Flutes for minimal loot

2008-10-02 08:05

A FLUTE costing £60 was a big investment when Richard Harrison was a child. But, as with so many children, sport soon appealed more than music practice, and after three years, he put the flute in a drawer and went on with more macho, boy things.

However, 35 years later, his 10-year-old daughter decided she wanted to take up music, and the flute seemed a good choice -they had one already. However, Harrison explains that Caitlin was at a stage of losing things, and so he thought he had better have his Boosey & Hawkes flute insured before it set off to school in a backpack, and was shaken to be told it was now worth R12 000.

Shortly after she started to learn, Caitlin went to one of John Roff's bamboo flute workshops, and came home with a bamboo flute, which Harrison started blowing. At the time, he was spending some spare time making aluminium cricket stumps - he works at Hulamin, and is passionate about the metal and its possibilities - and wondered what would happen if he drilled a few holes in an aluminium tube and made music on it. “I got a fantastic sound,” he says. So he too went off to John Roff, did a workshop on flute making and First Flutes was born.

Getting the sound

Making a flute is not just a matter of drilling holes in a tube and blowing. There is a lot of physics, harmonics and mathematics to be taken into account before you get the sound you want. “You can get the formula for spacing the holes,” says Harrison. “But there is still a lot of trial and error.” He and a friend worked on the embryonic flute for about seven months before a flute, with straightforward fingering in the Irish style that would play true in the key of A major, was made.

One immediate problem was that there is not a lot of flute music in A major, so further work was needed - and now Harrison makes flutes in G, A flat, A, B flat, C - and a fife (a smaller, shorter instrument) in D major. He is currently working on a D major flute, but will need a tube with a different bore. And, still using aluminium tubing, says Harrison, he plans to try his hand at tubular bells. He has also been asked to make a didgeridoo - the long Australian Aborigine wind instrument - and that should prove quite a challenge for his inventive skills.

Small business

Flute making has now become a small business, and Harrison does it in his spare time “in fits and spurts”. If it goes well, it will also be his pension plan. His instruments, which have been tested and found to be true by professional musicians, are beautifully finished, anodised with an aluminium oxide layer in a whole range of colours, from subtle Earthy tones to vibrant pinks and greens. Each comes in a velvet bag, and has instructions on how to get started when it comes to playing - getting a sound out of a side-blown flute can be a challenge, but, as Harrison says, explaining how to do it in words is a bigger one. Harrison does the hand finishing on each flute after it has been drilled, anodised and engraved by various outside specialists. He also tests each one to make sure the pitch is accurate.

The flutes sell at around R295 - the price of the C major instrument. It is a bit more than a plastic recorder would cost (but it sounds better), and much less than a reasonable quality concert flute in a music shop. That could set parents back a cool R7 000, and could easily end up in a drawer, as Harrison's original flute did. Already Harrison has sold some to Merchiston and St Nicholas pupils, as well as to a school in Gabarone. Schools, if they can be persuaded to try something different, are obviously a great potential market.

Hilton Arts festival

Harrison sells his flutes at the monthly Oval market and at music festivals like Splashy Fen where he and his flutes were shown on television this year. This weekend will see him set up his stand near the dining hall at the Witness Hilton Arts Festival Craft Market. So who buys a flute at a craft market? “Parents who would like their children to start an instrument, collectors of musical instruments, and a surprising number of older people who never learnt music when they were young and want to try something new,” says Harrison.

If your fingers itch to pick up an instrument whenever you see one, and make music, then maybe a visit to the First Flutes stand at Hilton would be a good idea. The colourful First Flutes are almost irresistible.

• For more about First Flutes, visit the website at www.firstflutes.co.za, e-mail richard@firstflutes.co.za or firstflutes@telkomsa.net or phone Harrison at 083 440 2111.

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