PIPE BEVELING STYLES
By David Osborn
Introduction: Fitting the Pipe Mouths to Your Mouth
One of the most precise, yet particular and individualized aspects of making a Pan Flute lies in how you choose to bevel the top rims of the pipes, where they meet the player’s lips (near rims), and where they meet the player’s focused air stream (far rims). Absolutely NO Pan Flutist wants to move his or her lips over the sharp or jagged edges of rough-cut bamboo pipes! Among Pan Flute makers in Romania, this is known as putting a “buza”, or a “mouth” on the pipes. In other words, the maker puts a “buza” or “mouth” on the pipes in order to fit the mouths of the pipes to the player’s own mouth. And when you look at the faces and mouths of different Pan Flutists, they are many and varied, with some having larger or fatter lips, and some thinner lips; some players also have more prominent jaws, and some less prominent jaws – the whole contours of the chin, jaw and mouth area can be very different. In addition, how you bevel the pipes of your Pan Flute is critical for achieving the exact sound and playing response that you want from your instrument. Because subtle aesthetic and artistic factors enter into the equation, there are no hard and fast dos and don’ts when it comes to pipe beveling.
Beveling the top rims of the pipes is one of the last steps in making a Pan Flute. It is generally done after the whole instrument has been put together, and the pipes sealed and roughly tuned; after the pipes are beveled, all that remains are the finishing steps – fine tuning and oiling the pipes, and finishing or painting the pipes. It is usually recommended that beginning Pan Flutists start out with an instrument whose pipes have not been heavily beveled; later on, after the player’s embouchure and blowing or playing style has strengthened and solidified, the pipes can then be beveled more heavily, but not until then. So, the beginning Pan Flutist will usually buy an instrument from the Pan Flute maker whose pipes have only been lightly or moderately beveled; later on, with the help of a few simple tools – files or rasps, as well as sand paper in medium to fine grades – the pipes can be re-beveled to be more in line with the player’s evolving musical tastes and artistic capabilities.
A Step by Step Guide to Beveling the Top Rims of Your Pipes
When beveling the top rims of your pipes, it is important to have a good consistency and uniformity from top to bottom in the overall angle and profile of how you bevel the pipes of your instrument. And it also helps to have a uniform procedure or standard protocol for the whole process of pipe beveling. In this section, I will describe the overall pipe beveling process, step by step:
The first step is rounding off the outer edges of the pipe rims, in both their front or far sides as well as their back or near sides. Bamboo is a rather fragile wood that chips or splinters easily, and rounding off the outer edges of the pipe rims before you start beveling the pipes is the best way to prevent chipping and splintering. Round off the outer edges of each pipe, both front and back, all the way around the rim, to the point at which it joins to the neighboring pipe, with a small half round file or rasp.
The second step is to take that small half round file and to round off the near rims of the pipes, where they will be meeting your lips. You want a nice, full rounding of the near rims of the pipes, because you want them to feel totally smooth and comfortable when rubbing up against your lips. During this step, you will probably notice that the top edges of the near rims will start to sag downwards, and take on a scalloped appearance; this is perfectly normal and desirable. You want to make sure that this rounding and scalloping of the near edges of the pipe rims is totally consistent and uniform from pipe to pipe, with the rounding and scalloping being smaller on the top pipes – because the pipes themselves are smaller – and the rounding and scalloping being larger and deeper on the bottom pipes – again because the pipes themselves are larger. And you want a uniform progression or graduation in this from top to bottom.
The third step is to slightly round off the far rims of the pipes. Some choose to forego this step, leaving only the outer edges of the far rims rounded off; others may round off the far edges only very slightly, so that a very minimal scalloping of the far rims becomes evident, whereas still others may want the far rims rounded off and scalloped just as much as the near rims – to each his or her own preference.
From here, the player may then undertake additional steps in rough sculpting the contours of the pipe rims as he or she likes them; everyone has their own secret method or recipe for custom sculpting the pipe rim contours. And finally, the pipe rims are sanded down with finer and finer grades of sandpaper. I prefer to use a small flat file or rasp as a kind of sanding block to make sure that my pipe rims are sanded and sculpted consistently and uniformly. If you get down to the finest grit of sandpaper, the pipe rims will be quite smooth, even glossy. As a final step in the beveling process, many players will take medium to fine grade sandpaper and gently round off the inner edges of the pipes, all around the inner rim, so that the edges are not so sharp; this makes for a very soft, smooth and sweet tone overall.
