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Flute/Bb lever / Headjoints


Hi, Herbert.
Please could you tell me why and when we should/would use the side Bb lever? I have been playing for many years and have never used it. I normally use long Bb, and L th for some passages.

Also, I have been playing Irish music with a wooden Chris Abell headjoint and switching to my silver headjoint for classical. I haven't got loads of time to warm up on each one and am struggling to maintain tone. Is it advisable to stick to one or the other to bring out the best in it? I am upgrading soon and am tempted to only play my new one.

I know it's a personal thing, but any recommendations on headjoints?

Many thanks, Rose

Hello Rose!

The Bb shake lever is a holdover from the early days of the Boehm flute and is used to provide an acoustically correct Bb in the first and second octaves.  The flute (at least for most of its range) operates on the premise that you are effectively altering the length (and thus the pitch) of the tube by closing keys.  Put simplistically, it's the distance from the embouchure hole to the first open tonehole that determines which pitch you're playing.  

The long Bb fingering is necessary for keys where both Bb and B natural appear in close proximity, but because it closes the F key (and thus the F# key), which the acoustically optimal thumb Bb does not, it reduces venting unnecessarily, which theoretically can affect pitch and tone.  Because the flute's toneholes are so large in comparison to its bore, and the closed keys in this situation are so far below the Bb tonehole this is not really an issue in a practical sense.  But this acoustic theory explains why the Bb shake lever exists....without it it is impossible to play certain fast passages without potentially compromising tone or pitch.  

While it is not absolutely necessary to use it, if you become accustomed to using it you may decide it's quite handy.  I use it often, particularly in chromatic passages where it is convenient to be able to keep your finger on the lever while moving up or down a half step.  For instance, in a group of running sixteenth notes moving from B natural to Bb to A natural and back to Bb, you have the option of some fast thumb work, cross fingering the Bb-A-Bb transition, or simply using the Bb shake lever.  This final option is by far the easiest, but any of these options can get you to pretty much the same really comes down to what you find most convenient in a given circumstance.  I would certainly encourage you to experiment with this lever, however, as it will add another tool to your toolbox.

As for your question about using multiple headjoints, in most cases it is indeed best to stick to one head in order to fully develop your abilities with it.  You cannot form muscle memory if your embouchure is being confused by constantly jumping between different setups.  If you find that these headjoints are not suitable for everything you play, it might be worth starting the hunt for something that is...there are a TON of heads out there and with enough diligence you'll be able to find something that will work for you in any genre.

As you mentioned, headjoints are a very personal preference, but my favorites are from Jon Landell, Tom Green, Dana Sheridan, and the early Lafin heads (before Brannen got involved).  These are all smaller independent makers (along the lines of Chris Abell, who produces very fine instruments too), and as such they can spend the time to really refine each of their heads instead of just pumping them out like some of the larger factories (Powell, Brannen, Haynes, etc.) does.  That's not to say that the factories don't sometimes make stellar heads too....simply that the independent makers seem to craft more consistently excellent headjoints.  Also, most of the smaller makers know their craft so well and are so invested in your satisfaction that they can customize a head's resistance, tone, response, etc. to your needs, which is a service you'll be hard pressed to find from the larger manufacturers.  As with most things flute related, however, this will all come down to your preference and you may absolutely hate all of the heads that I would absolutely love!  Regardless, I wish you the best in finding your dream headjoint/flute, whatever it may be.

I hope this is helpful.  If you have any other questions, please don't hesitate to ask.



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Herbert Smith


I can answer questions about almost any flute-related topic.

I have trained professionally as a flute repair tech and music educator, and have a broad range of experiences as a performer. I also have experience with a huge array of flutes with any imaginable material or specification, and can comment on the quality of various instruments, as well as guide people through the flute-buying process. I'm willing and able to discuss various flute gadgets (Valgon rings, Foster extensions, etc.) as well.

I'm very familiar with piccolo, alto, and other harmony flutes (including those in unusual keys, such as Eb flute, Db piccolo, G treble, Ab alto piccolo, Flute D'amore, Contrabass, etc.).

I am also glad to offer advice on how to approach difficulties within pieces of music, offer teaching tips to those who give lessons, or answer just about any other flute-related query you can throw at me!

Please note, however, that I am not an appraisal service, and will not provide estimates of value. Please do not ask me about the value of your flute. I also must decline to date instruments based on their serial numbers.


I'm a professional repair tech with years of experience, and a veteran high school band director. I've maintained a successful studio for private flute lessons for many years, and have performed professionally in just about any imaginable venue.

I have bachelor's degrees in music education and performance from highly regarded universities, and have trained with one of the best flute techs/flute makers in the US.

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