An Interview with Tom Aebi
This interview was conducted in 2004 by Brad Hurley
Tom Aebi has quickly established a reputation as one of the world’s leading makers of simple-system wooden flutes. His instruments have received glowing reviews from experienced players on both sides of the Atlantic. Thanks to Hervé Yésou of Strasbourg, France, for urging me to do this interview, for suggesting questions, and for bringing me to Tom’s shop in Basel, Switzerland for a visit.
Q: Tell us about your beginnings as an instrument maker. I know that you worked for a time with the uilleann pipe maker Andreas Rogge, but had you made instruments before that? What made you decide to go from making pipes to flutes?
A: I have always fiddled around with my instruments. I have mostly had mediocre instruments that didn’t satisfy me: the guitars, later the pipes. In particular with the pipes—first highland, then Northumbrian, and uilleann eventually—I spent night after night practising, learning to make reeds, and making those pipes work. In the beginning I knew nobody around to help, and so I was left with plenty of problems.
When I met Andreas, I was still at university studying archeology but quite fanatic about the uilleann pipes and Irish music. I played my own reeds and a chanter I had modified. We met more often when I got involved with Heike, the girl who worked with him, and Andreas made me a wonderful new chanter and a new set of drones.
I don’t know how Andreas really got to the point of offering me to work for him. Yet for myself it was the chance. I quit college and moved to Tübingen, Germany. It was only from then on that I started to learn about instrument making properly. We made all sorts of bagpipes, uilleann pipes being the main thing.
By that time I became interested in the sound of flutes too, and tried to make one for myself. Andreas has always been very generous with supplying materials, and he let me use his reamers. So everything was there, except for a good flute to copy. The very first one I made was in plum wood, based on an old German flute. But that was not what I wanted: I wanted a Pratten flute. Having but a vague understanding and a minimal set of measurements, I gradually designed my own. I had all my flute-playing friends in Germany try my work. They were very helpful and encouraging. We discussed a lot, but still, taking measurements of their flutes was difficult. Eventually, I had a Pratten design that got favourably received and Andreas took orders for that flute.
After seven years of apprenticeship/work in Tübingen, I wanted to move back home and start my own workshop. As I was to begin with very limited finances and equipment, but having orders for flutes already, it was obvious that I would carry on making them rather than pipes—and I have been busy since.
Q: You make flutes designed after both Pratten and Rudall models. Can you describe your versions of these flutes, focusing on any particular design features that you’ve developed for each one? For example, I hear that you provide two touches for the Bb key on your Rudall models, as was done in some of the original Rudall and Rose flutes.
A: As I just said, I started with the Pratten model, simply because, at that time, I was then most interested in this type of flute and I didn’t want any other. My favourite flute was a Pratten by Hudson of around 1856. It belongs to a very good player in Germany, Regina Eilling, who makes it sound really nice. Basically, I first wanted to copy that sound, but I had no measurements. So I had to start from scratch and find out what dimensions are right. Gradually, I learned to avoid the most crucial errors and found a flat taper bore design that works and I learned how to make a responsive embouchure hole.
Much later, when eventually I had an opportunity to take the measurement of Regina’s flute, I found that I had come pretty close. The most significant difference lies in the bore of the foot. My foot had a narrower taper, which I found helped to get rid of a warbling D, and which made a richer tone in the upper registers and a quite good third octave. But it also left me with some problems: a weak low C, and not much variety in the undercut of the embouchure. But the tuning is pretty straight and even Regina switched to my model.
Later, in 2000 I met Thierry Mayes of Paris, who had the kindness of letting me examine his original Rudall and Rose flutes. We spent a lot of time discussing tone and response. And on the third day of his visit I made a copy of his R&R large holed flute. I found myself in a new world of flute making. The sound was so different: so fat, round, and meaty. The depth of tone, the harmonics. I found this design is so much more balanced in any regard. Totally exciting! I have learned a lot from his flute, my playing improved much, and I feel much more inspired since.
In consequence I stopped taking orders for my Pratten model and now try to concentrate on what I think is the superior design, the Rudall. It is obvious, since I can base my work on the real masters’ design, my flute making has improved a lot. However, I am also trying to redesign my Pratten.
Thierry’s Rudall has a double Bb key. First, I thought, this is handy—I must have it on my own flute, because I wasn’t quick enough on the normal thumb key. I started to offer it and it got good response: Breton players like it for some special ornamentation. Furthermore, players who have the habit of covering the top holes with their left hand fingers straight [the “piper’s grip”] place the thumb far out of reach of the normal Bb key position. With the double touch device, they gain access to that note by using the right hand index finger. So they get a proper key design and still have the ability to hit a Bb. However, now I don’t really recommend it, for I think that with a little practise the thumb Bb does the job perfectly—I’ve never really used the second touch. Because it demands a harder spring for the thumb key, I don’t want it on my flute, but a lot of my customers do.
The current R&R model I am making for Irish music is based on a slightly different original from 1841. It is a bit wider in the bore, but also more “pronounced” in regard to its internal shape. It is quite difficult to make, but offers an even better balance and response, plus more depth and richness of tone. It allows a great variety of embouchure designs and different tones. I make this flute in three variations: copy of the original, modified version for Irish players, and a model with medium-size finger holes.
