FLUTE Member Of The Week
March 1 to 7, 1999

Robert Bigio

I am now a flute maker, but I started out as a flute player, enjoying modest success as a performer in London in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time I had two teaching jobs that I really enjoyed. One was at Morley College, a part-time adult education institution with a strong tradition of music (directors of music have included Gustav Holst and Michael Tippett). At Morley I taught people from complete beginners (some even of retirement age) up to very advanced players. My other teaching job was at the Royal Academy of Music, where I taught juniors.


I was born in Cairo. My family lived there from about 1900, but we had been in the area for thousands of years. Three of my grandparents came from Aleppo and the fourth from Jerusalem. When I was a child my community was (how shall I put this?) asked to live elsewhere. Some of my ancestors a few thousand years ago were similarly required to leave Egypt, but unlike them, we left on an aeroplane and didnít require divine intervention and the parting of the Red Sea to help us. Our exit may not have been as dramatic as that of Moses, but at least we didnít have to wander the desert for forty years. Instead we went to Canada where we settled in Vancouver, which was, on the whole, preferable to the barren wastes of the Sinai Peninsula. In Vancouver I learned to speak English. I should have grown up there, too, but anyone who knows me will agree that I was singularly unsuccessful in that activity. I came to England in the 1970s to study, and I never left.

In 1987, on what seemed to our friends a mad whim, my wife Sue and I quit our jobs in London and moved to a small town in Northumberland (Northeastern England). Mad it certainly was. I realised within hours of arriving that I am without question a city person. Sue became headteacher of a school in a pretty, isolated village up the North Tyne valley, in what we called the last place in England (beyond the village was Kielder Forest, and beyond that was Scotland). I found workshop space in a small industrial estate on a windswept hillside a few miles north of Hadrianís Wall. This was near where the air force practised dropping bombs, and just where they practised ultra-low-level flying, which meant I had to suffer jet fighters roaring over my roof at terrifying speeds and with terrifying amounts of noise. Then there were the sheep: thousands of the wretched things, bleating all day long. A rural idyll it certainly wasnít. Give me quiet old London any dayÖ

As well as trying to make flutes in this unspeakable location I was still teaching and playing, mostly in nearby Newcastle-upon-Tyne. A year after we arrived we produced young Jacob. Sue and I agreed that as her income was more secure than mine and as her career couldnít be put on hold as easily as mine, she would return to work and I would stay home to look after the baby. The small Northumberland town really couldnít cope with this arrangement. We both suffered astonishing hostility. After eighteen months we had had enough, so we moved to Newcastle where at least people didnít stop and stare when they saw me pushing a pram. I continued to play, to teach and to make instruments whenever childcare could be arranged. After four years in Newcastle I persuaded Sue that we really should be back in London, so we returned. Sue is now headteacher of a school in Hampstead (North London). I am still in charge of Jacob, who is now ten years old. I take him to and from school and to all his after-school activities, and in the time left over I do all the other things I need to do. (Time left over? Hah! He plays chess, which is as time-consuming an activity as you could imagine. Jacob is onto a good thing here: we pay his tournament fees, we drive him to tournaments, we pay for the hotels, we wait for him to finish playing, and he gets the prize money.)

I now only make flutes for a living, but I am also researching the flute makers Rudall Carte, who were very important in the development of the modern instrument. I started making flutes, at first as a hobby, about twenty years ago. I got to know some former employees of Rudall Carte and made a nuisance of myself in their workshops to pick up a few hints. I first made silver headjoints, but then I then got interested in wooden instruments. I made baroque flutes and recorders for a while, but, as I enjoy saying, I soon saw the error of my ways and started making modern instruments again. I made my first modern wooden flute in the early 1980s. I do make silver and gold headjoints, but most of my work is in wood, which is my favourite material. For many years I played professionally on a silver flute with a wooden headjoint, which works wonderfully. I still recommend this arrangement. Wooden flutes, and wooden headjoints on metal flutes, blend better with other instruments, are more colourful, more even-sounding and, believe it or not, louder than ordinary metal flutes.

A few years ago I started experimenting with stoppers and crowns for flute headjoints. I would never have believed that changing these things could possibly affect the sound of a flute, but they most certainly do. I have now supplied a great many sets to people all over the world, and hardly a day goes by without someone writing to express amazement at the improvement in their flute after installing a set.

I recently travelled to North Carolina to visit list manager Helen Spielman and her husband, and we drove over to see Jeff Smith of J.L. Smith & Co., in his wonderful shop in Charlotte, NC. Jeff is now selling my wooden headjoints and my stoppers and crowns, which makes them easier to buy for anyone in the USA.

In Britain, my products are carried by Top Wind and by Just Flutes. John Packer Ltd. in Somerset also sells my headjoints, but is not yet on the Web.

My Web site is: http://www.bigio.demon.co.uk

Robert Bigio


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