Sound Possibilities by Aiven O’Leary

When I was studying flute, both in high school and in college, I had an uneasy relationship with sound. It isn’t that I had a “bad” sound, it was actually the opposite. Everyone told me I had a good sound. Right through college, sound was good. I got to check that off the list. Sure, I had to work like everyone else on shading and color, but as far as good base tone, I had it!

Here’s the thing though, I didn’t like it. It was fine, but I was unsettled. I heard more in other people’s playing that I wanted. I wanted to know how people got a shimmer in their sound that I didn’t hear in my own. I wanted to know how they seemed to effortlessly bring an intensity to their sound that I had to struggle to get.

I also imagine that I was not and am not alone. Many people have these same thoughts. The answer probably seems easy. You’re 18, you need to practice more, listen more, think more. Or you’re 22, you need to experience more and to find your sound. This is all probably good advice. I took it, but it wasn’t enough. It was like I had an image of a person in my head but when I went to draw that person, I got a stick figure.

Then I got to graduate school: Indiana University. That’s where I was told that my sound wasn’t good. Not just “not good,” but there was a buzz in my sound and it was distracting. I couldn’t hear the buzz, but apparently it was there. I practiced so much. I spent an entire semester on one Schubert song, asking the friends I had made there if they could hear the buzz. I was a complete wreck. My worst fears were true, and someone had finally noticed that my sound was totally inferior. When I was at the end of my rope my teacher, Kate Lukas, tried my flute. “Oh,” she said, “it’s your headjoint.” She then handed me her Jack Moore flute. The buzz was gone. Not only that, but I could also feel the possibilities for depth of sound in her flute. In the few minutes I played on that flute I knew that it had so much more potential than mine.

After that, Kate got Jack Moore to come to the school. He had a bunch of headjoints for me to try. My options were limited since I was playing on a Haynes with a small barrel. He had a tool he used to size a few down for my flute and I got to try them. That is when my mind was completely blown away. It wasn’t the flute. It was the headjoint that transformed the sound. The headjoint changed everything. I ended up buying one and playing on it through the rest of grad school. Jack even came to my graduate recital. This was the moment, working with a headjoint maker who helped me open up not only my sound but also my concept of what was possible, when I became completely obsessed. This moment changed the direction of my career completely.

When I was done with grad school I went back home, which just so happened to be the Boston area. I started working with a flute maker right away. I didn’t start off making headjoints, but within the first year I became the apprentice of master headjoint maker Zu Feng Le. He was the one who put the whole picture together for me. Zu is not only an exceptional headjoint maker who understands headjoints and sounds in a truly innate way, he is also an exceptional teacher and mentor. He gave me the tools to continue on in my career and my pursuit to craft sound. That was about 18 years ago, and there is not a day that goes by that I am not aware that I have the best job in the world.

For me, it is not about brands. It is not that I had a bad headjoint and then I got a good one. It also isn’t that a headjoint will replace practicing or make up for poor support. There are still no shortcuts. What it is about is finding the right headjoint for you. That headjoint might not be what you are expecting. It might not be the headjoint that your friends are playing on. You need to trust yourself, your ears, what you feel and, if possible, a colleague or teacher who knows your sound well.

This pursuit, to help players find their voice and to help them unlock their potential, is everything to me. My task is to give you the tools that you need to make music in the most natural way possible.

I spend all my time now making headjoints for other people. Players who want to be challenged, players who want something a little easier, players who want dark sounds, light sounds. It is complex, but it is so worth it. A good sound should be available to players at all levels and for all playing styles. The best part of my job is when I get to work directly with a player and adjust a headjoint for them. This customization allows a player to be more expressive and removes roadblocks. My mission is to open doors for people that they didn’t even know were there.

Before the pandemic I spent a good amount of my time giving demonstrations on what I do and why I do it. I would cut a headjoint with a group watching me and have volunteers try the headjoint at different stages, showing them how little changes have big impacts on sound. With the pandemic I have been doing even more of these virtually. These are different, but also effective.

The purpose of these demonstrations is not to show you how to be a headjoint maker. The purpose isn’t to show that I am good at what I do or to show you that the headjoint I am working on is better than some other headjoint. It is to show you that every single thing done to a headjoint has a giant impact on how the headjoint sounds and feels. It is to show you that each headjoint is different, and that the work that goes into each one is specifically done to make you better. I do these so you can make the same discovery I made, but hopefully without the pain I went through. I also want to share my excitement about how these changes work. To think that the geometry of such a small hole can have such an impact on your sound is amazing. I want everyone to experience how these changes impact sound in a way that is as close as possible to how I experience it. I want people to be as knowledgeable as they can be about headjoints. I believe it helps not only in picking a new headjoint, but in using a current one.

My true goal is to show everyone that a good sound is not as elusive as some might have you believe. I want to reach as many people as possible so that they can have their own moment like I had with Jack Moore, so that they can start getting on with producing the best sound they can.

Aiven O’Leary is currently the headjoint maker and General Manager for the Wm. S. Haynes Flute Company. She received her Master of Music degree in flute performance from Indiana University and her Bachelor of Music degree from Ithaca College. Her principal teachers have included Wendy Mehne, Claudia Anderson, and Kathryn Lukas. After graduating from Indiana University, O’Leary freelanced in the Boston area while teaching privately in Beverly, MA. She has served on the faculties of both the Indian Hill School of Music and Gordon College in Wenham MA.