-than-satisfactory flute. A well-made flute plays well, period. Efficiency and correctness in acoustical design do not discriminate by skill, and reward the skilled and beginning player alike. Furthermore, with flutes in particular, the PLAYER makes up the missing component of the instrument, and each player has a unique "acoustic." Please discuss with us the different options available to help you find a good match for you.

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Tonewoods

What is the tonal difference between the different woods used in your flutes?

[Please also read our brief note on wood selection].

While the historical models for these instruments were frequently made from Cocus wood or Boxwood, African Blackwood (which makes an excellent flute) is frequently the standard by which all other flute tonewoods are judged. This is the wood most commonly used for modern clarinets and oboes. Blackwood lends a dark, rich, and broad tone to flutes.

Boxwood, one of the most popular wood for flutes over time, is not seen as often. Contributing factors include a scarcity of instrument-grade wood, and a perceived fragility. However, boxwood makes flutes which are bright, reedy, and responsive. Many players feel that the instrument is more "lively," and prefer the slightly lighter weight of a boxwood flute.

Mopane from Africa resembles Cocus wood in density and color, but is much more stable. The tone of flutes made from Mopane rivals Blackwood - its just as strong and firm, but has a nice bit of warmth to it. Mopane flutes sound particularly well with a tuning slide, as it seems the small amount of metal in the head joint complements the qualities of the wood very nicely. More information on Mopane can be found here.

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Embouchure

There are several different types of embouchures used on modern flutes with cylindrical bores. On traditional flutes with tapered bores, there are just as many variations - although the differences between them are a bit more subtle. I use my own embouchure shape, slightly ovoid, with undercut sides and front edges. I do not do square embouchures or custom shapes. Attempts to try embouchure shapes beyond what I prefer ends up with disappointing results, and the waste of perfectly good pieces of wood!

A number of people have asked about the 3 outer "cuts" seen on pictures of my low flutes. What are these for? What do these do? Are these used on my flutes in D? The answer to the last question is no. I use these cuts on my low flutes to increase the "edge" or buzz to the tone. By design these low flutes are comparatively narrower in bore than my D flutes. Increasing the bore is not practical, thus other features are used to increase the volume and quickness.

On my D flutes, this additional edge is simply not needed. Instead, it eliminates the ability to play without the edge or buzzy tone! With these cuts on the D flutes, it is impossible to play quietly. I prefer to send my D flutes out into the world with the ability to play at several speeds, not just one. On the other hand, the low flutes need all the help they can get!

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Ergonomics

Don't traditional flutes NEED to have the finger holes in those uncomfortable positions? Doesn't shifting the position change the voicing of the instrument? Are these ergonomic changes unnecessary for players with large hands? Isn't this just a compromise to allow Small-Handed players to play traditional-style flutes?

To me this is most significant difference between my flutes and that of other makers. Most traditional Irish flutes, such as the original Prattens or Rudalls are usually copied with their original finger spacing, which I find very uncomfortable and limiting. Think about it - the modern Boehm flute evolved partly to overcome these wide stretches, leaving the un-ergonomic 8 keyed flute consigned to the dustbin of history. In these times of greater awareness of ergonomics, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, etc., it makes sense to fit the flute to the person rather than the other way around. By carefully adjusting the bore and the sizing, placement and undercutting of the finger holes, I have designed a flute comfortable for most hands. Since rapid finger articulation is so important, the flute should facilitate the playing of Irish music, rather than work against it. My flute is made with this in mind. In addition, I feature my Small-Handed model. Look at it this way: my flutes are evolved!

To those who would say: "Playing an ergonomic flute now will make it more difficult to play a 'normal' flute later." That is akin to saying: "typing on a comfortable computer keyboard now will make it more difficult to type on an uncomfortable one later." ...as if it were necessary to start the stress on your hands, arms, and neck any earlier, or there was some inherent need for discomfort! Furthermore, there's no need for a musician of any level to play an un-ergonomic flute - we've advanced ergonomic adaptation in wooden flutes further than most, and proven that it does not in any way compromise performance.

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Does a "Small-Handed flute" mean a compromise in responsiveness, voicing, or tonal quality?

Emphatically NO. This flute is essentially one of my own extrapolation and design. My Pratten-based Small-Handed flute began as a strict copy of a Pratten flute by Boosey and Sons. As I made keyless copies of this flute, I found the bottom D to be unstable, until I moved the C# hole upwards a few millimeters towards the embouchure. I eventually, on later copies, moved the remaining finger holes up to be within a more comfortable reach. As time went on, I experimented with slightly different finger placements, bore configurations, embouchure shape, and many other details, always aiming for the goal of an easy to play and wonderful sounding Irish flute in mind. I believe that an Irish flute should fill up easily for both the weak and the strong player, be comfortable on the hands, and support a nice, reedy and firm bottom D, so important in Irish music.

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Piping style versus Fingertip style. Do ergonomic flutes work with both?

Many of the modern Irish flute players were first introduced to the flute via the Boehm flute in grade school band classes, and adopted a fingertip style of flute playing that is hard to overcome. For some, however, antique instruments with their original finger spacings were their first introduction - these sometimes required playing the flutes with the pads of the joints in a flat handed manner in order to cover the holes effectively. Also, recovering Uilleann pipers fed up with reeds would adopt the flute in this manner. Some players come to the wooden flute via cylindrically bored bamboo flutes, with finger holes arranged with the E's and A's far down the body, requiring this style of playing. I have fitted flutes to players who play piping style on the left hand and fingertip on the right.

