When I went to my first lesson with Thomas Nyfenger, I had with me a Murumatsu flute and a folder with Bach and Handel Sonatas, Syrinx, and the Chaminade. Before knocking on the door I stopped, listening to the sounds of a flute from inside. I had never heard such sounds. Whoever was playing sounded so deep, so rich, with such honest connection between notes and registers; I couldn't believe my ears. I couldn't move from my spot. Could that be another student? Was I in that far over my head? At five minutes after the hour, the door opened from the inside, and Nyfenger waived me in. Of course, there was no student and Tom had been grabbing a few minutes for practice waiting for me. I didn't take any music out from my bag, but rather brought out some blank manuscript paper and said to him, "I could play a few things through for you, but I'd rather not. Could we start at the beginning, from how to play a tone, an interval, an octave... could we start at the very beginning?" Tom looked at me as if to judge my sincerity, and after several testing questions he agreed. Over the next eight years he mapped out the way the flute works and the major styles of playing and interpretation. I still have the manuscript pages from the first day: half-steps, fifths, octaves, tapers, drawings of the embouchure.
A major part of that program became listening. The Nyfe loved teaching saxophonists with an affinity for the flute; he loved being able to 'talk harmony' and ears. Nyfenger listened to records like a jazz musician, (so, incidentally, does William Bennett) that is to say, he listened to everybody and when he heard something he loved he worked until he could really play it with the sound and feel of the recording. He wove that into his unique style with no conflict. I was quite used to this, having spent countless hours playing along with Coltrane, Rollins and Joe Henderson already. I applied this method to learning the flute, first with Rampal and Galway, then, leaving Galway aside, with Rampal and Baker.
I became very interested in lineage; Baker had studied with Kincaid, Kincaid with Barrere, Barrere with Taffanel. Rampal had studied with his father (a student of Gaubert), with a great player named Caratgé, and was very influenced by Dufrene. Caratgé and Dufrene had studied with Gaubert, who of course was Taffanel's main protogé. William Bennett (whose records Tom had recommended to me at a certain point) had studied with Moyse, who in turn had worked with both Taffanel and Gaubert. When I heard Baker's Debussy Trio recording, I was awestruck with the lusciousness of his tone. Although it was all Baker, everyone who hears that record also wonders about the flute, which was Baker's old Powell. Since I loved Baker's sound, I had to hear Kincaid. Kincaid, also, of course, played old Powells. The search was on for an old 'three digit Powell', which after a while led me to a friend who was selling Powell #811, built in 1948 with Kincaid's specs for an incoming student at Curtis. It was on that flute that I proceeded to learn to play from scratch according to Tom's method.
Today we take the availability of flutes for granted, but there is important lineage there as well. At some point I became aware that the great master Verne Powell himself learned how to make flutes from somewhere. Prior to forming his own business, he made flutes for Haynes, and at Haynes he saw older flutes which had come from Europe, especially from France. The French masterpiece flutes which the Haynes shop copied (and which were Powell's model, according to his own words) were brought to America by George Barrere and Georges Laurent, as well as a few others. The way these great players sounded, and the flutes which helped them sound that way, permanently changed flute playing and making in America. Of course, this was never kept secret; Haynes and Powell made nearly exclusively what they still call today, French model flutes. The most famous and important French maker was Louis Lot. Since the day that I heard that Powell modeled his own after Louis Lot flutes, I was very eager to hear what they sounded like. That opportunity first came on record, on a recording by Michel Debost of Devienne sonatas. The record notes indicated that he played on a Lot. It's a beautiful record and there was something in the sound which totally captivated my ears.
The first Louis Lot that I played was in quite poor condition. Inside the sound was something unbelievably special, but it wasn't up to playing standards. Soon after that I saw an ad for a Lot for sale, in Yonkers, NY (not exactly a city known for rare flutes...) and I borrowed a friend's car to drive up there. As it turned out, there was a couple about to be married, and the young man had bought his fiancée a Lot flute, from the family of someone who had been in the Boston Symphony. The woman, however, couldn't play the thing and wanted to sell it to get something modern. I tried to talk them out of it, then gave them the money.
