To perform at a high level in nearly any field requires outstanding talent and training, and for many the equipment is also crucial.

The talent is intrinsic — you either have it, or you don’t.  The training requires dedication and even passion — a commitment to devoting thousands of hours to pursuing mastery even while recognizing that there’s always more to learn.

But how does someone on that path — say, a professional musician — choose when the equipment not only matters but nearly becomes an extension of oneself?  Not what should someone use, but what does the journey look like?

Earlier this year, flautist Dr. Gabe Southard of the Hope music faculty became one of just 64 musicians around the world to be named a Pearl Flute Artist by Pearl Musical Instrument Company, a global manufacturer of flutes based in Yachiyo, Japan.  The recognition reflects his high caliber as a performer and educator, but it also follows his recent decision to switch to a Pearl flute after using another instrument for nearly his entire career.  So The Arts At Hope blog asked him to share a bit about his process.

First, congratulations on being named a Pearl Flute Artist.  What does it involve?

The main aspects are, of course, upholding a high level of performance and educating as a flutist and using Pearl flutes.  In addition, I will be posting performances on social media regularly. I have some cool ideas about this, including a series designed to help high school students learn music for Michigan’s Solo and Ensemble concerts; attending conferences, especially the National Flute Association conferences as an attendee and performer; and maintaining a national stature.  In return, Pearl endorses me and provides support for clinics I will present.

You traveled to the company’s U.S. factory Tennessee to select your new flute and have one custom made.  Is a visit like that typical for musicians at a professional level?

It is fairly typical, although my first step was to try a couple flutes from Flute World in Farmington Hills, Michigan.  The people there were incredibly helpful and sent me flutes to try at home.  Once I had narrowed the field down a bit, I wanted to visit the main Pearl site since they had a huge variety of flutes and headjoints to choose from.

We’ll talk about your new instrument in a minute, but in general what do you look for in a flute?  How do you know an instrument’s right for you?

That’s a good question and I think it is a little different for each flutist!  Like some other wind instruments, there are really two parts of the instrument to consider when trying flutes out: the body and the headjoint.  When I was trying flutes from Flute World and when I was in Tennessee, I first focussed on the body of the flute – things like: how is the response of the keys; how does the flute resonate when I am playing it; is it comfortable? 

Once I decided on a body (about which I still had a few choices to make), I then tried somewhere between 15-20 headjoints on it.  Headjoints have several different features that appeal differently to each flutist, mostly due to lip shape, breath capacity, etc.  I tend to like a more free blowing headjoint with a square cut embouchure hole.  Once I settled on the headjoint, in this case a “forte” style one from Pearl, I was able to make the final decisions, which included any extra keys that I wanted to my flute — for example I requested a C-sharp trill key and a split-E mechanism among other things — and the material I wanted the flute to be made of.  I have always preferred a solid silver flute, so that is what I ended up getting (with a .997 purity level) but other flutists will play on gold or even platinum flutes.

What prompted you to change flutes this past year?  It seems like it wouldn’t be an easy decision.

I had been playing on my old flute for about 30 years and decided it was time to see what else was out there as far as professional flutes.  For some time I have had the feeling that my previous flute had been holding me back in its technical action and in sound production.  Plus, my style of playing has changed significantly as I have become more experienced and in some ways, outgrew the ability of the flute to catch up.  That feeling was confirmed when I tried different flutes, especially the Pearl ones.

How did you connect with the Pearl company specifically?

I tried several brands and it was clear very quickly that Pearl had the highest quality and the flutes matched my playing style to a tee.  Pearl had been in contact with me about becoming a Pearl artist based on performances I had given at the 2016 NFA convention in San Diego, so this seemed like a natural match.  [Editor’s Note:  He was a semifinalist in the convention’s Piccolo Artist Competition and won the Convention Performers Competition.]

What goes into having a flute custom made?

When I was trying out the flutes at Pearl, I kept track of the various options that I liked in each of the flutes — like silver content in the flute itself, soldered or rolled tone holes, various key additions like C-sharp trill and split E keys — and then put that all together in my order. 

The crafting required several months, and in the interim I played on another flute from the Maesta series, also a beautiful instrument that is now my back-up flute.  I liked it so much that I fully expected to be blown away — pun intended! — by the custom-made flute when it arrived.  I received the new flute in early March, and have already used it in a recital I presented on campus and for recording sessions for a CD, and if anything it’s even exceeded my expectations.

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