The finger holes are usually comfortably spaced for most hands in either style, although for the piping style, holes in line are usually best. Additional shaping or flattening of the finger hole side of the flute body can be done to enhance this playing style. I have seen occasional 19th century flutes by Prowse where this shaping was applied. If the holes are found to be too narrow, selecting a flute closer to the original parameters, such as choosing a Pratten or Rudall copy with the original finger spacing or something approaching it is recommended.

This issue can become complicated when keywork becomes involved. Positioning of the keywork so that it is there when needed but otherwise out of the way when not becomes the goal - unfortunately many of the originals as well as flutes made by some of my colleagues fail in this respect. There is little point in having a short F key if it one keeps bumping into it to cover the E hole! Thus I carefully place this keywork so that these don't intrude, or make necessary modifications if they are found to be in the way!

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Tuning Slides & Rings

Does a tuning slide make any tonal differences in the flute?

Many players prefer flutes with an adjustable slide in the head joint, although this adds to the cost of the flute. I prefer to partially line the head joint with the slide, so that the critical voicing details are not hampered by the metal. Partially lined head joints also tend to crack less (this is a common problem with lining the inside of a wooden tube with metal!). My tuning slides consist of a brass inner slide, and a nickel silver outer slide. To minimize barrel joint cracking, the metal is thinned between points of contact, so that the metal bears against the wood in two places rather than the entire length. This results in a much stronger joint with some wiggle room that is less likely to crack. Should your head joint experience cracking, I would be happy to replace the offending piece.

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Do the rings (also called bands) help the flute or are they just decorative?

Reinforcement is required with a tuning slide, usually bands or rings made from silver. On my flutes, I use turned bands in sterling silver.

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Keys

Which keys are most common?

The traditional Irish flute actually descends from the orchestral flute of mid 19th century England. Prattens, Rudalls, etc. were the premier modern flutes of their day, before the Irish musicians adopted them for the traditional music (primarily a late 19th and 20th century phenomenon). Most of these flutes, from about 1837 onward featured 8 keys, in addition to the basic 6-hole design, that allowed the flute to be played chromatically.

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Which keys are really necessary to play Irish traditional music?

Most traditional Irish flute playing is confined to the keys of D and G, which are possible on a keyless instrument with the 6 simple finger holes, as on a pennywhistle. There are a number of older players of antique flutes who went so far as to seal up or even permanently remove the keys from their flutes, rather than maintain them against leaking, etc.! When considering a flute with keywork, one must consider the purpose and usefulness of these keys. Will they ever be used? Are they worth the extra cost? On the other hand, keys make it possible to play in that exclusive odd key, or in the preferred fiddle key of A. Or to play a tune in D or G that has the occasional F natural or Bb in it.

On the other hand, by learning a few cross fingerings and how to blow to play these well, one can almost play a simple 6 hole flute chromatically - all except for the Eb. A single Eb key then becomes all that is required. This key also facilitates performing in the 3rd octave, as several notes such as the high E will sound with difficulty without it. For this reason, simple system flutes were made up until the early 20th century with just this key.

It is curious that many players want a full complement of keys added to their flutes, while some traditional players with antique instruments, have corked or taped the "bothersome" keys shut and even removed them from their instruments!

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How are your keys constructed? How is this different from historical instruments?

Keys are available in Post Mounted Keywork, such as is used on modern clarinets and oboes. On the post mounted keys, the posts are mounted to a silver strap which is then let in (flush-mounted), glued and screwed to the body, making a very secure mounting.This results in better structure and a cleaner appearance compared to straps mounted on the surface of the flute body, as is done by some of my colleagues. Post mounted keywork may be retrofitted, and has the advantage of being repairable by any competent woodwind repair technician, should the need arise.

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What key combination do you recommend?

I currently offer flutes in a 1, 4, 5 and 6 key configuration, usually forgoing the 2 bottom keys (C and C#) for affordability. Of the key configurations, I recommend the 5 key as the most logical. The C natural key is redundant, since an easier to finger C natural can be played by a simple cross fingering (OXO XXX) and vents as well as the other notes of the D scale. Therefore, the Bb key, which usually is played by the left hand thumb, can be moved into the same place as the long C. Therefore, the Bb would be played by the 1st finger of the right hand.

If an extended foot joint is required, keywork based on the Boehm foot joint functions much better than the traditional lever and pivot foot joint of the 8 keyed flute. I make both styles but recommend the more modern style for better functionality.

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May I add keys later to my Casey Burns flute?

With post-mounted keywork, it is possible to order a keyless flute now and have keys added to it later, should you decide that you really need them. There are many practicalities to this method. You get a flute to play sooner, and your initial investment is smaller. You get to try out the flute and decide whether or not the keys are really needed, or if all 4 to 6 keys are really necessary when 2 or 3 may do. Also, we work with many of my clients to satisfy their needs - occasionally, some of my clients like to try 2 or 3 flutes for a spell each, and then choose which flute suits them best. Although this process usually takes longer, this results in a more personalized instrument, which can then be fitted with keys. If you already own and are satisfied with your keyless Casey Burns Flute, you can get in line to have keys retrofit.

Key retrofits are the same price as new keywork - please see the current pricing on our catalog page. A loaner flute can be supplied during the retrofitting process, if I have one available. Shipping costs, including for delivery of a loaner flute will also be charged. Full payment is due prior to the retrofitting. Allow 6-8 weeks turnaround time.

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Flute Care

Your flute will be easy to care for. You will simply need to protect it from extreme dryness, oil it with bore oil occasionally, and adjust the fit of the tenons as needed by adding or unwrapping thread. Detailed care instructions are provided with the instrument, and can also be downloaded here.

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Page last modified:
April 28 2006

     © Casey Burns 1981-2007