I had the opportunity to teach a few flute classes at “The Gathering” flute festival in Flagstaff, Arizona last month. On the way back, we stopped in Sedona. I had spent some time in the red rock country in the mid-90s. The breathtaking scenic views and nature were the inspiration of many of my design ideas. While hiking the beautiful canyons, I was reminded of the incredible journey my flutes have taken me on, including one of my biggest challenges; The Double Flute.
My first double flute came about during my ongoing quest for perfectly tuned flutes. Achieving consistent tuning was a steep learning curve. To compare the tuning accuracy of the flutes I was making, I would place two flutes against my lips and play the top 3 notes. I wanted to insure they harmonized correctly. This also became my first experience at playing multiple flutes, and I quickly became obsessed with making them.
The first double flute I made was side by side “shotgun” style. The flute bores were side by side and had a common center wall. They had a single mouthpiece hole. Tying and securing the two side by side fetishes proved to be challenging. The fetishes moved easily, causing them to leak air and diminish the stability of the low notes. After numerous experiments, including a one-piece fetish block, gluing the fetishes in place and alternative tying methods, I settled on creating a hole in the flute body between the two fetish positions. This allowed me to tie the fetishes individually.
The one mouthpiece hole limited the variation of playing styles. For the next generation of double flutes, I added a second mouthpiece hole. This allowed the flutes to be played both as a double AND a single.
Tuning the flutes added another challenge. During the tuning process it came to my attention that when played as a double flute, a few of the lower notes sounded diminished. It seemed as if they were harmonized out. This bothered me enough to try another construction variation. I built a couple of “up and down” shotgun style flutes, as opposed to “side by side” style mentioned earlier. As it turned out they had the same tonal issues, and one additional drawback; the bottom bore watered out far too quickly. Condensation moisture flowed directly to the bottom fetish and stopped it from playing. After many frustrating hours in the shop, I decided to put the problem aside and focus on the fun I had making flutes I DID understand.
Of course, once you let go of an unsolved challenge, the solution seems to magically appear.
While on a road trip through Texas, I stopped at a diner for lunch. Next door was a small Visitor’s Center that looked like the beginnings of a local museum. Inside was a showcase, and I immediately spotted a flute. It was an old river cane flute, shaped like an “A” with a label describing it as a “Choctaw Flute”. I wasn’t sure if this was correct, since the Choctaw Nation is in Oklahoma but I was intrigued. The person working that day knew nothing about the flute but was kind enough to let me examine it. Sure enough, it was a double flute! It had a soft, breathy voice and there was a distinct tonal separation between the two bores. I was so excited! I couldn’t wait to get back to my shop and put this design to the test. The separation of the two bores (no common wall) made all the difference in the sound. It was a success! To this day, the “A” frame design is our mainstay for all our double flutes.
Double flutes can seem complex and challenging to play. The truth is, they are not much harder to play then the single flutes. They just take a bit more breath control. With a double flute, you play the melody on one side and the other side provides the drone in the root note of the flute. It sounds as if two people are playing together. Double flutes are very versatile, and offer a multitude of playing options.