The Basic Styles of Pipe Beveling
Minimal Beveling: After the outer edges of the pipe rims are rounded off, in both the front and the back, there is a slight to moderate rounding off of the near rims of the pipes to fit them to the player’s lips, producing a slight scalloping of the near rims, but not much beyond that. This is generally recommended for beginning Pan Flutists; it was also the beveling style that my main teacher, Damian Luca, preferred for many years, it seems.
Rounded Beveling: The basic idea here is to create a side view profile that is rounded off, in both the front and the back, with most preferring more rounding on the near rims than on the far rims, myself included. Some prefer equal rounding for both the near and far rims of the pipes.
Inverted “V” Beveling: The top rims of the pipes are beveled to an equal degree on both their near and far rims; the side view profile of the pipe, instead of being a rounded inverted howl, as in the rounded beveling style above, is an inverted “V”. This beveling style is one that is preferred by many younger Pan Flutists.
Inclined Beveling: The near rims of the pipes are beveled downwards to a great degree, creating a marked inclination of the upper rims of the pipes downwards towards the player’s side. The proponents of this beveling style, which includes Gheorghe Zamfir, King of the Pan Flute, find that it gives them an unparalleled intimacy and sensitivity of tone and response. One objection to this beveling style is that the more deeply you incline the near rims of the pipes downwards towards the player, the more difficult it becomes to maintain overall embouchure control; it is something like having to run or wade quickly through deep water.
Cutaway Beveling: Cutaway beveling is the exact opposite of inclined beveling, because the far rims of the pipes are cut away at a very steep angle, leaving the near rims virtually untouched. The proponents of this beveling style value it for the very bright and open tone it creates, which can even get a little too open and breathy. Those who are proponents of this style of beveling are greatly in the minority, and no real Pan Flute master or virtuoso that I am aware of bevels his or her pipes in this manner.
So, in a nutshell, these are the main styles or ways in which the top rims of the pipes of a Pan Flute can be beveled. You may find yourself gravitating to one or the other of these styles, or you may find yourself developing your own hybrid style that combines aspects or characteristics of two or more of these main styles. Whichever style you wind up adopting, precision is the key, as even slight modifications of the beveling angle can produce marked changes in the overall tone and playing response of the instrument. In beveling the rims of your pipes, always proceed slowly and gradually, testing every step of the way for the desired tone and playing response.
Beveling Approaches, or the Philosophy and Metaphysics of Pipe Beveling
In the search for explanations or justifications as to why they bevel the rims of the pipes the way they do, most Pan Flutist simply say that it gives them the kind of sound and playing response they want from their instrument. A few Pan Flutists, however, have even resorted to grandiose philosophical or metaphysical reasons and justifications; you might be inclined to think that I am joking or exaggerating here, but I assure you that I kid you not. In a most basic and mundane sense, you could make the broad generalization that the overall purpose of beveling the pipe rims is to bring the player’s lips or embouchure into a closer, more intimate contact with the instrument. And if we look at the most common or favored styles of pipe beveling, we find that this is usually the case – that the distance between the player’s lips or embouchure and the far rims or blowing edges of the pipes is shortened or decreased. A closer, more intimate contact or rapport between player and instrument – who could be opposed to that?
When I studied Pan Flute briefly with Gheorghe Zamfir, the King of the Pan Flute, in preparation for entering the music conservatory in Bucharest, one of his big mottos was, Sufla in sus, which means, “Blow upwards” – towards God and heaven, in other words. This was all part of Maestro Zamfir’s grand conception of Pan Flute philosophy and metaphysics, as well as a spiritual justification for his own particular style of inclined pipe beveling. Inclined pipe beveling, in which the near rims of the pipes are at a much lower elevation than the far rims or blowing edges of the pipes, has the player blowing upwards to the greatest extent, towards God and heaven. Conversely, Maestro Zamfir considered it to be a grave sin to bevel or round off the far rims of the pipes, even to do so slightly, because lowering the far rims or blowing edges of the pipes in this manner would have the player blowing more downwards, towards the earth, which he considered to be downright Satanic. If you look at pipe beveling from this lofty and exalted perspective, Zamfir’s inclined pipe beveling would be the most heavenly and angelic way of beveling the pipes, whereas cutaway beveling, which is its polar opposite, would be the most evil and Satanic, because it has the player blowing downwards at the steepest angle.
