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Vertical Flutes (jefftk.com)
89 points by luu on Oct 20, 2022 | hide | past | favorite | 73 comments

The situation is similar with violas. There's a maker[0] who builds wildly asymmetric violas that have pretty good sound and are ergonomically excellent — very easy to play — but they're generally unwelcome in orchestras because their unorthodox appearance is distracting. Instrument makers consistently report that players will imagine all sorts of sound and playability problems when they try out an ugly instrument. I'm sure the author's guess about flute is correct: people like an instrument that looks right to them and to the audience.

[0] http://www.rivinus-instruments.com/

Looks like it has tumors, but would love to try the 5 string. At $12k I feel obligated to level up my viola playing before springing that purchase on my lovely wife…

When I read comments like these, I remember a quote from late friend of mine who was an industrial designer:

> Ergonomics is ugly.

He casually pinned these three words like he pinned something to a cork board.

Better might be to say: “unfamiliarity is ugly”.

Making anything involves fitting constraints and prioritizing by some criteria. Ergonomics just means using human anatomy (capability, comfort, safety) as a deliberate constraint/criterion in tool design, instead of treating it as an afterthought (even when ignored, anatomy still has some kind of “veto” insofar as a tool can’t ever be entirely impossible to use).

Starting from first principles with human capabilities and comfort as an explicit goal results in more effective designs which extend tool users’ capabilities further.

I think it is incredibly beautiful to have tools shaped to match human bodies. After looking at a couple videos of these lovely ergonomic violas, every time I see a regular viola in the future I’m going to be seeing debilitating repetitive strain injuries.

>There's a maker[0] who builds wildly asymmetric violas that have pretty good sound and are ergonomically excellent

I mean... That instrument can sound like it's made by Gods in Heavens, but it looks like one of those Dali semi-molten clocks that got turned into a violin and would subtly message "kILL mEeeEe" through any music played through it.

Aesthetics of musical instruments matter a lot, both to the performers and the audience.

It is just because we are used to their shapes.

The french horn is not exactly the paradigm of beauty. Or a player blowing into an oboe (it is difficult to imagine that gesture producing such a beautiful noise; does he need to make that face, really? Indeed, he does). The posture with the violin is one of the most awkward one could imagine, also.

When those violas are played (as seen in the videos), the shape is least visible.

>It is just because we are used to their shapes.

No, it's because it is very asymmetric, and we prefer symmetric shapes to asymmetric ones.

>The french horn is not exactly the paradigm of beauty.

I disagree. The instrument has an aesthetic.

> Or a player blowing into an oboe

The instrument looks fine though.

>The posture with the violin is one of the most awkward one could imagine, also.

The posture with the cello is arguably a very sexy one, but if you ask a cellist and violinist to walk while playing the instrument, guess which one's going to be the awkward one.

The violin gained initial popularity among street musicians. This is why it has the ergonomics it does.

The violin posture allows the performer to walk and jump and dance while playing the instrument.

Have you seen performers like Lindsey Stirling? That would be the last showperson I'd call "awkwardly postured".

Think about how differently you might feel about such an instrument if, like Don Ehrlich of the San Francisco Symphony, you were faced with either finding an instrument that you could play with your carpal tunnel or losing your position. That melty-looking viola might get awful pretty in a hurry.

Absolutely. But most people don't tend to think of things like that until they bite.

Case in point, most people don't get an ergonomic mouse/keyboard until their hands start hurting.

I guess it's functionality vs aesthetics. You could probably craft beautiful piano sounds out of a cheap plastic keyboard, but it has to look good on stage too.


I've played a show once where we shared some instruments with another band due to cramped stage. The keyboardist in the other band was playing a Nord Stage, which is a very expensive, but still plastic keyboard (they go for $4-5K).

Despite its iconic look already being a thing that people shell out extra $$$ for ("gotta have the red one!"), the performer put hers in a grand piano shell.

That is, a gutted grand piano (or a mock-up), with the Nord Stage on the keybed.

Looks matter to performers.

Are violins and violas much different from an ergonomics perspective?

Violas are larger than violins, which means they're also longer and heavier. Violins/violas are held up entirely by wedging them between your jaw and shoulder, so a short fat viola moves the weight closer and I imagine reduces the torque needed to hold it up.

The shorter neck on the instrument also means you don't have to hold your tuning hand out so far (a similar torque issue) and it also means moving your hand out of first position to play higher notes is a shorter motion.

edit: The viola is of course also thicker, which means maneuvering your tuning hand around it involves twisting your shoulder more. I imagine the unusual shape also improves that situation.

