The Tawdry, Musical Odyssey of a Flute Tramp

This is the story of one man’s search for the perfect flute and the secret he discovered:

Having been a guitar player all my life (but without the sex and drugs part. Damn it), I was pushing 40 years on this planet and still felt I was missing something (in addition to the sex and drugs). I needed something to fill the musical gap during my more contemplative, meditative moments. The serene, quiet sound of the flute beckoned to me like one of those weird Siren babes from Greek mythology, and I wasn’t wise enough to change course, so I bought one. No sense trying one on for size first, or borrowing one from a friend to see if I liked it. No. That is not my way. I jumped right in and bought a beautiful, and expensive, Sterling Silver Boehm flute, the kind played in fine orchestras, and one time, at band camp. 

Silver Boehm Flute

Sadly, the flute didn’t even make the cut as an expensive paperweight. It just lay around in my drawer, untouched, for fifteen years (very quietly, I might add). And it’s still there. 

Even today, now that I am a marginally adequate flute player, guilt nags at me. The beautiful flute has yet to fulfill its destiny, and it’s my fault. Its exquisite voice is not eliciting joy nor drawing tears in some stately philharmonic like it could, no… like it should . I sometimes think about who might be playing it right now, were it not for me. Then I think about squirrels.  

But this year, the flute finally got its shot. Beck, my eleven year-old son, needed to select a musical instrument to play at school for the upcoming 3 years. With mild relief and tentative excitement, I dusted it off, rolled some cold, hard cash into the shaft to sweeten the deal, and proudly handed him his first musical instrument. 

Beck
Beck, heartbroken that I wouldn’t let him play my flute for school

He didn’t bite. He didn’t even blink. I fortified my stance and dug through my arsenal of subtle persuasion techniques (I have read a lot of books on the art): I said, This is the only instrument you could ever hope to be even marginally good at. Take it.” He must have been coached by his mom. With his sweetest, most angelic expression, he replied, something to the tune of, “I’ve heard you play, dad.” and walked away. It’s too bad, really. I was loaded for bear with the, “Yeah, well says you!” comeback, and had the unbeatable, “well… infinity plus 1,” waiting on deck, but he was already gone – with my money. After no deliberation, whatsoever, he chose to play the drums (I think for the sex and drugs).

Doesn’t matter. The next day I forbade him from ever playing my flute again (unless he asks, nicely. Well, unless he asks, anyway). That’ll learn him.

A Handful of One-Night Stands

During my courtship with the Boehm flute, I dallied (some might say, fooled around) with a few other flutes, some purchased on Ebay, others at Renaissance fairs from medieval-ish looking swindlers – experts in the old bait n’ switch. The flutes would sound lovely when they “played” them, but would not work at all when I got them home. David Copperfield could have learned a few things from these guys. I suspect a cunningly disguised sound system temporarily inserted into the flute, and then removed later while someone sniggered behind the register. 

These flutes came in Bamboo and various hardwoods, and in styles from Native American to Japanese Shakuhachi to Champagne. Once I finally got the hang of them, they all satisfied my dream of meditating beside a quiet, bubbling stream, just me and the flute, awash in inner peace (though technically not “awash” as I would be beside the creek, not in it, at least until Robyn found out I was playing hooky from work). Picture an oldish, less dead, David Carradine in loose fitting kung fu garb, wandering from town to town designing cool houses and playing the flute (with an occasional gig driving lemmings out of town) – but always kicking some ass.

Shakuhachi Flute

All of these flutes produced the particular sound I craved, but unfortunately had minor and major flaws: specifically, they were missing half of the minor and major notes. 

It turns out, I couldn’t play along with my favorite new age, Yanni collection unless the songs were, coincidentally, in the same key as the flute. Apparently there’s this “thing” in music called “keys,” and if your flute is made in the key of “D”, for example, you can’t play along with a song in the key of “W” (I was never big on music theory, preferring to play by ear). These “simple system” flutes, as they are called, have six finger holes, which is not enough to play all twelve of the notes upon which the “keys” are based. 

My silver Boehm flute, however, had all of the notes. Every single one of them, which explains all of  the  complicated mechanical stuff littering the shaft. You push on various parts of it, blow across the hole, and out pops the note you were looking for (or the droid, if you mistakenly push the Storm Trooper key). Anyway, I asked my Boehm flute to forgive my recent transgressions, and we were back together again.

After that, it only took a few more weeks of blowing into the darn thing, in a dismal attempt to make a decent sound, before I finally achieved aural liftoff. It was only then that I realized my mistake: the tone of the Boehm flute was pure – too pure. Too perfect. Almost cold; every note was was a triumph of precision engineering. I know that doesn’t make any sense; who wouldn’t want an instrument that plays perfect notes? 

Me, apparently. I longed for the Siren song of my mistresses in wood, the simple system flutes that provided a warm, rich and airy sound; a sound with character and depth (when played by someone else, obviously). By this time, the metal Boehm flute was cold in my hands, figuratively and literally. To add to my estrangement, the keys made me feel removed from the music. Instead of covering up the holes with my fingers, reveling in the touch of its warm body and the rising columns of air from its holes, I had to press cold metal keys, which made annoying clicking and clunking sounds (as annoying as someone chewing with their mouth open or incessantly snapping gum). The bending of notes (a slow rolling of your finger on or off a hole to play seamlessly from one note to the next.) was impossible. And the maintenance of the thing – don’t even get me started. This time, no amount of counseling could keep us together. 