How about leaving all these spiritual and metaphysical questions aside for a moment, and just look at pipe beveling styles from the perspective of raw acoustics? In my experience, the more steeply you bevel the near rims of the pipes, the more soft and sensitive, dark and veiled the tone gets, and the more you round off or bevel the far rims or blowing edges of the pipes, the more bright and open the tone gets. Most players these days favor some combination or mixture of beveling both the near and far rims of the pipes, to achieve some blending of the opposite yet complementary tone qualities obtained from each, and to obtain some of the beneficial effects on playing response that each has to offer. In terms of bringing the player and his instrument into closer contact or rapport, beveling the near rims definitely has it over beveling the far rims – and that’s why I bevel the near rims more. The bottom line is that every Pan Flutist is out to create his or her own distinctive sound, and the style or way in which they bevel the top rims of their pipes has a major impact on the sound they create.
How I Bevel the Rims of My Pipes
I would be the first to admit that I have not been absolutely constant in how I chose to bevel the rims of my pipes during my long career as a Pan Flutist. When I started out, when I was first learning, I adhered mainly to minimal beveling, as I have advised beginning students to do in the beginning of this article. If your own embouchure and blowing / playing style has not yet matured and solidified, if you don’t yet have a basic strength and firmness to your embouchure, it is still premature to bevel your pipes excessively in one direction / style or another. As my Pan Flute playing evolved, so did the way in which I beveled my pipes – that’s only natural, and to be expected. Along the way, I must admit that I experimented with a few things that I no longer use, which I considered to be beneficial at the time. To sum things up in terms of the basic styles I presented above, my own personal beveling style is a hybrid one, consisting of about two thirds rounded beveling, in which the side view profile of the top of the pipe would be that of an inverted bowl, and one third inclined beveling. In other words, the inverted bowl of my pipe rim profile is inclined or tilted slightly to moderately towards the near or player’s side.
To give a step by step description of how I bevel the top rims of my pipes, I start out by rounding off the outer edges of the pipe rims in both front and back, and I round them off thoroughly. Then I do the second step described above, which is to thoroughly round off the near rims of the pipes, from about the midline between the front and back rims towards the near or player’s side, which produces a definite sagging or scalloping of the near rims of the pipes. Then, I incline the middle section of the pipes towards me ever so slightly – this is where the main part of the inclined inverted bowl profile comes from. This inclining of the middle section of the pipes will definitely cut into the full rounding of the near rims; the following step is to round off those near rims again until they are nice and round, which inclines the basic pipe profile even more towards the near or player’s side. The following step is to bevel or round off the far rims of the pipes, the blowing edges, ever so slightly, until only the slightest level of sagging is noticed in the profiles of the far rims; this completes the bowl-like rounding of the pipes.
After these basic cuts have been made with a half round file or rasp, I then use medium to fine grades of sandpaper to finish off and polish the pipe rims, using a flat file or rasp as a sanding block. This will further incline the pipe rims ever so slightly towards the player’s side, and this must also be factored into the overall pipe beveling equation. In beveling your pipes, proceed slowly and gradually, testing out the pipes by playing them, going back and forth between natural and flattened notes as you do so, to check the action as well. And when you finally hit that “sweet spot”, that is where you stop. After I get the basic profile, I use medium fine grade sandpaper to gently round off the sharpness of the inner edges of the pipe rims, which will give the pipes a very smooth and sweet sound. As you can see, my pipe beveling is divided into two basic phases – first the rough or preliminary beveling with files or rasps, then fine beveling or adjustments using finer and finer grades of sandpaper. And throughout this last finer phase of pipe beveling, I am constantly testing and retesting by playing the pipes, until I finally reach that “sweet spot” that gives me the exact sound and playing response I am looking for.