Rockstro and thoughts on tone for traditional flute

The question of traditional flute tone comes up often but it seems that it is seldom addressed clearly. It is markedly distinct from the widely-heard tone of classical flute playing and is often described as “dark” and “reedy”, compared with the “bright” and “pure” sounds heard elsewhere.

Richard Shepherd Rockstro, 1826-1906, and Robert Sidney Pratten, 1824-1868. Dayton C. Miller Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Music Division, Washington, D.C. 20540

The hows and whys of this are various and are essentially a complex balance of a number of elements such as the flute itself, personal ergonomics and preferences. For that reason it is often explored in a 1-1 situation rather than a class. What follows is my understanding, gleaned from numerous sources and from observation and experience.

Tones and design

Every musical note on an instrument has other notes in attendance, harmonics. These chime in with the note and can range from very noticeable or very subtly present, depending on the instrument and how it is played.

The promotion of a “dark” tone means that lower harmonics are promoted and higher ones suppressed. A conical flute design such as those used for simple system (sometimes called “Irish” or “traditional”) wooden flutes encourages this. Böhm system (“modern”, “classical”, “metal”) flutes by contrast have a parallel bore and it is my understanding that this promotes upper harmonics and a “bright” sound.

The embouchure design on Böhm flutes is usually square and more open in shape, providing a longer edge and making it easier to produce an acceptable sound and for that matter easier for students. Flute players who have more of their experience on Böhm flutes often find simple system flutes with their elliptical embouchures more of a challenge. However, the elliptical design also promotes those lower harmonics while the more square design encourages the production of noticeably prominent higher harmonics.

For an account of the historical perspectives on different flute design, French and English classical playing styles and dark and bright tones, see the Standing Stones web site.

If you’re still reading at this point, you might be interested in Amble Skuse’s flute tone exploration project. She and I spent some time together exchanging thoughts and ideas in 2013 and we both wrote about it. She then followed this up with a trip to Jem Hammond’s flute restoration workshop and private collection in Wales, which she also wrote about. Amble’s accounts are on her website, while mine is on The Flow Music website.

Individual ergonomics

But of course it isn’t all about the design. Very little is said about the production of good tone in the books I have seen on traditional flute. As I have hinted, some of this is due to the range of personal ergonomics that are required to be in balance. By this I mean face and lip shape, tongue positions, hands, neck, shoulders, spine, posture, stomach, heart, lungs and so forth all have to be working together for the sound to be produced. And then this needs to adjusted depending on how tired you are, how developed your muscle memory is, the situation and acoustics where you are playing. And of course the actual flute that you are playing.

As this is very particular and individual, generalisation or even a detailed account can only take you so far. Gray Larson’s very detailed Guide to the Irish Flute has some good advice on shaping the mouth to produce vowel sounds, but leaves it down to practice, holding your desired sounds in your mind’s ear and awakening

“an inner ability and wisdom that will eventually carry out the necessary physical changes to produce the sound” (p108).

I quote this to highlight the need for personal exploration in order to arrive at the desired sound, but also that language begins to become inadequate to describe the process, much as it struggles to describe the sound in the first place. I was struck by some of the differences in how Amble and I envisaged and described our sounds for example.

The Rockstro Position

However, the starting point of any such exploration has to be the Rockstro Position. Not a chess gambit, not a wrestling manoeuvre, nor an ethical or political stance, it is simply a way of setting up a head joint relative to the rest of the instrument.

Rolling the headjoint in towards the player will not only flatten the pitch but will suppress those higher harmonics; rolling out has the opposite effect. RS Rockstro was a 19th Century musician and theorist (see photo above, alongside the influential Sydney Pratten) who advocated positioning the headjoint so that it is rolled in a little. The flute becomes easier to sound and the tone becomes recognisably dark and reedy. Surprisingly few flute player seem aware of this.

Australian flute maker Terry McGee has written extensively on this and has some related contemporary accounts by others. Terry has also written about getting that hard, dark tone that is also worth looking at once you have set the flute up. You might also want to check out this piece by Jennifer Cluff on flute alignment from a classical flute perspective.

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