Maybe instead of playing violas like they're big violins, we should play them like they're small cellos? Might be ergonomically better?

Violins, cellos etc come from the viola da braccio family (arm viola).

I used to play the viola da gamba (leg viola), which comes in all sizes but you play them kinda like little cellos. They have six strings, frets, and you hold the bow a little differently, but even the small ones are played with it tucked between your knees.



The Viola da Gamba has a beautiful sound, but almost nobody plays them here in the US.

The modern viola is too small to resonate well in its note range, but it's a compromise we make to keep it looking like a violin.

I just think of it as a throaty, smokey violin sound and feel like it lacks nothing, so it’s illuminating to think about from your perspective.

My sister is a professional violist, so I can't be too complimentary to the instrument. It has a very nice sound even though it doesn't resonate as well as the other string instruments.

A violist I knew had a viola from the 1500’s that was originally a viola da gamba that had been cut down a couple hundred years ago (somewhat; was still pretty large for a viola). Had purfling hearts on the bouts. Beautiful instrument.

Carleen Maley Hutchins made a new 8-member family of violin-type instruments[0] which included a somewhat larger instrument tuned like a viola but played on an endpin like a 'cello. It sounds pretty good[1] and improves the ergonomics of fingering and shifting (though not so much bowing), but it has not seen much adoption because a) it has the "looks funny" factor, and b) it requires the violist who trained on a standard instrument to learn a new technical approach to both bowing and fingering.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violin_octet [1]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVVh-kNmRcA

> b) it requires the violist who trained on a standard instrument to learn a new technical approach to both bowing and fingering.

Or just have cellists play them, instead of violinists. It seems Yo Yo Ma has played one without much difficulty!

For an even weirder appearance, it seems to be like positioning some of the resonating body of the viola behind the neck would let you increase the effective length and also massively improve balance. You're limited in that the bow can't go farther back than your chin, but it still seems promising.

That viola is a beautiful instrument in its own way. Although it did reminded me of the elephant man.

It's a little sad how narrow the number of instruments in common use is. Exploring a wider range of instruments I think would be motivational for children learning music and for others.

For example, I would vote for the return of the Shawm [1] (played here by the late and very much missed David Munrow). Lots of other interesting instruments in this clip too.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKxdCSbAtOE

From your mouth to God's ears! The shawm is beautiful, and David Munrow was a genius whose suicide was a public as well as a private tragedy. But one of my favorite musical memories was of an amazing shawm player with the Newberry Consort — I have no idea who he was — who simply flooded the hall with brilliant, ringing tone, not a hint of stridency to it. It was unbelievable to me that the instrument I had up 'til then only ever heard played badly could sound so stunnning.

I remember as a child being spellbound by David Munrow's TV programmes - and then they stopped. I was too young to know or understand what had happened. Such a loss.

It's a bit of a chicken and egg situation I suppose with these instruments. If there isn't a critical mass of players we don't hear them played well and so no-one picks them up.

I think Mahler would have loved Shawms in an orchestra. They sound very Mahlerian to me!

I hope the recorder makes a comeback. It is a criminally-underused instrument like a vertical flute. Recorders can actually be played faster than flutes (as far as I have heard), and they are much more ergonomic.

Too bad their reputation is tied to being a first instrument taught in schools in the US

A recorder, like a tin whistle and other fipple flutes, 'automates' the embouchure. That is, instead of you positioning your lips to direct air across the sharp edge that begins the vibration a fixed bit of material is doing it for you.

The reason to do this is so that lip position is no longer important. I can play these instruments, but I've never put in the time to get a good sound from a non-fipple flute. This is also why they're used in schools: you can immediately make a sound, just by blowing naturally.

But in moving the musician farther from the creation of the sound they also have less control over it. You can't really manipulate pitch and volume independently, and there are many more subtle tone choices available without a fipple.

This is one of the key trade-offs in designing a musical instrument. I wrote more about it in a 2012 post: https://www.jefftk.com/p/instrument-complexity-and-automatio...

That's not why they fell out of style, though. The main reason is they're difficult to play well (at least compared to the modern flute), and they aren't loud enough. Recorders can't compete against other woodwinds or orchestral instruments, they would just be buried.

There have been experiments to increase the volume and flexibility of the recorder, e.g. Mollenhauer's Modern Recorder[0], sometimes called the Harmonic Recorder.

[0]: https://www.mollenhauer.com/en/catalog/recorders/series-over...

> they aren't loud enough

you clearly have not heard my child playing the recorder.

What are the reasons for the invention of the modern flute was also to make a louder instrument.

