Review: Powell Sonaré Piccolo

Snow melting on the campus of SDSU.
This week, I’ve had the opportunity to try out the new Powell Sonaré piccolo, PS-750. This new instrument has been available for about 6 months now. I had the pleasure of seeing it when it was introduced at the British Flute Society convention last summer but wasn’t able to spend an extended period of time with it then. This instrument is quite a departure from the standard look of the piccolo. Their website describes the look of the instrument as “art deco.” The mechanism is made from stainless steel, and the keys are rectangular instead of the more common round shape. This piccolo also comes in a choice of three colors of American hardwood. According to the Powell website, this wood is “tinted” and “stabilized with a phenolic resin.”  Color options include American Amethyst, Indian Onyx, and Tuscan Umber. I tried the Indian Onyx variety, which looked very much like the color sample on the website. It’s a bit streaky. The entire instrument is made by Powell in Massachusetts. It’s pitched at A=442 and is built on the modern Powell scale with a hand cut headjoint. The introductory list price is given as $3125 on the Powell website, with an “introductory minimum advertised price” listed as $2240. Flute World and Flute Center of New York list their price as $2240.

Here’s an interesting video on the Powell site by MMR Magazine. It features President of Powell Flutes, Steven Wasser, describing how the design of the piccolo was developed.

Luckily for them, my colleagues who have offices near mine were out of town for a conference this week, so I felt no guilt in really giving this instrument a nice workout. Based on my brief experience with it, this is a responsive, easy-to-play instrument that sounds even across the entire range. I introduced the piccolo to my students during studio class where they had the opportunity to try it for themselves. They initially thought the rectangular keys would be difficult to adjust to; as they spent some time with the instrument, they discovered that they really weren’t an obstacle. I particularly like the low register of this instrument; it doesn’t have that thin sound that you sometimes hear in the low register of the piccolo. The look is really quite distinctive. The colors are a bold move, and I personally prefer a more traditional wood color. However, the mechanism is striking and visually appealing. In some ways, it reminds me of the Powell 2100 model with its modern key cups.

Powell Sonaré piccolo, PS-750
Color detail. This is “Indian Onyx.”

The only structural criticism that I have about this piccolo is one that my students also mentioned after they tried it. It is quite easy to inadvertently press down the trill keys, as they are flat and taper down, matching the curve of the fingers. This was especially true for my students with larger hands. Still, with my average sized hands, I found myself also running into those keys. This might be something that is quickly adjusted to but was still an issue after playing the instrument for a week.

Trill keys detail.
Trill keys detail.

Overall, I think this is a solid instrument. It’s responsive and has a very nice sound. I also think the price positions it nicely to be a reasonable choice for many players. While I insist that my students try many brands to find the instrument that is best suited for each of them, the Powell Sonaré piccolo is one that I will add to the list of instruments that I recommend they consider.

Many thanks to the folks at Powell flutes for allowing the flute studio at South Dakota State University to spend some time with the PS-750!




Kentucky Flute Festival recap

I recently returned from the Flute Society of Kentucky‘s 2012 Festival, which as held at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. It was really a top-notch event with interesting workshops and performances. It was very well-organized by the Festival chair, Dr. Heidi Alvarez, who is the flute professor at WKU. What a class act, and one of the most hospitable flutists I’ve ever had the privilege to meet.

While it was impossible to attend every single event at the Festival, I thought it would be worthwhile to give a summary of what I did see there and perhaps introduce you to some new ideas.

On Friday, 13 January, I caught the end of a workshop on intonation by Dr. Elizabeth Goode, professor of flute at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, GA. This presentation was based on an article she has published in Flute Talk entitled “Good Vibrations: A Practical Approach to Intonation.” It was nice to see a compilation of flute intonation tendencies in one place, and I also enjoyed hearing about the intonation tendencies of other instruments. (Yes, I guess we have to play with instruments other than flute, right?) She also reminded me of the value of incorporating resultant tones into my practice and teaching.

I gave a lecture about ways to make practicing more effective and efficient. The basics can be found here: Practicing Difficult Sections and here: Practice Tips.

I then heard a presentation about performance injuries. The presenter, Adam Pettry, has been through several injuries which required him to take a long break from performance. He went over specific products that can be used to help alleviate symptoms and hopefully prevent injury. I find this to be an interesting topic because my background includes influential teachers who do not play with extra “gadgets,” and I fear that adding things to the instrument might affect resonance and overall tone quality. I posed the question on Twitter and received a variety of responses, but I think it boiled down to “do what you have to do.” Not sure about this one.