Yet, I couldn’t go back to the arms (armless tubes, actually) of the simple flutes from my rather recent past. I had grown, and was beyond them, now. They would never be what I needed them to be, no matter how I tried to change them (pay attention, ladies). I suppose I could have tried to change myself. But no, that is not my way. To get the last one out of my drawers (literally this time) I resorted, ashamedly, to the old, “It’s not you, it’s me,” line. But, at least I didn’t text it. So what’s next? Matchmaker.com?  Tinder?

A Bit o' the Irish

Skip Healy Keyed Flute
Skip Healy 6-Keyed Irish Flute

Say hello to the Irish flute, classical predecessor of the Boehm flute (this is the type of flute that was ubiquitous before Boehm came along and ruined everything). It’s a wood flute with six finger holes, like a simple system flute, but with 4 to 8 keys. Yes, it has keys. But, unlike a Boehm flute, the keys aren’t pressed to play notes, but rather lifted off the holes (a subtle, but important, distinction). It’s a great compromise between simple system and Boehm flutes. So I bought one, or two, or… Let’s just say I collected a few and leave it at that. I thought I had found my true love. I was wrong. Again.

But I wasn’t far off, and that’s why I’m writing this. I stumbled upon a secret that few others have. No, it’s not eternal life, nor a cure for hair loss (not sure which I would prefer). I discovered Skip Healy and his flutes.

Healy’s flutes are a flute player’s dream. I have owned or played many of the finest wood flutes made in this and prior centuries (I haven’t actually time-traveled, just played some really old flutes), but have never met its equal, not even the one made for the six-fingered man. “Hello, my name is…”  

The sound of a Healy flute has a commanding presence, loud, but not harsh, with a beautiful warm resonance. The weight and balance are suburb (I find most Irish flutes to be long and a bit awkward). Skip’s are shorter and lighter and more comfortable. Often the keys on Irish flutes are placed slightly too close to the holes, unintentionally getting in the way, especially if you use a piper’s grip (cover the holes with the middle of your fingers rather than the pads). Not Skip’s. Unless you are using the keys, you hardly know they are there. Finally, the aesthetic styling is fresh and modern yet  elegantly nods to the flute’s classic past. 

But that was not the secret. This is: One day I was in Skip’s studio in Rhode Island picking up a 6-key flute he had just completed for me (the one pictured above), when my eye happened to glimpse a lone flute lying on a workbench. It didn’t have any keys, but did have a couple more holes than a typical, 6-hole flute. I asked him if his hand had slipped and accidentally drilled some errant holes (a credit to his self control that his hand did not slip across my cheek). What he told me rocked my world, like Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull jamming on Aqualung. 

Skip Healy 10-Hole Chromatic Flute
Skip Healy 10-hole, Fully Chromatic D Flute

The flute was a keyless, 10-hole fully chromatic flute. That means that the flute could play in any musical key without the need for physical keys! Yes, you heard that right – a fully chromatic wood flute without keys. To my knowledge, no one else in the world makes one, or ever has.

When I regained my composure, I asked him, “So, what’s the catch?” He said there was no catch, except you need to use all of your fingers and thumbs. Oh, and covering the holes is a bit of a stretch. 

Bit of a stretch, indeed. I picked up the flute and tried to cover the holes, but couldn’t do it. For a brief moment I thought about bringing in a few toes to help. Back in my school days, they once showed us a motivational film about a woman without arms who did everything with her feet, from driving to washing dishes. She was amazing. Too bad she wasn’t in the shop with me. I bet she could have played it. Skip said I would get used to the flute, and he was right. It took a few months, alternating between Skip’s keyed and non-keyed flutes, but one day it all came together and I haven’t looked back. 

By way of scale, I’m 5′-8″, weigh 160 lbs, and have normal sized hands for my height (although I am told I have dainty, effeminate feet, for those of you interested in those things). My hand measures 7″ from the tip of the middle finger to the point where the wrist and hand join together. 

Honestly, it may be the hardest flute in the world to play; at least, I haven’t found one that’s more difficult. That said, it just takes a little more time and patience and finger stretching (I considered building a smaller version of a rack like you might find in a dungeon, but ended up not needing it). I wouldn’t recommend it as a first flute, or if you need to play exceptionally fast, because of the somewhat trickier fingerings, but if you are like me and appreciate a challenge, Skip Healy’s 10-hole chromatic flute is a minimalist’s dream. 

So, there you go. I finally found my true love (and I rarely cheat on her, and then only with her sister).

Skip doesn’t make flute cases, and I needed one for my travels, so I designed the one below. It is constructed of zebra wood with inlaid wood strips and features magnetic closures plus a flush, wood locking button (you can see it on the end). It is my first attempt to build a wood case, so I have to admit, I am pleased how it turned out.

The Tawdry, Musical Odyssey of a Flute Tramp

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