In addition to the difficulties described by Tokkemon, recorders have much less control over volume than transverse flutes do.

But modern flutes just have a much wider range of sounds to me. Far more expressive IMHO

In case you were curious as to what a bass flute sounds like:


That guy is funnier when he tries Army food

> The standard ("transverse") flute has pretty terrible ergonomics: your arms are way out to the side.

Why is that bad? It's never bothered me. The only ergonomic complaints I have about my Miyazawa are its inline G key (really stretching my left ring finger to seal the open hole properly) and how much pressure I need with my right pinky to make the C#/C keys work (uncomfortable, and I do actually mess it up sometimes).

> Why is that bad? It's never bothered me.

Presumably because of https://www.techopedia.com/definition/31480/gorilla-arm. If you're only playing the flute for an hour a day, you might not notice it; but if you're doing it for eight hours a day, as a professional performer, your arm muscles are going to be tired and shaking at the end of each day. And they don't have to be!

Also, re: the page linked in the sibling comment (https://www.flutespecialists.com/product/flute-lab-vertical-...):

> The Vertical Headjoint allows flutists who thought they would never play the flute again to do so.

I take that to mean "people with Parkinsonism, and other conditions that mean that holding your arms up becomes hard."

I had to quit after college with shoulder and wrist pain, and I’m an average-sized woman with no unusual health problems. Getting a student flute with closed holes, offset G and curved head joint let me play again at all, but I can’t bring myself to sell my silver Yamaha (they used to make intermediate flutes from solid silver, kids! They also made them in Japan!)

If I thought I’d play enough, I’d consider a vertical head joint, even at that kind of outlay.

Wow, okay, yeah, maybe it is a wider experience than I'd realized. Thanks for sharing. I'm a 6' tall man and seem to have more of my length in my torso than most, so I might have long arms too. Maybe that's part of why it hasn't been a problem for me.

> If you're only playing the flute for an hour a day, you might not notice it; but if you're doing it for eight hours a day, as a professional performer, your arm muscles are going to be tired and shaking at the end of each day.

Maybe? I've done 4+ hour days and my arms were fine. [edit: I recall my embouchure/lips giving out on particularly long days, not my arms!] I wasn't a big weight lifter or anything at the time either. If I tried that right now, when I'm way out of practice, it might be hard at first, but I think I'd be fine again before long. Muscles adapt to use.

Your arms are bent and not really that far out when playing the flute, and flutes aren't that heavy.

> I take that to mean "people with Parkinsonism, and other conditions that mean that holding your arms up becomes hard."

Interesting. Yeah, that's great if it makes that kind of a difference for someone. I'm not sure there's any widespread demand though.

Well, it clearly wprks for a whole lot of folks and I'm not really in a position to critique it too much.

However, I play a lot of musical instruments in various semi-professional capacities (on stage for money, but not enough to live off of) including pedal steel guitar, piano, clarinet, trumpet, double bass, cello, drums, accordion, among other stuff.

Every instrument has issues.

If the flute works it works, but I have an okay sliver armstrong flute I am supposed to re-pad and return to my mother, and after playing through the Rubank beginner's book I feel like the ergonomics aren't good at all.

Like, I gave myself a wrist injury learning trumpet and trumpet still feels like a way more ergonomic device.

If it doesn't bother you then I can't argue with ya. But as someone who has a whole pantheon of badly-designed instruments to look at it's easy for me to say it's not my favorite. I spend a lot of time with a clarinet lately and can see the value in a vertical flute.

Good heavens, $2800 for a bent piece of pipe! [1] That sounds like a market ripe for disruption.

[1] https://www.flutespecialists.com/product/flute-lab-vertical-...

As I commented elsewhere, the headjoint of a flute significantly affects the sound quality and timbre, and spending $2800 on a headjoint (even a standard one) is expensive, but still well within the reasonable price range of a more standard-shaped good quality headjoint.

If you want a cheap flute you can easily find one for under $200, or cheaper used. With nice instruments, this is a lot like looking at high end furniture and saying, "I could make a table so much more cheaply."

Yes, you could. But you're not going to attract the same buyers.

I think, in this case, it's more akin to a shipwright of wooden galleons saying they could make a table more cheaply than the guy who only makes tables for a living could; or a medieval military swordsmith saying they could make kitchen knives more cheaply than the guy who only makes kitchen knives for a living could. I.e. someone who does all the same work that these niche "artisans" do, with usually even higher quality (because of actual commercial requirements and engineering tolerances being involved), often in 1/10th the time, repeatably at scale, as just one aspect of much larger projects.

