My Musical Equipment Closet

An opinionated collecton of short reviews of saxophones and woodwinds and the accessories which they require.

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Location: Santa Cruz, California, United States

"Other cultures are not failed attempts at being us. They are all unique manifestations of the human imagination and the human heart." Wade Davis

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Split E Dilemma

Like most saxophone players, I started early on flute and clarinet. I also did some time in school on both oboe and bassoon, although most was lost on me when I realized that the future for players of double reed instruments was one of reed whittling and endless tinkering.

But my sister Noreen had a flute, a Boosey & Hawkes with a light brown case that my parents had bought from Sightsinger & Clark Music at the corner of Bristol and Edinger in Santa Ana, California. It was a plain flute, nickel plated, and like most young saxophone players picking up flute, the first few times I played it my breathing was all wrong, resulting in lightheadedness.

I spent my college years in Santa Cruz, California, where I went to the University and played for pleasure in the Cabrillo College Jazz Ensemble. In addition to being one of the best big bands I ever played in, the saxophone section which I anchored on baritone was led on alto by Paul Contos, a tremendous flute player who was at the time getting notice from people like Elvin Jones for his efforts. I still played plenty of doubling parts down there on the other side of the section, but I'd been hanging out with several university flute players (you know the type--stiffs, know-it-alls) and I decided to model myself as far as I could (stopping just short of practicing six hours at a time) and switch from a closed hole, plateau model Armstrong flute to a Gemienhardt 3m, which sort of looked, if you squinted just right, like the Powells and Haynes of the classical set because of its open holes and inline design.

And so it was that I went through a succession of not always wise choices of flutes, all of them open-holed, French models. I finally ended up with a Yamaha 581H, which is a wonderful flute, but for one little problem, which I'll presently get to.

In Central Texas, where I now live, the pawnshops are part of the financial fabric of society. In the great days before the internet changed everything, I bought several high end Yamaha flutes in the same pawnshop, culminating in my purchasing a 581, then another a couple weeks later, again at the same pawnshop. I chose between the two and sold the other one on eBay, then a new thing, and I made out very well, thank you, in the deal. (Now don't get preachy about it probably being hot. The cops come around to every pawnshop with hotlists and clear every item before they can sell them.)

And so it was that I had what I considered to be a great all-silver flute. Life was good for me as a flute player, as long as I didn't have to take a solo that had a high E. That was all right, because often I was playing a lower flute part to Tony Campise, Paul Baker, or any number of strong flutists in the pits of Austin who played parts higher than mine. I was content to play baritone and bass sax, bass clarinet and low flute parts.

Then I got a gig playing on ships. There were only two reed players on Princess ships, and often as not I was the alto player, and that meant FLUTE 1, and sometimes FLUTE ONLY. Although I knew some of the tricks to make that note pop out, they required nerves of steel, which are sometimes hard to summon on a moving ship. And so it was that I decided that my 581 was no longer cutting it. I knew that there was an alternative--an offset model with a split E. This key, which can't be engineered.

I tried some Sonares, which are made in China and made very well indeed, with a headjoint made by Verne Powell's shop in Boston. But I found that something was missing from the Sonares. I like a little shimmer in the top of my tone on flute, and I wasn't getting it.

Then I tried some Pearl Flutes when I was visiting Orpheus to pick up a new Saxgourmet alto saxophone. Jerry showed me several flutes (student-model Pearls range start at $550 and pro flutes range to $10,000 and up). I selected a midrange Elegante model. It has a great third octave that I can hit all the notes in, including but not limited to my old friend, High E.

I'm now ready to try the thing out on a show gig, but we're just doing parties and weddings for the whole month--no shows. That's the real telling of the tale on High E, but I can already tell that it's going to work for me, based on practicing and plating dinner sets.

For all you saxophone players who modeled yourself as a flutist after the lovely girls who played flute around you in college (and you KNOW who you are), it's time to reconsider offset keys and a split E. Pearl makes several models in inline and offset models, so if you take a trip to San Antonio or you're at one of several upcoming tradeshows (Midwest, IAJE, winter NAMM, TMEA) you can A-B them.

Once that evil note is out of your life, you'll have plenty of time to play with your kids, mow the lawn, or even whittle oboe reeds. Your life will change, and you'll have Jerry at Orpheus to thank.


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