Q: You’ve also started making some flutes in other keys: I’ve heard about a Bb flute that you made recently that has a fairly small spacing between the finger holes, not much different from that of a D flute. Can you tell us more about that?
A: The first flat flute I made is in B (to play with pipes in B, a favourite flat pitch among pipers). Yet flutists usually want a Bb or a C. I have no pattern to copy, so I am doing it from scratch again. With the stuff I have learned from the R&R design, I have gradually improved my Bb prototypes. Basically, it is just the dimensions that cause a problem. Just for a moment, think of the limitations in a D flute first! If you placed all finger holes in their correct position, you would already find a D flute very uncomfortable to play, as the stretch of the fingers would be too large to play at ease. So, even on a D flute some of the finger holes are not in their acoustically correct position. Due to the longer air column, this effect is even worse in Bb flutes. In a D flute there are already quite a lot of compromises between tuning, ergonomics, and conventions of fingering and position. It’s much worse in a Bb. The most efficient way to overcome these problems would be to add keys to control tuning and finger stretch, but most potential buyers would be reluctant to accept the different feel, appearance, and the higher cost.
So, it is exactly for these reasons that I try to make a Bb in the conventional 6-hole style first, but manageable for small hands like mine. Other designs might follow later. I like the tone of the big Bb of Gilles Lehart, for instance, but myself and a lot of players with small hands find it impossible to play at ease.
After a long time of experimenting and adjusting the bore, I now have a Bb design with a reasonable finger stretch, a fat and warm tone, and a good response, which allows me to play tunes just like on a D flute.
Q: Your flutes have become quite popular so I imagine you must have a waiting list. How long would someone need to wait to receive a keyless flute from you? Or a fully keyed model?
A: There is a minimum waiting time for the wood to rest and settle during the different stages of work (reaming, turning, etc.), even when it is well-dried wood. Current my list is one to one-and-a-half years. I have mostly fully keyed and six-keyed flutes to make; the occasional keyless takes less time.
Q: Are you developing any other models, such as baroque flutes?
A: Yes, of course. Any music and period has its favourite flutes and its special demands for its instruments, and there are plenty of interesting flutes and different tones. I am very much interested in other romantic or earlier classic flutes, like French or German makes, or English small-holed flutes. I have also done some copying and experimental work with baroque and classic keyed flutes, but the model I would like to bring out most is a small-holed romantic flute in English style, pitched 435 and 440.
Q: The area where you live (Basel, Switzerland) is well known for music, with a strong tradition around the fife and also in baroque music. Has this had any effect on your instrument making?
A: Fortunately I have a good link to baroque and renaissance flutes here in Basel. Together with Liane Ehlich, a flutist and flute teacher, we have worked on baroque and renaissance flutes.
Influence from the Basel piccolo and drum scene? Not really. I don’t play the piccolo, it is too shrill for my ears, maybe that’s why. There is also quite some American fife and drum scene, three or four bands, around Basel. But they buy their flutes from Skip Healy, that is how they are linked.
I have visitors from all over the place, but rarely from my home town. I think that is because I am linked with Irish music and not with the classical or local scene.
Q: I ask this of many flute makers, but it’s always interesting to hear different perspectives: How would you characterize the differences between the Pratten and Rudall flutes? If a beginning player were trying to decide which style to purchase, what would you advise, and why?
A: I cannot answer this in a short phrase and must go back a bit further: The preference for a flute or a flute model is a very personal matter. As a maker your opinion is also strongly influenced by things like the standard of the making or the value and position of a model in the history of flutes. In order to make any recommendation for the student, it is more important to consider the playing properties of the individual model.
Pratten’s innovation (the combination of a large flat-taper bore with very large finger holes) came in a time when there was increasing demand for a new and brighter tone and much greater volume. Throughout the whole 19th century, renowned flute makers and flutists were very engaged in developing the classical keyed 6-hole flute (which itself derived from the baroque flute). Toward the middle of the century, in England (where there was a particular frenzy for a louder tone since the days of Charles Nicholson), you find plenty of new approaches and new flute models.
Boehm’s cylindrical flute of 1848 revolutionized the flute world. In France this totally new concept was quite soon adopted, but in England it was accepted only gradually. English players were more traditionalist, they stuck to the conical flute and the old fingering, and for some decades longer were more interested in finding another solution for a modern flute. Pratten’s models are just one example. The one we still know today, because it is so apt for playing Irish music, was probably just the student’s model with the traditional 8 keys, besides several other professional models with more elaborate keywork.
The Rudall and Rose design is older and in the direct tradition of the late classic and the romantic flute in England. Although their “medium model” (by Irish musicians’ standards, it has small holes) was probably more widely used than the large-hole model, the latter stands equally for highest quality of the most renowned makers in the prime time of the romantic period in England.
This is in short the historical background on which I form my opinion when having to give preference over one of the two designs, Pratten or R&R. In reality I find more tone, balance, superior performance, elegance, and ease of play in the Rudall models, and the perfect congruence of my personal impression of the flute and its historical “value.”
I would advise anyone to make a choice of flute with questions like these:
- Which is the tone I prefer (not only the one somebody else gets, but also the one you get yourself)?
- Response and stableness
- Flexibility (dynamics, shaping the tone)
- Intonation (how much lipping, fingerings)
- Ease of play (hard/easy to fill, tone hole size, finger stretch).