A Christmas Story: Two Instruments, Two Nutcrackers, Two Sticky High B-Flats

Posted by on Dec 12, 2012 in Latest News | No Comments

It’s a week before show time and in the workshop,
Email is burning with news of hang ups.

It’s Nutcracker season where flutes can grandstand,
With high B-flat notes ringing true through the band.

But high notes are failing on two diff’rent axes,
On the same run of notes – the lovely B-major passage.

“Huh? What gives?”, I voice with erudition,
That note is no trouble, it’s not the lower rendition.

Is it catching? Is it coincidence? Or am I losing my mind?
Bring it in, let me look, and I’ll see what I find.

(And here is the part where I stray from true verse,
I’m not a machine and this is getting perverse.)

The Situation

A nasty, uneven, cracking transition between high A and B-flat or high G and B-flat on a piccolo and a flute. Two different instruments, two different players, two different Nutcrackers. In both cases, it seems like the trill rod is the culprit. Unfortunately, that makes no sense.

Background

The first two B-flats on your instrument are notoriously fickle. They constitute.

  • three different fingerings
  • they cross the left and right hand stacks
  • they can involve up to five different adjustments
  • four pins
  • three screws and steels
  • five posts and
  • four pads
  • ouch

High, B-flat, however, while a complex fingering to the flutist is simpler for repair.

  • it’s one fingering
  • it’s not played that often
  • it’s a harmonic and not a true fingering: so press it, blow, and barring something terribly wrong happening a noise squeaks out. (Note: In general, the terribly wrong thing that happens is a pin, rusty rod, or spring on the trill keys. And if they are causing problems, then you’ll hear it throughout the flute before you notice it on the B-flat.)
  • the trill rod is involved, but because it’s not an interconnected key I have never seen it cause an issue in transitions between high B-flat and other notes.That is until now.

Solution

The Piccolo

The piccolo may seem like a small flute, but it’s really not. One of the ways in which it is not a flute is its trill mechanism. Unlike the flute, the downward action of the trill keys is not stopped by corks under the keys that rest on the body. The corks under piccolo trill keys rest on the right hand key stack which stops the downward action of the trill keys.

Piccolo Trills

Flute Trills

The flutist in question has a strong grip.
And he practiced and toiled ’til sweat doth did drip.

(Sorry – I’m stopping now)

Gratuitous verse aside, his strong grip and his particularly nimble left-hand fingers were indeed related to the sticking trill key. Because the piccolo trill key rests on the right hand key stack, if depressed hard enough it affects the action of the F# key.

In short: during quick passages his left hand worked a nanosecond faster than his right hand, and thus during the transition from high B-flat to G his G spoke before the F# key lifted. Thus the squeak.

Recommendation: Release right, first finger faster. Or, reduce grip with right hand.

The Flute

The flute had been in previously for this complaint. The sticking trill key problem was sporadic and I had not successfully reproduced the condition in the shop. I had disassembled and cleaned the rod and tested it and believed the problem was resolved.

When the flute returned, I looked at all possible points of contact between the trill key and other parts of the flute and found no places where the other keys were touching the trill rod. Fortunately the flutist was there to reproduce the problem, because regardless of how much I squeezed I could not get the trill key to hang. And hang ONLY when coming off the high B-flat.

Looking For Points of Contact

After I had spent considerable time losing hair and testing every part of the flute, the flutist asked me, “Maybe it’s the cork?” Well, that doesn’t make sense, but because I had tried everywhere else I looked anyway. And it was indeed the cork.

The flute in question had a slightly longer than average cork under its trill key. By longer, I mean at most 2mm. This protrusion of cork in combination with a sturdy grip resulted in the cork touching and compressing against and around the body rib. Maybe there was also a sticky substance (glue, oil, dead skin, dirt, etc.) on that portion of cork. So with all variables in place, the trill cork contoured itself around the rib causing there to be a momentary adhesion between the rib and the trill cork then the flutist’s finger was lifted.

The Sticking Point

Action: Sand paper the back of the trill cork so that regardless of how hard the trill key was depressed its cork no longer touched the rib.