Veteran Voices

In many weekdays at Burkart Flutes and Piccolos’ woodsy Western Massachusetts headquarters, founder Lillian Burkart will stay well past quitting time in the evening, when the workshop is quiet and empty. Still heavily involved in the flute and piccolo company’s constant R&D and quality control, Burkart finds that the freedom of solitude at the end of day is just what she needs to get into the real gritty details.  She checks over every completed instrument on the final shelves, inspects new details on product prototypes, and spends hours at the workbench.

“I want to be in the shop all the time and have my hands on all the instruments,” she says. 

Burkart Flutes and Piccolos holds a unique position among the big flute and piccolo manufacturers of this era – it’s the only manufacturer still run by its original founders. Lillian Burkart and husband James Phelan started the company in 1982 after meeting in the employ of nearby Massachusetts flute-making operation Verne Q. Powell, Inc.  To this day, both Burkart and Phelan maintain essential roles in every aspect of the company’s operations.

The practice has paid off – the company’s flagship Burkart-Phelan piccolo and Lillian Burkart Flute have served as gold standards for much of the industry, while the “pre-professional” Resona line of flutes and piccolos have raised expectations for mid-level or step-up instruments.  As the company prepares to unveil a new flute headjoint this winter – in many cases the most economical way for musicians to upgrade their sound – Burkart looks back on the steady evolution of reliable design and handmade manufacturing with pride.

The history of Burkart is full of subtle advancements in product design.  The “Lillian Burkart Professional” and “Elite” piccolos, made of aged Grenadilla wood, are played in world-class ensembles from Slovenia to Vienna and San Francisco. The Professional and Elite flutes are also in action around the world.  Meanwhile, their U.S.-sourced and Chinese-assembled “Resona” lines of flutes and piccolos (Burkart’s “Global” piccolo became the “Resona” piccolo in 2009) have established themselves as versatile instruments for a variety of musicians – from pros to advanced amateurs and accomplished students.

The market for that sort of instrument seems to be expanding. “The number of orchestral performers are shrinking,” says Burkart.  “But the number of amateur, serious flutists is growing, and the market is getting much more competitive.”

As an example, Burkart points to the growing population of middle-aged mothers in South Korea who recently launched children to college.  “These mothers have followed [their children] through their lives and through further education and musical development, being involved in the lessons and the homework and that’s their job,” she says. “Now these women, who are in their mid-‘40s and early ‘50s and are looking for a hobby. There’s a growing flute choir involvement in South Korea that is certainly great for our Resona market and, in some cases, the wealthier amateurs are ready for the type of instrument we make in our high end.”

Burkart says the process of connecting with customers is changing as well, moving in the U.S. toward a handful of emerging flute specialty shops. “For our product, buyers used to come to Boston to make that pilgrimage to the flute capital of the world and visit all of us and try the instruments,” she says. “Now, buyers in many pockets of the country can walk into a flute specialty shop where they can compare everyone’s models, including flutes from around the world. We realized, as did the other Boston-area makers, that we have to be there.”

The company’s flute headjoints, which they’ll be revamping this winter, are a perfect bridge between the different flute models.  The drawing and tapering of these tubes, which is proprietary, is all done by hand.  Since casting the prefinish shapes of these tubes tended to result in irregularities (meaning differences of a few thousandths of an inch, though that can be significant in brass mouthpieces or flute embouchure holes), a process of machining consistent shapes was developed.

“Then, the real magic happens when it comes out for that finish,” says Burkart. “The hand cut is where one little curl of the shaving can greatly affect the outcome in how the headjoint sounds. Players can then extract the nuances of a silver headjoint versus a gold headjoint versus a silver with a little platinum alloy in it. That’s pretty magical.”

Burkart says changes are gradual and not to expect anything drastic.  The company spends years with “boots on the ground.” That includes “meeting the players, doing shows, and seeing what the overall trend is and using that to determine when it’s time for Burkart to make a change.  It will not be a sea change – it will be an educated movement to something that’s not radically different, but will take on the competition.”

Burkart says the developments come as tastes change in different regions throughout the world, though she likes to end up with as few options to meet those tastes as possible.  The handiwork, though, all goes down in the company’s own workshop, which is staffed by a crack team of flutists who all hold master’s or doctorates in performance. “They’re active technicians and all work with us at the bench before moving to the testing room with the flutes,” says Burkart.  “That’s our number one source of change and innovation.”

Lillian Burkart herself, along with Phelan’s engineering and manufacturing supervision prowess, provide the final keys to the process.  From Burkart’s early days exploring exotic woods of the world for new piccolo materials (she always came back to Grenadilla) to recent work on instrument improvements, she’s made sure the company is one that benefits from intense her involvement.

“2006-2007 was when we last made major changes to the piccolo scale,” she says, telling of a particularly intense bout of solo R&D.  “There are means of building automated blowing machines to generate a steady tone to replicate what the flute scale might be, but you can only do a steady feed of air. So those periods of working for the piccolo changes mean lots of hours of long tones in front of the tuner, which are like death tones to all my colleagues. So they wouldn’t even want this going on during their workday.”  Burkart would stay late at night or come in on the weekends to get it done, in turn helping to revolutionize the piccolo market. In other words, nothing much has changed.

“We loved to make flutes when we were young,” says Burkart. “We really got into it. We sprung from another company to get into this and in fact my husband is currently in China. He’ll sit at the bench when workers go on vacation next week, working by himself every day. It’s still very exciting to be here training people, working hands-on.”  

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