Wooden't It Be Lover-ly? (Part Un)

If you've read any of my past posts, watched many of my Youtube videos, or know me in real life, then you know that one of my greatest obsessions is the wooden Boehm flute. I love everything about wood flutes; the sound, the way they feel in the hands, the way they look, the gorgeous variety of woods that are used in their manufacture.  The topic of wood flutes has randomly popped up in conversation with several different people over the last week or two, and it has come clear to me that a great many people, even within the flute playing community, are laboring under the same general set of misconceptions about wooden flutes; primarily, that they are unsuitable for modern-day orchestral use and that nobody plays them. Many are unaware that they are even currently being produced!

This...well, this makes me sad. The modern Boehm flute crafted from wood is an instrument capable of just as much power and projection as her silver, gold, and platinum sisters; it is also possessed of a uniquely colored voice that is nearly always distinguishable from metal flutes. Many experiments by many flutists (the multi-flute video demonstrations carried out by James Galway and Nina Perlove come immediately to mind) have pretty conclusively proven that a listener cannot tell the difference between gold, silver, and platinum or any combination thereof. I have done this many times myself, and I personally can't tell the difference, nor could any of the people I played for.

Now, to a player, yes, they feel incredibly different and probably cause different physiological responses (vis a vis transmission of vibration through the cranium, etc), that make them sound different, but to an audience? Nein, mein herr. However, every person I have ever blindly played several flutes for with a wooden flute in the mix has ALWAYS correctly identified the wooden instrument. There is just some magical, unexplainable element of the sound of a wood flute that makes what's left of my shriveled, blackened soul melt just a little bit. A bit of the ghost of Pan, perhaps...I dunno.

In the course of this particular series of blog posts, I am going to introduce you to the wide, wonderful world of the wooden flute in the 21st century, and you're gonna love it. :)

(Where possible, I've included a video of someone playing each of these and a link to either the maker's website or a retailer where they can be purchased.)

I've played (with one or two exceptions) all of these flutes, and I'd be hard pressed to say I have a favorite. I would very honestly be quite happy to own any of them!



Of all the currently active makers of wooden flutes, I think the one that elicits the most surprise when I talk about them is Yamaha. It seems that people are generally rather unaware of the insanely high quality of Yamaha's upper range of flutes, but they are particularly unaware that Yamaha makes an absolutely AMAZING wooden flute. In terms of available customization, it is a rather bare-bones instrument (for the purist, if you will), available in various combinations of the standard options of open/closed holes, offset/inline G, and C/B footjoints. The headjoint is a modified EC cut, and there are no further headjoint options, but they seem to have worked out an ideal cut that does pretty much whatever you need it to. For those who require something outside the realm of possibility offered by the standard Yamaha wood head, there are a plethora of aftermarket wooden headjoints that all fit the Yamaha (which is a standard metal tenon head, as opposed to a cork joint).

I have played quite a few Yamahas to date, and as one expects from a Japanese flute, they are remarkably consistent (insomuch as wood can be), and they tend to favor a darker, bass-heavy sort of sound that projects quite well but retains a great roundness to the sound. The third and fourth octaves are a bit more resistant than one may be used to, but speak reliably, with great control (owing to the resistance). I'd love to experiment with various headjoints on the Yamaha body...I bet it would be spectacular with the Yamaha Type A head in 14K gold!

Also worth knowing is that the Yamaha is the least expensive of the currently available high-end wooden flutes, and they are readily available from any Yamaha dealer. (And you didn't hear this from me, but fabulous deals on them are very often found on That Big Auction Site!)

Wanna buy one? Yamaha Wood Flutes at FluteWorld!

One of my most popular Youtube demo videos is of the Yamaha 894W wood flute, so here it is! :) (It's a C-foot, inline, open hole flute, for the curious)

And here is the incomparable Juliette Hurel, laying down some Haydn on her Yamaha:



Next up, we have our good friends at Sankyo. If I were magically given the money to buy any wood flute I wanted, the odds are that it would be a Sankyo. Of the many wonderful marques turning out wooden flutes these days, Sankyo is one of the only ones that offers theirs with a C# trill key, which makes it very much a frontrunner for me (my previously discussed love of Sankyo flutes nonwithstanding). You can also choose from three different headjoint cuts, all of which possess very individual personalities. The most traditional looking of the three, with a carved lip plate, is a very comfortable all-purpose head that will allow you to do just about anything you want, and for the newbie to the wood flute world, it is probably the one I would pick. The "Traditional" cut is a simple embouchure hole carved directly through the wall of the headjoint, with no surrounding lipplate. This is for the Baroque enthusiast, or the wood flute specialist. It is quite possible to produce a great deal of power with this headjoint, but where it really excels is in smooth transitions between intervals and producing hugely rich colors at soft dynamics. High register response is also stellar with this head. My personal favorite is the Modern cut, which incorporates a cutout opposite the embouchure hole (also with no lipplate), and this head gives you a big, huge, dark, fat sound that will make pant legs flap in the first row. This is a soloist's head, a principal player's head. It's just magnificent.