That flute, a nickel Lot made in 1902, turned out to be extremely important for me. I played it at home and played the Powell professionally. That Lot has a very small blow hole, with no over cutting or anything like that. It has a straight up and down hole. At some point, I needed to have my Powell overhauled, during which time I played the Lot solely. At first it was difficult to get enough volume and a little bit difficult to tune, but steadily my chops figured out how to bring the volume out from within the flute and the pitch settled in perfectly. I was getting sounds I never thought I would be capable of. When my Powell returned, with a beautiful overhaul, it was much easier for me to control different tone colors and connect the registers smoothly. Something had clicked for me due to spending so much time on that rose-toned silver plated Louis Lot. During that time, I was playing with an older oboist who had, in his youth, played in the Philadelphia Orchestra for two seasons, with Kincaid. He told me that Kincaid always kept a Louis Lot, although he was famous for playing the first solid platinum flute ever made (an old Powell, of course); and that on tour, if Kincaid ever felt his chops get a little out of whack, he would play the Lot for an hour in his hotel room, which would re-center his playing for any other flute he wished to use. Something about the old French flutes apparently captured a critical essence of the art of flute playing itself.
The next French flute I was able to find was made by the Bonneville family. The lore around the great French makers says that Louis Lot, although from a family of flute makers, learned the art of making silver flutes from Claire Godfroy, who had two other very famous apprentices, Auguste Bonneville and Claude Rive. Both started their own shops and made wonderful flutes. This Bonneville came to me with nail polish around every tone hole, since the solder had deteriorated. It had an old wine cork behind the head joint crown, without the familiar silver plate over it. It was in desperate shape all around, but had the most amazing tone, and unlike the nickel Lot I had learned so much from, it made a great deal of sound. On Keith Underwood's recommendation, I sent it to Bob Gilchrist for repair, and after a very long and arduous restoration, this flute returned to me in excellent playing condition.
This Bonneville, which has a Dorus G# key (just like Taffanel has in the pictures of him with his Louis Lot), remains the most remarkable flute I know. I have played hundreds of French flutes, classic American flutes, modern flutes from all over, and I love many of them, but I'm always looking for the colors and way of playing of this special Bonneville. I invite any flute maker today to examine this flute to try to learn its secrets. It's a perfect marriage of the elements of a flute: the tube, the lip plate, the head joint taper, the key work, everything matches itself and was truly made to be a single whole.
At this point, my Powell spent more and more time in my closet (eventually it was sold). I had found many early recordings of Rampal, which were made using his Louis Lot (the first gold flute ever made and the only one Lot made, in 1869). These are some of the greatest recordings possible to hear of flute playing. While studying with William Bennett (who is well known for playing on Louis Lot flutes which have been re-scaled to his own 'modern' scale, and have had new, louder lip plates installed on the Lot tubes) I first heard the great French master Dufrene, who of course played on a Lot. Gradually I was able to collect recordings of Dufrene, Gaubert, Barrere, Laurent, Moyse, Lebon, Caratgé, Leroy and many others playing on these great old instruments. Listening deeper and deeper into these recordings, I began to devise exercises for myself-- exercises to learn something of the way Gaubert and Barrere played octaves (like nothing in the world), to get something of the density of tone of Moyse, something of Rampal's superb articulation, exercises to be able to get some hint of the fantastic perfection of Dufrene's playing. This became the source of my playing style and of my teaching methods. Of course, just because something is old doesn't mean it's wonderful or classic. I have a tape of various players from the early 20th century, all playing old instruments, and they sound terrible, all struggle and affectation. For the great players, however, something special was going on: a coming together of new playing insights (focusing around Taffanel), instruments capable of and suited exactly to the new style of focused, many-colored and supple playing, and a new understanding of the flute by the composers of the time, Debussy, Saint-Saens, Ravel, Faure, etc.