Similarly, in this case, I bet any boilermaker (or steam turbine engineer) could make a better flute mouthpiece than an instrument-maker could. At scale, for cheap. They're pipe fittings, with mouth gaskets!

> They're pipe fittings

Sort of. With most pipe we don't care that much about the exact paths the fluid or gas takes because it's for moving things and not making sound. Small choices that would be completely irrelevant in building an industrial boiler would still have clear effects on the sound of a flute.

So people are paying for the brand name.

No, there's a real difference between my $200 Armstrong beginner's flute and my $2,000 [1] Miyazawa intermediate flute in terms of result (sound), materials (nickel vs silver), and process (factory vs artisan). (To a point, of course: a good flutist will still sound better on the Armstrong than a bad flutist will on the Miyazawa.)

[1] price when I bought it. More now. Musical instruments appreciate, unlike electronics.

Indeed, the tone quality from a solid silver Sankyo flute is absolutely distinguishable from the tone of a nickel Armstrong. I’m not sure that I buy the arguments for, say, gold lip plates, but there is an audible difference between silver and nickel.

> the tone quality from a solid silver Sankyo flute is absolutely distinguishable from the tone of a nickel Armstrong

Different, sure. But better? Two orders of magnitude better? Seems improbable to me.

We're talking about aesthetics and art.

How do you quantify a unit of "better"? And perhaps more importantly, how many musicians agree with you?

If you want to fall back to economic evidence, centuries of musicians appear to have wallet-voted the other way.

Sure, but some people pay $30,000 for a bottle of Chateau Petrus too. Personally, I think they're crazy.

But it's not the existence of the high end that I'm remarking on, it's the apparent lack of low-end competition. Where is the two-buck chuck of vertical flute adapters?

Here's someone playing with making their own: https://www.nyfluteclub.org/uploads/2020-2021/FluteFair-2021...

One dollar to make the bends, 2799 for knowing where to make the bends.

It sounds like a very small market that only one company has bothered to enter.

to be clear, that's $2800 just for the "vertical adapter" bit. Flute not included!

Yes, exactly. If that were the price for the whole flute that might make sense. But just the adapter? That is just ridiculous. It's the monster cable of musical accessories.

The headjoint of a flute is a key part which significantly affects the sound quality and timbre of the instrument - it is by no means an “adapter” to the rest of the instrument. It is common in fact to buy flutes in separate pieces, with the body by one manufacturer and the headjoint by another. And $2000 for the headjoint and $4000 for the body (Australian dollars) would be a pretty standard price for a good-quality student flute which would see someone through a performance diploma.

you schooled me. thanks!

Where I used to live there was a small galvanized steel power pole with a bolt hole open near the top. If the wind was blowing at the right strengthen and the right direction it would catch the hole and turn the whole pole into a flute. was hoping this article might be related

Dizzy Gillespie was well-known for having his trumpets made with a bent (but at the end of the pipe). IIRC it started with an accident damaging his instrument, but he liked how it sounded.

Wind instruments can be made from so many materials and are probably some of the easiest ones to build. This guy has fun curly flutes - you can make a very long flute much more playable if it’s not straight


For some reason I’d like to share this flute instrument/ maker article with y’all.

If they were so clever, why weren’t they rich? https://www.robertbigio.com/cleverandrich.htm

ha! my daughter is learning flute atm... her teacher would have kittens reading this. Getting kids to position their limbs and fingers correctly would be insanely hard with this kit.

What does "correctly" mean? I assume "In an ergonomic way, allowing rapid fingering and resulting in a nice sound". If anything, this should be easier with a vertical flute.

> Most woodwinds use a much more natural playing position where the arms are comfortably in front of you, including some ("end-blown") flutes.

As a flute player myself intuition tells me the opposite. What’s your thinking?

I just know that the kid comes home from lessons with a bunch of commentary and instructions on how to improve. Posture and correct positioning is a constant on that list.

Doesn't that point the other way? The correct posture for transverse flute is difficult to learn, and so your teacher needs to spend a lot of time making sure kids do it right so they don't hurt themselves.

My son's piano teacher also is very specific about posture. I think this is an important aspect of playing any musical instrument, not just flutes and pianos.

Absolutely. Good posture is the difference between being able to practice 10 minutes at a time or 8 hours at a time. Ditto for proper fingering positions and remaining relaxed.

I learned flute as an adult and found the transverse posture quite tiring at first. I play other recorders and ethnic flutes vertically. Feels much easier.

Seems like it would be pretty similar to a clarinet or saxophone, which kids learn all the time.

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