Friday, 6 September 2013

Walt Sweet, Maker

      Above is Walt Sweet's  latest design, the Umbra, which can be purchased with a whistle head as well. It is designed as a mini Irish flute  (piccolo) with a particularly strong 1st and 2nd octaves.
I asked Walt a few questions and tell us a little about the piccolo in Contradance music in New England. Here is his reply:
I grew up in a drumcorps family in Connecticut, where everyone was expected to play the fife or the drum. That activity is a culture behind the scenes from Massachusetts to New Jersey and beyond, connecting thousands of participants across generations. Of course there are legitimate fifers and drummers elsewhere. I'm talking about the narrow, straightbore, ±Bb fife that plays loud outdoor music in the 2nd and 3rd octaves. The repertoire and performance practices are associated with rope-tension drums and rudimental drumming, whose roots are traceable to the 1830s and before. We typically wear "Colonial" uniforms and march in firemen's parades to raise money for the corps to buy drums, uniforms and refreshments (!). The contemporary repertoire has a small handful of tunes that can be documented to manuscripts of the Revolutionary Period, a fair number of modern compositions in the traditional style, and much of the repertoire dates from the latter 1800s. Only some of the music heard today was ever official military music, the rest being folk tunes, 'pop music' and songs of a bygone era. Being its own scene, only some of the music and musicians overlap other genres. 

When I was 13 years old, I wanted one of those new-fangled 10-hole fifes, but the folks couldn't justify the expense. In response, I got hold of a Cooperman maple fife and used a pistol drill to drill the extra holes for accidentals. I also used steel wool on a gun-cleaning rod to smooth the bore. That was the beginning of my life as an instrument-maker in 1971. Of course, I like to think I've graduated to more sophisticated methods and designs now. 

When Dad was a teenager, he had wanted to become a square-dance caller, and thought that the fife (or some manifestation) would be good in the band. We're talking about a diatonic piccolo in D with a large bore, and this was his first type of instrument offered in 1973. The bore at 1/2" favors the low octaves for playing in the same way as an Irish flute or pennywhistle, not for drumcorps or modern bands. For that reason, I prefer to call it a "High Flute." With some refinements, the UMBRA in polymer and 15/32" (12mm) bore is essentially the same. The standard Boehm piccolo has an 11mm bore, good for playing into the 3rd octave where it can transcend 76 trombones and 110 cornets. 

By 1974, we were playing for contradances, using the traditional fiddle repertoire. Many dance series were active in the 1970s in New England, connected directly or indirectly with Dudley Laufman. On the scene with me at the time were Chuck Malloch, Dave Cantieni and Ron Grosslein, all good players. Deanna Stiles is prominent and still active, but on the standard Boehm piccolo. Other flute players have been known to double on the piccolo or HiD fife. I'm more likely to see these instruments in contradance bands or at the New England Folk Festival than at the local Irish session. 

The UMBRA in HiD is really a modern invention, with little historic precedent. I have designed it using my years of experience in designing similar instruments. In the future I'll make another model with a bigger bore to give a little more dynamic headroom. Many of today's flute makers also make, or can make piccolos. I'll leave it to others to weigh-in on that issue. Right now I'm working on DULCINEA, a Boehm flute in F above C, whose compass more closely matches the range of the 
violin. This way, I'll play everything the fiddles play, especially in the extended range below and low D and above high B (into fiddle's 3rd position, etc.).

Walt Sweet

The Sweets were just down the road from me growing up, in Holyoke, Ma. A visited their shop a good few times over the years. Ralph helped me out a few times doing emergency repairs. 

Big thank you to the Sweets.

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