Odd jobs

Why a high-end flute has a certain magic

By Cindy Atoji Keene
Globe Correspondent / January 25, 2009
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Single Page|
  • |
Text size +

Alan Weiss is not only a master flute player - but he sells the instrument, too.

Weiss, a professional flutist, is artist-in-residence for William S. Haynes Co., one of the world's oldest flute companies. Founded in 1888, it produces handmade instruments made of precious metals, including gold, silver, and platinum.

"I'm like the local golf pro," says Weiss, who sells and promotes flutes, plays recitals, and holds master classes and workshops.

Weiss personally plays many of these stunning flutes, so he makes sure he is familiar with the characteristics of each instrument and can recommend them to customers. The company makes two flutes a week, or about a hundred a year.

"The flutes not only play well musically with a wide variety of timbres and superb response, but have a great aesthetic. Each flute has a distinct beauty and shine," says Weiss, who says an entry-level silver flute costs $7,650, while a platinum and gold flute sells for $40,000.

Weiss studied under several well-known musicians and has played in several orchestras, then went on to to be a flute and chamber professor at Boston University.

"I didn't just wake up one day being able to play the flute," says Weiss, who still practices every day for two to three hours. "It's like being an athlete; you have to tie the physical - using your breath, fingers, and air, in a certain way - with the mental discipline that comes with creativity."

Weiss is the company's domestic and international spokesperson, logging 80,000 frequent flier miles last year traveling the globe to sell the flutes.

"The flute is a very popular instrument in many countries and cultures, from Asia to western Europe," says Weiss, who says his job is comparable to that of a director of sales and marketing; earning potential ranges from $70,000 to $80,000 a year. "The world seems very small to me, and I meet flutists from all over; some come to buy instruments, some come to show me their flutes because they're so proud of them, and some just come to say hello."

How did you start playing the flute?
In fourth grade, all the different instrument teachers came into our class to demonstrate and help kids decide what they'd like to play. The violin player came in, but I thought he looked mean. The trumpet guy came in, but I thought he looked filthy. Then the flute teacher came in, and he looked like a clown, with big white hair, and he said, "If you play well in the lessons, I'll give you candy." I said, "That's for me!" I started lessons with him, and two weeks later, he called my mom and said, "Your child will be a professional flute player." My mom was floored. "How can you tell? It's only been a short while." But he knew. I must have had a certain quality.

What does it take to make a flute?
All the flutes start out as tubes of metal, either gold, silver, or platinum. The parts are milled and forged, and then they go to the actual builder of the instrument, who takes all the parts, and files and sands them to make them fit. No two instruments will ever look or play alike. After soldering the parts together, then it's polished, the pads are put in, and other finishing work is done. It takes 80 hours to make a silver flute, 100 hours for a gold, and 120 for a platinum; it is more difficult to work with some of these metals than others.

Have you ever had Haynes make you a flute?
I play on a gold flute with silver keys, but I've always wanted an all gold flute. Finally one day, I broke down, like a kid in the candy shop. After all, I'm drooling over these flutes every day. It had to do with a total lack of will power. The flute is customized to my playing preferences. And there is an ivy leaf pattern on it; it's very Neo-Baroque.

What has changed in the way flutes are made?
The flutes we make today versus 30 to 40 years ago look similar to the naked eye, but there are a lot of things under the hood that are different. New flutes are sharper in pitch and more in tune with themselves. The demands of flute playing are more, so they're more responsive.

Why use gold, silver, or platinum for the instruments?
Gold is popular for soloists. I do more work in chamber orchestra, and as a soloist, so I like a wide range of timbre and color, and I'm able to replicate the human voice more. Orchestral players prefer silver, as it tends to be brighter and cut through an orchestra better. Only a few people want platinum; it's a very dark sound.

What do you say to students who want to go into music?
The music business, especially classical music, is not looking for you. Only one of 10,000 rises to the top. You have to be ready for any opportunity that comes your way, and not say, "I only want to be a soloist." So many universities are pumping people into the arts, but there are so few jobs out there. I was lucky enough to make the transition from orchestra musician to college professor, and eventually to business.

What do people say when you tell them what you do for a living?
Here's what they say: "An employed musician? That's good."

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.