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William Kincaid Meets Spectral Analysis

William Kincaid Meets Spectral Analysis

If you attend an orchestral concert, chamber music performance, or solo recital in the United States and a flutist is involved, chances are that you’re hearing a player whose educational pedigree connects him or her to William Morris Kincaid. Kincaid held the principal flute position with the Philadelphia Orchestra for four decades, substantial chunks of both the Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy eras. He made an important contribution to the sumptuous, shimmering “Philadelphia Sound” but just as important was his legacy as the “Father of the American Flute School.” A survey conducted in 2003 found that 87% of American professional flutists could claim a lineage to William Kincaid through one or more of their teachers.

William Kincaid in 1920, the year before he joined the Philadelphia Orchestra

Lois Bliss Herbine is among them. Herbine, based outside of Philadelphia, where she grew up, is a busy freelance musician and pedagogue, especially well known for her skill on piccolo. She performs with several Delaware Valley orchestras, has a large number of students with different levels of experience, and travels widely to give seminars and demonstrations on behalf of Powell Flutes, the most elite manufacturer of professional-quality instruments. Herbine never heard William Kincaid play live (her flute-playing sister, 16 years her senior, once chatted him up at the Academy of Music’s stage door following a Friday afternoon performance) but did study with a series of Kincaid students and “grand-students,” most notably John C. Krell. Joining his mentor in the Philadelphia Orchestra flute section in 1952, Krell served as the ensemble’s piccoloist until 1981. Krell had taken careful lesson notes when he studied with Kincaid at the Curtis Institute. Complemented by additional insights gleaned by sitting a few feet away from his former teacher onstage at the Academy for eight years, Krell published Kincaidiana, a slim volume that, in its second edition, remains available through the National Flute Association website.

What did Lois Herbine learn from William Kincaid that continues to inform her playing today?

Most flutists, 80% in one study, will tell you that the tone, or timbre, they produce is the most important aspect of their playing. There are two components that determine timbre, the attack—the short burst of energy that initiates the sound—and the steady-state phase that follows. For many, it’s the harmonic structure of the latter that’s of primary importance. No instrument produces a “pure” sound of just a single frequency but rather a blend of the “fundamental” (or H1) and the overtones that derive from that pitch. Overtones occur an octave above the fundamental (H2), a fifth above that (H3), at the next octave (H4), two octaves plus a third above the fundamental (H5), two octaves plus a fifth above the fundamental (H6), two octaves plus a minor seventh above the fundamental (H7), and beyond. It’s the precise mixture of these overtones, also called “partials,” that distinguish a clarinet from a trumpet playing the same pitch at the same volume. Or, more subtly, one flute player from another. The specific instrument that’s played—flutes can be made from wood as well as silver, gold, or platinum alloys—matters less than you’d think. Verne Q. Powell, the founder of the illustrious brand, was quoted as saying: “As far as tone is concerned, I contend that 90% of it is the man behind the flute.”

Lois Bliss Herbine, with a Powell piccolo.
Photo credit: Paul Sirochman

Or the woman. When Lois was a young teenager and taking her first lessons with a Kincaid scion, her engineer father analyzed her sonority with scientific test gear. “My Dad came home from work at Leeds and Northrup with a Tektronix 555 oscilloscope,” Herbine told me. “He hooked it up to the iconic Shure 55S microphone from the 1950s (better known as the ‘Elvis Mic’) and created a space for me to test my ability to add overtones to my sound with this visual support. Dad developed test equipment for work and was an inventor on the side, as well. I now believe the use of the oscilloscope to see sound production was a prototype but, for me, it was what you did at home on a Sunday when Mom wouldn’t let you watch TV. As my Dad was also a professional jazz clarinetist and saxophonist—and an amateur flutist—he had an idea of how to explain what to do with my embouchure to create the overtone series in my sound. I recall having a difficult time producing the third harmonic. But when I got it, I learned what that sounded and felt like.”

Mr. Bliss may not have been the first, but he was definitely ahead of his time. “Spectral analysis” graphs of a flute player trying out different techniques of tone production were published as far back as 1967, the year William Kincaid died. The objective investigation of instrumental or vocal tone quality took a big leap forward with the implementation of Fourier analysis. When a Fourier transform (FT) algorithm is applied to a musical signal, the graphic representation is mathematically converted from the time domain to the frequency domain and the harmonic makeup of the sound under study is clearly demonstrated. For a 2014 Master’s thesis at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obisbo, Ron Yorita recorded long tones produced by 31 flutists of various ability levels, from high school students to professionals. A selection of samples was then presented to a group of 41 “skilled flutists” who were asked to describe the sound they heard. These descriptors were then ranked as either favorable (“full,” “rich,” “colorful,” “resonant”) or unfavorable (“unfocused,” “weak,” “thin,” “unsupported.”)

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Tags: CLASSICAL FLUTE MUSIC RECORDING

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