The Evolution of the Gary Schocker Headjoint: An Interview with Gary and Dave Williams
This is the story of a decade-long conversation, and the remarkable innovation that has resulted: a headjoint that combines the ease of playing of a modern headjoint while retaining the beautiful sound and wide range of colors which are associated with older flutes. Made by flutemaker David Williams, and named after Gary Schocker, the flutist to whose demanding specifications it was created, it represents an exciting new direction.
It all began in December, 2004, when Gary Schocker, one of the best-known flutists in the world, walked into the shop of Williams Flutes in Medford, MA. There, he met flutemaker David Williams, and an unusual relationship was born.
Schocker was on a quest: to find a flute that he loved playing as much as the first handmade flute he ever owned, a used Haynes from the mid-1950s, which his parents had bought for him as a bar mitzvah present. He had stopped playing that flute after it was rendered unplayable in the late 1980s by an unscrupulous technician who had claimed he could improve the headjoint, but who ruined it instead. “That’s what led me to playing modern flutes,” Schocker explains. “My repair guy said, ‘I’ve got this really beautiful gold Haynes you should try.’ And I picked it up and I felt my whole back open—it was so much easier to play. At that point it was a good thing for me, because I had a lot more physical tension back then.”
Williams, a professional flutist himself, who worked at a major Boston flutemaker for several years before starting his own company in 1990, was on a quest of his own: to create a flute that better suited his own playing needs than what was then available. He, like Gary Schocker, had spent his formative years and the first part of his professional career playing a Haynes (in this case, one from the early 1960s) that was built before the “modern” era. According to Williams, “The first time I ever played a new-style headjoint was when I went to work at the flute company in 1982. I had just performed the Prokofiev Sonata (in D Major, Op. 94) two weeks before, and I picked up one of their flutes and played some of the arpeggiated sections and said, ‘Oh my god, what is this?’ Because I had never experienced anything like it before.” But then he goes on to say, “It took me many years to come back around to see what was missing from that sound for me.”
A little knowledge of the history of flutemaking is helpful, in order to understand what is meant by the term “modern” as it applies to flutes. Until the mid-1970s, American flutists had essentially two choices for handmade flutes: Haynes and Powell. Both companies had based their designs on the prized French flutes which first arrived in the U.S. in the 1880s, most notably those made by Louis Lot. As such, the scale, which determines the placement of the tone holes, was pitched at A=435 or thereabouts. The low register of flutes based on this scale tends to be flat, and the highest register tends to be sharp. However, flutists who grew up playing these instruments were taught how to adjust for these idiosyncrasies so that they were able to play in tune. Beginning in 1974, Powell began building flutes based on a new scale devised by British flutemaker Albert Cooper, and shortly thereafter Haynes adopted a scale developed by their own master flutemaker, Lewis Deveau.
Around the same time, flutemakers began experimenting with headjoint design, changing the size, shape and cut of the embouchure hole, and changing the height of the riser and shape of the lip plate. As a result of the changes in scale and the style of headjoint, the sound of a modern flute has very different characteristics than “old”, pre-Cooper scale flutes. Something may have been gained, but much is also lost.
Of the modern flutes, Gary Schocker says: “Someone who gets a modern flute with a large embouchure hole and a very sharp (blowing) edge, is going to be able to play that flute in any way—it’s just so easy—and that’s a goal of the modern flutemakers, to make somebody feel like every note is going to come out every time, and loud. But the irony is, in a hall, those flutes don’t project as well as, say, a Louis Lot from 1869 or a Haynes flute from 1956. They sound really loud up close, but they don’t have the same projection—they stop.”
David Williams adds: “I learned how to play the flute with the understanding that it was not built perfectly in tune, but there were some great advantages. The third octave is traditionally sharper than the rest of the instrument but it gives you the opportunity to move into the note more in the third octave, and to play pianissimos that are actually in tune without having to strain yourself. Now, the third octave is refined and resonant, but that complex, gorgeous ‘howl’, that emotive sound that old-scale flutes are capable of, is just not there in a modern flute.”