The great age of the French flute makers, from around 1850 to 1915, was the original period of the modern flute. Godfroy and Lot met with Boehm himself and matched their superior tube making skills with Boehm's design for the modern keyed flute. It was a perfect combination. As with many things, the first period seems to have been also the best.
What is it that makes these flutes so good?
Makers today buy pre-made tubes and often produce their flutes with little or no further work on those tubes. This technology didn't exist at the time of Lot, Bonneville or Rive. The tubes for flutes were hand made from flat silver, which was heated, pounded around a mandrel and seamed with hard solder. The exact method for doing this has not been preserved. Something about the heating, about the constant hammering. The result was tubes which were made to be instruments. They are hard, thin, and springy. They have tensility. With lip plates modeled after the blow holes of the earlier wood flutes, they ring from the tube itself, not just from a loud, sharp edged blow hole. On a French flute in good playing order, there is a resistance, but the tube rings under your fingers. Many times I've had people say to me that I don't sound as loud as someone next to me up close but in the back of the hall it's the other way around. The sounds of a French flute hang together and travel. They project not from power per se but from the integrity of the tone. The French flutes have wonderful articulation. Here even the great early Powell's or Haynes can't claim to have captured or improved upon anything the Lot's and Bonneville's had. The French flutes provide seemingly magical tapers, and tone color shifts which you just have to think about to achieve. All this is missing in the modern style flutes.
Flutes today are built to be very loud. Since it can be difficult to play the flute loudly, if a flute plays loud it may seem to be good. However, in order to provide easy volume 'for free', flute makers have made the blow holes so large and sharp that the fundamental quality of tone is hopelessly compromised. More specifically, flute makers are generally making flutes without working the tubes as the old makers did (Powell was known to come into his shop even on Sundays to burnish tubes and keys, which his own workers weren't doing enough of). Because the tubes aren't made to be very resonant, all the volume must come from the head joint, which results in all the sound coming from the top of the flute and little coming from the body. They sound pointy and obvious as a result.
When a composer such as Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Mahler or any other decided to put a melody on the flute line of the manuscript score, they were looking for a sound which carried some of the mystery of the age old lineage of the flute, beginning with bear bone flutes, bamboo and cane flutes through to wooden flutes with keys and our modern Boehm silver and gold flutes. If they had wanted maximum volume they would have reached for another instrument in the orchestra, perhaps several trombones in unison or something of that nature. The flute is capable of extremely fine shadings of color, wide dynamic and register shifts, and a liquid flowing tone of compelling humanity. Each player does and should sound unique. Sadly, more and more flutists agree to sound the same, without much color or any mystery in their sound. In times like these when audiences for serious music are hard to get, contemporary flutists may find that they can win an audition but don't have anyone who comes to hear the sounds they are making. Too much humanity is missing.
While I respect the attitude of today's flute makers, trying to make improvements in intonation and ease of playing, I am happiest playing my old French flutes, lovingly and expertly restored by flute-master Bob Gilchrist. Of course, although countless flutists who have tried my flutes or other ones like them are awed by the sound and possibilities within them, nearly everyone today chooses to play much younger if not new instruments. All I ask of someone I'm hearing is that they do whatever it takes on the flute they are playing to produce not just a loud tone but a beautiful one, with some mystery in it, and evenness between notes, many colors, fine tapers and articulations, integrated up and down the registers.
Andrew Sterman currently plays on several old French flutes:
a Louis Lot built in 1875
a Louis Lot built in 1878
The Bonneville mentioned above, built in the 1880's (only from the Lot shop have specific records of dates and serial numbers turned up),
and the Rive which belonged to Tom Nyfenger, built perhaps a bit earlier than that.