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Players wait years to toot the right flute

Hidden behind the bits, bytes, RAMs, ROMs, and floppy disks of Boston's high-tech image are the ribs, keys, pads, kickers, and trill levers of an equally sophisticated, but more traditional, industry: flutemaking.

While flutes for students and amateur musicians come from French, West German , Japanese, or South Korean factories, professional flutists flock to Boston, which boasts two of the most famous flute companies of all: William S. Haynes Company Inc., founded in 1888; and Verne Q. Powell Inc., started by a former Haynes employee in 1927.

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For about $2,880 and a wait of several years for delivery, one can buy the Haynes flute company's standard silver model. It takes 130 man-hours to put together the 350 individual parts with 150 pieces of solder for one flute. Haynes makes about 720 flutes each year.

Soloists such as Jean-Pierre Rampal prefer the more mellow, darker sound of the Haynes gold flutes, which cost about $16,000. Platinum flutes are available for a paltry $20,000. For an extra $500, delicate designs may be added to the flute's keys by a process known as ''chasing.''

The Haynes flute company's 45 whistling craftsmen also make piccolos (three years' wait) and alto flutes, by hand.

Lewis J. Deveau, Haynes's president, recently introduced a new-model flute with improved intonation. Mr. Deveau says the modifications allow a player to hit each new note and stay in tune - without having to change his lip position.

''By moving all the holes, I brought the volume up and I didn't dampen the sound,'' he adds. The new Deveau flute is ''as close to perfect as you can get it, and everybody that's tried it thinks it the finest scale made,'' he says. Haynes has made about 1,500 of the new-style flutes, although ''not everybody wants it,'' Deveau says.

The most important part of a Haynes flute is the head joint - the section with the mouthpiece. Head joints are specially tapered. ''Most companies make this taper in two to three minutes,'' Deveau says. ''It takes us 3 1/2 hours. If they saw us doing it, they would think we were crazy. But I'm not going to change it.''

Deveau says Japanese flute companies send their employees on tours of the Haynes flute company, hoping to catch a glimpse of the head-joint process. ''They come with cameras. And they look around, but we don't make any head joints when they come in. One day, they actually asked me: 'Mr. Deveau, could you tell me how you make head joints?' I said, 'No,' '' he says with a grin.

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Philip Kaplan, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 31 years, now is a consultant to the Haynes flute company and the last person to test each flute before it goes into its blue, velvet-lined box.

''I'm the last stop. I play it, see if it is up to our standards,'' Mr. Kaplan says. ''Sometimes I have to send flutes back a couple of times for little adjustments. . . .'' But he also says he has to have ''an iron will, because sometimes I want to take a flute home myself.''

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