When Schocker walked into Williams Flutes in 2004, he was not looking for another flute. He was playing the gold Haynes and was happy with it. “But I got really fascinated with what David was doing,” he says.
Williams remembers their first meeting like this: “Gary tried out what I was making at that time, which was based on all modern stuff, and he liked the headjoints. He bought one and took it home with him, and later purchased a silver flute from me. Then he played a 14K solid gold flute of mine and a wooden Williams flute, which he played for a couple of years.”
But, ultimately, Schocker sold almost all of those instruments (he still owns the wooden flute). “I’m just a homing pigeon when it comes to old flutes,” he says. “There’s something about the way the harmonics stack up that just keeps bringing me back to them.”
Schocker started really listening to recordings of flute players he admired. He had grown up listening to Julius Baker, with whom he studied beginning at age 15, and also to Jean-Pierre Rampal, Elaine Shaffer, and others who were performing and recording in the 1970s. But he went back to recordings from the 1920s and 30s, and even earlier, of Philippe Gaubert, Adolphe Hennebains, Fernand Dufrène, and others. “I loved those guys, and they were playing on those old flutes,” says Schocker. “My love of the flute sound is really based on the old guys. To me, the flute sound is like a flame. Or like water. But it should always have a delicate quality, as if the flute is magically making a sound. It’s very hard to do that on a modern flute because when you hit that sharp edge, long before you can shape anything the note has already been shaped. So, for me, playing those modern flutes ultimately led to a lot of frustration.” He began experimenting with older flutes: in addition to older Haynes and Powells (at one point he owned Powell numbers 2 and 105), there were Louis Lots, as well as flutes made by Bonneville, Rive and others.
“I went to one of Gary’s performances,” recalls Williams. “And he was playing an old Haynes, and the sound felt to me like scratching an itch—it was something I had missed for a long, long time. And I started asking him about what he was doing. He let me play some of his old flutes, the ones that he considered to be extraordinary instruments. And I looked at the headjoints, to see what made them extraordinary.”
The two men started a dialogue, which quickly blossomed into not just a collaboration but a close friendship. “I get a new idea, and I call him up, and he’ll try it,” says Schocker. “And he’ll call me back and say, ‘Hey, man, that’s incredible, I loved that idea!’ Over the years as I was playing his flute, I really liked it but I couldn’t get my high register happening. And I would say to him, well, could you do this? And could you do that? And because his ego is so remarkably small, and because he is the most humble, kind person, he was willing to make these changes to help me get the sound I was looking for. I’m so incredibly lucky to have a friend like him because, well, he loves my playing, and he listens to me, and so I make a suggestion, and something will come back for me to try. And it’s kind of like being king!”
Says Williams, “Of course, Gary may very well be the best flute player alive, and he is certainly the best flute player I have ever stood in a room with. But he is humble beyond belief. And he is the most introspective human being I’ve ever met, which means he spends a lot of time analyzing the mechanics of flute playing. He analyzes what he does on a daily basis, on an hourly basis, every minute. And Gary loves music and he loves the flute, and that was really the thing that we bonded over. And we’re both extremely curious about everything. I stumble onto things by taking observations that Gary makes and little experiments that he does. Initially when he tells me something he did, I’ll be somewhat skeptical that it could actually make a difference, and then we’ll send videos back and forth, and I’ll see what he is talking about. He tries things that I would never think of trying—some of the things he’s done are just so amazing to me, and have led to innovations on my part. ”
“David finally realized that all this time he was taking the modern flute as his starting point and working backwards, and what he really needed to do was to take the Louis Lot or the Haynes model and work forwards,” observes Schocker.