In addition to the traditional grenadilla wood, the Sankyo wood flute was also built in cocuswood. Now, according to the Sankyo rep that I hung out with in Tokyo 2 summers ago, they are no longer using cocus, as the supplies are dwindling dangerously. However, there should be some still in stock at Sankyo dealers around the globe, so if you happen across one, snap it up! There is nothing quite like the brilliant darkness of a cocus wood flute, with its vast color spectrum. (And it is a gorgeous wood to look at!)

You can see the difference between the two here:

Curious? Call Jeffrey at FluteWorld and tell him I sent you :) They're $14,000, but they're worth every penny!   FluteWorld: Wood Sankyo

Have a listen to first the grenadilla, then the cocus Sankyo (start the cocus video at 2:01 to get right to the playing, unless you're fluent in Japanese!):



Returning to our home shores, we find the venerable Boston flutemaking institution, Verne Q. Powell, turning out some truly exquisite examples of wood flute making, which are hugely popular around the globe. There are a great many symphonic players using wood Powells, and an even larger number of soloists and chamber players. The wood Powell delivers enormous power, a smoothness of legato, and an almost mystical sound color. While they do not offer a C# trill (Powell has very strong opinions about the placement of such a large tone hole next to another on a wooden-bodied instrument), you CAN order your wood Powell with a solid 14K rose gold mechanism! :-) (It doubles the price, but some things are just worth it!) Split E and D# roller are options, of course, as are the usual inline/offset, open/closed, and C/B foot. You can also choose from the wood version of Powell's popular headjoint cuts, the Soloist and Philharmonic, and upon special order, there is also a "Traditional" cut, which does away with the lip plate. You want options, they got options! :)

During my time in Japan with the international tour of Dreamgirls, I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a very special Powell flute made of the same laminate wood material that they are making the new Sonare piccolos out of, and I have to say, it was one of the most mind-blowing flutes I've ever played. It had the brilliance of a silver instrument, tempered by the mellowness of wood, and was a surprisingly lightweight instrument, very comfortable in the hands. I do not know the current availability of this instrument, but there are at least a couple of them floating around out there!

Ringing in at $13,200, a Powell wood flute isn't exactly an inexpensive proposition, but it's not much more than a soldered tonehole silver flute, and it is CERTAINLY cheaper than gold! :-)

Buy A Wood Powell!

You can see a wood Powell in many orchestras around the globe, including our very own Cleveland Orchestra, with the always-handsome Joshua Smith in the hot seat, wielding either his wood Powell or his gold Powell with a wood headjoint. The man's got taste! :)

Now watch this performance of Cleveland at the Proms in London last year and tell me a wood flute doesn't project in an orchestra! Hrmph.

And here, we have the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo playing some Shostakovich 7, with their principal flutist on a wood Powell with 14K gold mechanism. Isn't it to die for?! (there is a fabulous flute feature around the 2:00 mark!)

If it's solo action you're after, here's a lovely performance of Bach on a wood/silver Powell:

Here is our aforementioned handsome wooden flute hero, Mr. Smith, serving us some contemporary flute concerto realness:

And last but not least, remember that magical laminate material Powell I talked about earlier?

                                                                 Yeah. That one. :) 



Though the brand is a newcomer to the flute scene, the man behind it is not. Di Zhao worked at Powell for 13 years, eventually becoming Vice President of Quality; he then moved to Haynes and worked as their Vice President and General Manager. Prior to all that, he had a decade-plus career in China as a principal flutist in two major orchestras. Now, if that isn't a man who knows flutes, I don't know what is.

The Di Zhao wood flute holds a very special place in my heart, if for no other reason that it is currently the only flute I will discuss in this series that could also hold a special place in my bank account. This instrument (which reminds one AMAZINGLY of the wood Powell flutes), will set you back only just a bit north of $3,000, which is absolutely unbelievable for an instrument of this quality. Di himself finishes each flute, making sure the mechanism is completely free of excess play and then play tests it to ensure it meets his lofty standards before it goes out the door.

Please don't let the low price fool you into thinking that this is an instrument of low quality, though. Nothing could be further from the truth. These flutes were a massive hit the moment the were released onto the market, and have continued to be so. It really is like buying a Powell (or a very, very close sibling of a Powell) at the price of an intermediate flute. The sound quality is rich, vibrant, and colorful, and the scale of these instruments is very good. The headjoints are also expertly cut...so much so that they are an incredibly popular choice for people who wish to buy a wood headjoint for their silver or gold instrument. (I personally know 5 flutists who have purchased Di Zhao wood headjoints for their flutes, and they adore them.)

The Di Zhao is also available with a C# trill key (yay!) and a D# roller and/or split E.

Order yours today! :)

Watch the Man himself play one of his own flutes! (With someone else's headjoint, though...)

I think that's enough to digest for now, so stay tuned for Part Deux, where we head to Europe and see what's going on over there! :-)

Until next time, happy fluting!!

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