I often have customers asking how they should approach shopping for a new headjoint. Some aren’t sure what they should be looking for while assessing headjoints or others get bogged down by the process and start second guessing themselves. Some are feeling apprehensive because they have gone through the process before and felt like they ultimately made the wrong choice.
If you’ve been looking for a new headjoint without much success or are thinking of starting the headjoint trial process soon but you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a look at the list below. The goal is to remove some of the mystery of choosing a headjoint and to make the search faster, easier and less stressful.
1) Make sure you’re clear with yourself about why you’re looking for a new headjoint. Make a list of what you like and what you don’t like about your current headjoint to clarify the characteristics you’re looking to keep and the ones you’re looking to improve. Do you tend to crack notes? Do you have trouble articulating? Do you like the strength of your low notes? Write down everything that comes up in a pros and cons list that you can reference later during your trial.
2) Take inventory of your playing and performance goals. Trying to get into college? Auditioning for an orchestra? Thinking about joining a flute choir? These kinds of goals all have different long term requirements. A player that does a lot of swapping back and forth with piccolo might prefer a headjoint that is free blowing/more forgiving while a player that is auditioning for a top orchestra might need a headjoint with a bit more resistance/control.
3) Set a budget. Is this your forever headjoint? Is this the headjoint that you’ll use for 2-3 years until you’ve saved up for your dream headjoint? There are many headjoint manufacturers and a broad range of prices out there, so make sure you set reasonable pricing boundaries for yourself. Tried a headjoint you love but can’t afford? It’s ok! Just make sure you let the trial organizer know so that they can make a note of the serial number/model. This way, if it is still available when you’re ready to buy you will be reunited with it instead of having to start over.
4) Get your flute serviced if it is the flute you will be pairing with this headjoint. Making sure your flute is in top playing condition can ensure that the headjoint is being tested fairly and isn’t being blamed for issues that are actually caused by leaky pads and out of place adjustments. If you plan to test the headjoints on a different flute than your own, such as a trial flute provided by a dealer, make sure you spend some time getting to know it before getting started comparing headjoints. Play some familiar exercises and pieces you know well on your own headjoint or a neutral headjoint that isn’t involved in the trial so that you can get a feel for how this flute feels and sounds.
5) Don’t test too many headjoints at once. You can find yourself struggling to differentiate between them if you have too many to try at once, so I usually recommend 3-4 headjoints at a time. This will give you some choices without bogging you down with too many options. This will also give you a good snapshot of how a particular line works for you. If you find yourself gravitating to only styles with larger embouchure holes for example, you can focus your search accordingly. Be sure to do your testing while being well warmed up, during the same practice session and one headjoint right after the other without a break.
6) Make a headjoint ranking system. I have a rubric for this that I share with anyone who needs it, (send me a message if you’d like me to send you one!) but you can also make one that is in line with your goals. Make a list of criteria that you want to compare and give each category a numerical rating from 1-10 with 1 being unsatisfactory and 10 being perfect. Meaningful criteria can include things such as dynamic range, color, ease of play, articulation and projection just to name a few.
7) Choose repertoire you’re comfortable with, just a few small snippets of things. This can include select passages from pieces you know well and/or a range of orchestral excerpts that can test out things like balance, range, colors, clarity of sound, projection and resistance. I usually also recommend throwing in a small section of something you’re currently working on that is a challenge for you. This way, if it is something like a fast paced articulation for example, you can see how the headjoints you're trying compare to how well your current headjoint usually handles that section. This can be an eye opening comparison because you may find the headjoints you’re testing eliminate the struggle altogether.
8) Choose the order you’ll play your selections while testing. Once you’ve chosen the excerpts you’ll play, decide on the order they will be played and clearly mark off where to start and finish so that each trial can be as close to the same as possible. Try not to change the order of the excerpts and avoid playing beyond the selected selection within a piece. Transitions from excerpt to excerpt can be more or less challenging (depending on the order) and playing longer on one headjoint or another will make for an unfair advantage for the headjoints you play on longer. This may not seem like a big issue at first but it can set you up for confusion later because you’ll find the headjoints will be developing at different rates for you. Be sure to leave your current headjoint out of this rotation of trials so that it (being the one you’re most comfortable playing) doesn’t skew your impression of the others.
9) Record yourself testing each headjoint. You might find yourself wanting to repeat the testing a few times over several days, and recording one of these sessions can be eye opening. Use the ranking system outlined in tip #6 and the list of criteria that is meaningful for your goals and play the recording back and rate each headjoint. You can get a very different perspective of how each headjoint is working for you when you listen to this recording and characteristics like projection and clarity can be very different when you hear them from the listeners point of view. If you can, listen back to these recordings in a random order so that you don’t know the exact headjoint being played.
10) Have a teacher or trusted friend listen to you play the selection of excerpts on each headjoint and have them rate each one using the ranking system you’ve been using. Discuss and compare results and eliminate headjoints from the list that aren’t scoring well. By this point you should have some top contenders and some that are not scoring as highly. If you find yourself having difficulty choosing between them, you can go back and test again. Going through the process once more will help you get to know them all even better, and may help to identify issues that weren’t apparent previously. Ideally you should proceed to tip #11 only when you have 1-2 top headjoint contenders.
11) Play the top headjoint option(s) in rehearsals and/or lessons. This will help you get to know them even better and will help you zero in on any issues that might manifest at this stage. Things like difficulty with attacks, projection issues or sound quality issues may become more obvious through the course of a rehearsal or lesson and can help to eliminate headjoints that aren’t performing up to your standards. This is also a good time to assess whether or not a particular headjoint feels like the limitations it has can be overcome with practice or if the limitations are permanent. A good way to discern between the two is to spend some time drilling into a particular issue - articulation, for example - if you practice a difficult articulation section and see no improvement within an hour, it is entirely possible that this headjoint doesn’t have the right setup for you. If, however, you see improvement from some practice time, it is likely that the headjoint will grow with you and develop more over time.
12. Once you’ve been able to narrow it down to one headjoint, spend some time comparing it to your current headjoint and spend some time swapping them out with each other during practice sessions and rehearsals. Record yourself on your current headjoint going through the trial excerpts and selections and listen back to it, ranking each category. Consult your rankings from the initial trial recordings and compare them to your current headjoint. If the headjoint for you is in the group you’ve been testing you’ll know at this point because it is ranking the best. If you find that the rankings aren’t giving you a clear winner, take a step back and try some more headjoints. You may find that you have to try a few batches of headjoints before one you really love comes along, and that’s ok!
When I selected my current headjoint a few years ago, I tried 50-60 other headjoints before I was sure. I played on them for hours, recorded myself over and over, played for anyone that would listen and offer an opinion, and the whole process was exhausting and disorganized. As I went along though I slowly put together this list of tips and considerations and ultimately was able to make a confident headjoint choice. My hope in sharing this list now is that it can help refine the process for anyone that might need it and it should help ensure a more confident decision making process in the end.
Happy headjoint shopping!