“I began re-learning my own craft,” states Williams, “by looking at what the masters had done years ago. To be honest, I was originally coming from a mindset of ‘the old stuff really is passé, and what everybody is doing now is an improvement.’ Everything was considered an improvement—that word was bandied about over and over again. And of course, it wasn’t an improvement, it was a change. And when you emphasize one aspect of the sound of an instrument, it’s always at the cost of de-emphasizing another aspect. So basically the whole push, from the late sixties almost to the present, has been not so much to emphasize the color or the tone quality of the instrument, but to emphasize the LOUD quality.”
Williams also looked at crown design in the old flutes, trying many different designs until he found what worked best with the different headjoint cuts. “He’s somebody who’s very experimental,” says Schocker. “And he gets excited about things and he likes to just get down in the sandbox and try it all out. He’s not stubborn; he’s not married to a product, as if once you put a label on it you have to make it the same way for the rest of your life.”
With each change in the design, Williams sends a headjoint to Schocker to try. Due to the ease of making a video with the iPad and posting it on YouTube, it is possible to have almost immediate feedback about the relative merits of each change. (A quick search for Gary Schocker on YouTube reveals dozens of short videos of headjoint trials, which he has made public so that other flutists can observe and learn).
“What he has created is something that is a lot more comfortable to play than an old headjoint,” explains Schocker. “The sound is a little cushier, a little bit more forgiving. And the high register has this beautiful, singing quality. The embouchure hole’s smaller, the wall’s lower, and there’s no overcutting or undercutting.”
Williams came up with the idea to call this new headjoint the “Gary Schocker Headjoint”. “When he suggested this to me, I said, ‘Well, why would you want to do that?’” Schocker admits. “And he said, ‘Because it’s based on everything I’ve learned from you in our conversations, and from your teaching.’”
In recent years, old instruments have fallen out of favor in the flute world, as can be readily demonstrated by the drop in prices commanded by these flutes. According to Williams, “Current opinions reflect the fact that a lot of today’s players learned on new-scale flutes. So if you learned to play right from the beginning on a new-scale instrument and then you pick up an old-scale instrument, it’s out of tune. Because when you go to play it the way you normally do, the old flute doesn’t work the same way.”
Observes Schocker, “There are beautiful instruments out there and now is the time to buy them. If someone is reading this article and they wonder why I sound the way I do, they should try playing on an old Haynes or Powell sometime, and see what they get, what it’s like. Or they can try one of these Gary Schocker headjoints made by David—it’s the closest you’re going to get to an old-scale flute sound. But you have to have a pretty good technique. You can’t just pick it up and blow it, like you blow a free-blowing modern flute. I don’t think it’s for everyone. I think it’s for somebody who hears something in the old flutes that they love.”
One of the happiest outcomes of this collaboration is that Williams was able to take the ruined headjoint from Schocker’s first, beloved Haynes, and put on one of the newly-designed Schocker lip plates. “Now it sounds like a Super Haynes flute, you know? I just love it,” says Schocker. “Because I’ve owned this flute my whole life, and because it has twice been stolen from me and come back to me, I just feel like I was meant to play it.”
Over the past couple of years, Williams has made several dozen Gary Schocker headjoints. He continues to make refinements based on feedback from Schocker. “We are questing for a design, but it’s not going to be an exactly repeatable design,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to have slight variations in every headjoint so that it was unique, so that it would find a unique owner. It’s been a pretty successful way to do it so far in my life. I’m not a ‘cookie cutter’ type of guy. For every player there’s a headjoint that’s ‘the one’ for them, but it might not be ‘the one’ for another player.” Like Schocker, Williams calls the flute sound magical, and likens flutes to magic wands. So it is fitting to imagine that each individual flute or headjoint is destined for a specific owner.
When asked where their collaboration might go next, Schocker speculates that he would like for Williams to make a flute that has both open and closed hole keys. “The closed hole has a kind of solidity which I love, and the open has a kind of freedom. I think they might be combined.”
There will always be new things to try, and adjustments to be made. As long as these two inquisitive, curious flute minds continue to work together, the flute world can only benefit from what they discover.