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The Footjoint

Patricia George | May 2013

    In recent years the headjoint has become a topic of interest to flutists. When attending flute fairs, it is common to see rows of headjoints spread out upon exhibitors’ tables. In earlier times, a flutist purchased an instrument and played the headjoint that came with flute. Now manufacturers offer plans where a flutist purchases a body and footjoint alone and add a headjoint, possibly even one made by another manufacturer. Dealers offer a one-year trade option if flutists find another headjoint in their stock that they like better.
    Most manufacturers offer several models of headjoints which are made of a variety of materials including silver, gold, platinum, and clad materials. Embouchure holes range in size from the large to the small, each with its own specially designed upper-cutting and undercutting. Craftsmen have explored using a variety of materials in the design of the chimney or riser. Sometimes the material matches the embouchure plate; other times not. Some manufacturers have experimented with reshaping the outer part of the lip plate, placing it closer to the tube to improve the response of the headjoint. However, they soon found that placing the plate too close to the tube took away the tonal colors of the headjoint and projection possibilities; so a compromise was in order.
    As instrument makers explore the crown mechanism (stem, cork, and crown) new discoveries have been made concerning the weight of the crown and the stem. Makers have even switched the cork out in favor of another material. Overall the headjoint has been in the spotlight for quite a while.
    It is very likely the next innovation in setting up a flute will be the footjoint. Flutists who own several flutes have been known to switch the footjoint from one flute to another, sometimes putting one maker’s footjoint on another maker’s flute. When I heard of this experimentation from oboe players who were switching bells from one oboe to the next, I decided to give the concept a try. At the next flute fair I attended, I asked one maker if I could try his footjoint on my flute. He seemed a bit alarmed, but I told him if I liked his footjoint, I would buy his entire flute. He agreed to let me experiment with his footjoint, and I found that there is a difference in sound and response from one footjoint to the next. Why this happens will have to be researched, but I strongly suspect the findings will have something to do with the weight of the footjoint and perhaps the materials used to make it. If you own several flutes, you might give this experiment a try, or next time you have a flute party or studio class, try switching footjoints from one instrument to the next. If you only own one flute or the footjoints of your flutes do not interchange, then here is some information that may help you play the footjoint you currently own better.

    The tenon of the body and the box of the footjoint should fit well. There is little that is more embarrassing than having the footjoint fall off when you are performing. If this joint becomes loose, have a craftsman adjust the fitting of the tenon and box.
    If you decide to try switching footjoints from one flute to another, do not force a too large tenon into the box. However, if the tenon is too small, you may use teflon or plumber’s tape to fit the joint during your experiments. If you find a setup that produces excellent results, have the tenon fitted to the footjoint box.
   When putting the body and the footjoint together, carefully and gently align the two by sight before putting them together. Never use force. It is important to maintain the roundness of tenon of the body as it slides into the box. If the flute has been poorly handled, have a craftsman reshape the tenon so it is round and fits well into the footjoint.
   Often the tenon becomes dirty and the footjoint will not slide easily on or off. If this occurs, clean the tenon with alcohol being careful to not get any on the pads. Wipe dry. Take a pencil and with the side of the lead, gently swipe back and forth around the tenon. The pencil lead will act as a clean lubricant. Then insert the body into the footjoint. If the tenon becomes too small (often from the wear of assembling and disassembling the flute), have a craftsman resize the tenon so that it fits securely in the footjoint.

   Most flutists align the rod of the footjoint with the center of the D, E, and F keys. This works well for most flutists. However flutists come in many sizes and the flute only in one size. If you have a shorter or extra-long right hand pinkie, it may help to customize the alignment of the footjoint.
   With the right hand, make a fist. Place the middle finger on the E key, and then lower the index and third fingers onto the F and D keys. Bring the thumb forward onto the backside of the tube. Now place the right hand pinkie on the D# key. Adjust the footjoint so when you slide the pinkie to the right, the note you will finger is a C4. For me this means that the rod on the footjoint is aligned slightly away from the center of the D, E, and F keys. Customizing this alignment means that I can play the low Cs and C#s without losing the position of function of my hand, and I am able to keep my right elbow in position and pointing to the floor. Flutists will play many more Cs and C#s in their lifetime than Bs, so align to make sliding to these notes easy.