I then enjoyed a lecture from Atlanta’s own Tony Watson, who has recently relocated to Louisville, Kentucky and is establishing a Suzuki program at the University of Louisville. It was great to spend some time with someone from my neck of the woods, and I enjoyed learning about the Suzuki method of instruction. The most striking was the realization that I (and many others, I suspect) incorporate Suzuki ideas into my teaching, even though I don’t have any background in the method. As Tony explained, “Good teaching is just good teaching,” and ideas can freely flow between different methods of instruction.

The next presentation I saw was given by Melissa Keeling, who is a graduate student at Middle Tennessee State University. She demonstrated how to incorporate microphones, amplification, and effects to the regular ol’ flute. She uses it to write her own music (even though she shies away from calling herself a “composer”) and says that she hasn’t found music that incorporates this technology. I wonder if there is any out there. It’s a really neat idea and something I can see myself embracing but I have little interest in writing the music myself.

I then gave a lecture on my dissertation stuff: several works involving flute by the Grammy-winning Joan Tower.

That evening, we were treated to a recital by the Guest Artist, Mr. Walfrid Kujala. He performed a movement from JS Bach’s F Major Organ Sonata, the Beethoven Serenade in D arranged for flute and piano, Katherine Hoover’s Three Sketches for Piccolo and Piano, and Otar Gordeli’s Flute Concerto, Op. 8. I particularly enjoyed the piccolo piece. (Am I really saying I enjoyed piccolo? Why, yes!)

That ended day one of the Festival. I wasn’t prepared for how cold it was there even though I brought a good coat. The thermometer in the rental car read 25 degrees F. I was also slightly jet-lagged, so I called it a night.

Saturday, 14 January was another jam-packed day of flute goodness. I spent a lot of time at the exhibits that morning. Even though I’m not officially in the market for a flute, I like to see what’s available. I especially like to try as many intermediate-level models and brands as possible, so I can better help my students when they’re ready to buy step-up instruments. I spent a lot of time with Flute Specialists (Clawson, MI) and Carolyn Nussbaum Music Company (Plano, TX) and had lovely chats. I also bought a stack of music I was needing (no pesky shipping charges!). A couple of notable instruments/gear: I found a delicious vintage Powell piccolo, which is currently out of my price range, and I tried a Robert Dick glissando headjoint. (More about that later.)

My attention naturally gravitated towards the recital of chamber music of the 20th and 21st centuries, since that’s primarily what I focus on. I had some Twitter folks ask me specifically what was on the program, so let me list it here:

The Piper Calls for Flute and Guitar by Frederick Speck
In the Clear Blue for Two Flutes and Piano (World Premiere) by Michael Kallstrom
Spindrift for Piccolo and Piano by Ken Benshoof
Mountain Songs for Flute and Guitar by Robert Beaser
Interior States for Flute and Cello by Jonathan McNair
Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp by Claude Debussy

It was really a varied program, and I found several works that I would like to incorporate into my repertoire. Surprisingly, one of them was the piccolo piece. (I’m not usually a piccolo gal; can you tell?) This recital ran a bit long, so I was late to the beatbox workshop but caught enough of it to learn the basics. This was presented by Denis Santos, a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky. In case you haven’t heard of beatboxing flute yet, check this out:

The next recital was given by the interdisciplinary group The Fourth Wall, which incorporates dance and acting into their musical performances. They were quite good at engaging the audience, and it was an unusual experience.

The closing concert of the festival also featured a lot of new music, which made it really interesting to me. In case you’re wondering, it included:

The Falling Cinders of Time for Solo Flute by Michael Kallstrom
Reflections by Maggi Payne
Three Beats for Beatbox Flute by Greg Pattillo

and a recital by Michele Gori, an Italian flutist who plays all the flute family and mixes them up with a looper and electronics. Some of the works he played were from our standard repertoire, such as Honegger’s Danse de la chevre. Others were his own compositions. It was really interesting to hear the standards in such a new context.

All in all, what a full event! I especially liked the emphasis on the new – new technology, new trends, new music. Maybe these trends will stick, and maybe they won’t but showing what is at the forefront of the flute community is a great way to inspire people and keep these festivals fresh.

If next year’s Festival of the Flute Society of Kentucky is anything like this year’s, I’ll plan to be there. I recommend that you do the same!