Seating of Pads
    Since the footjoint pads are closed relatively less than the rest of the pads on the flute, they dry out more quickly and often do not seat or seal as intended. Blow on each pad on the footjoint to put a bit of moisture in the pad. This will improve the response of the instrument. I also encourage flutists to blow on the footjoint pads when playing low flutes as many flute choir parts require them to play repeated low notes. Future experimentation may lead to a different pad design on the footjoint.  

Height of the D# Key
   This key should be adjusted so it is easy to slide the finger to the C#, C, and B keys. Likewise the adjustment should facilitate the finger sliding back to the D# key. The spring adjustment on the footjoint keys is often too heavy; so experiment with a lighter spring tension.

Footjoint Keys
    Footjoint keys often get bent from the simple act of putting together and taking the flute apart. Have a craftsman suggest various ways to assemble the flute. Whatever plan you decide to adopt, be careful to not bend the keys or the rod. Periodically check the key height because when the keys get bent they often open too much for good intonation and response.

To B or Not to B, Wait! There’s an A
   Most flutists play with a B foot; however, there are as many who prefer a C foot. Jean-Pierre Rampal played professionally with a C foot. The C foot is lighter to hold than the B foot and some say offers a quicker response. However, the B foot offers several sensitive fingerings to change the tone quality or improve the intonation of C7. A gizmo or high C facilitator allows the flutist to easily lower the B key while leaving the C# and C keys open. Some makers offer a convertible footjoint where you may add a B extension onto the C footjoint. Flute makers have provided a variety of spatula and roller placements to provide an ergonomic experience when playing. There have always been custom-made footjoints throughout modern times that offer a Bb or an A. However, recently the A footjoint has become a readily available option for flutists and will be shown at upcoming flute fairs.

   Some flutists have experimented with adding an extension onto the end of the footjoint to increase the projection of the flute. Explore this by cutting a small rectangular piece of plastic about one inch by two inches. Insert the plastic rectangle into the end of the footjoint, pulling it out from the end by about 1/16th of an inch. Many flutists find this extra length increases projection.

End of the Footjoint
    The next time you can examine a number of flutes, look carefully at the end of the footjoint. Some makers round off the bottom of the footjoint and others leave the end at a right angle. Play different designs and then if you like one that is more rounded off, you can have a squarely-made ending reshaped. One or two swipes around the edge will probably be enough.

Success on the Lowest Notes
    Michel Debost told me when he had to play low notes he prepared for them by placing his right hand on the barrel of the flute while fingering a low octave G. If it was a practice session and he could play the G aloud, he did. Then he went ahead and played the passage. However, in a concert he would assume this position just before entering on the low notes. Placing the right hand on the barrel places the flute into the chin and positions the flute for optimum use. When the flute is in this position, the low notes respond well. Higher notes respond better with the end of the flute placed a bit forward in front of the nose, but repeated low notes play better with the end of the flute in alignment straight with the player’s nose.
    Many audition requirements for student flutists require a three-octave chromatic scale beginning on low C. Students often move slightly forward as they begin the scale because most flutists always move slightly forward when they begin any passage. However, try moving slightly backwards for the C and C# and then forward when reaching the D. This works well because if the flute is moving forward, and the right hand fingers are moving back, there is too much contrary motion for good results. Moving back first and then forward produces a movement that aligns with the fingering movement.

New Frontier
Innovations in instrument making and design influence the way composers write for an instrument. If an improved footjoint concept or pad design helps to add projection and a rapid response for the lowest notes, composers may write flute music in a new way. However, a few composers, like Richard Wagner, did the opposite. He decided what he wanted an instrument to say and then created an instrument that projected his ideals.  Maybe in a few years all flutists will have a case full of footjoints from which to select the special footjoint that works best for the music at hand.