This blog is dedicated to the sublime instruments called nose flutes and which produce the most divine sound ever. We have chosen to discard all the native models from S. Pacific and Asia, for they need fingering to be played. We'll concentrate on "buccal cavity driven" nose flutes : the well patented and trademarked metal or plastic ones, plus, by a condemnable indulgence, some wooden craft or home-made productions.

Nov 28, 2011

Bocarina part IV : Chris Schuermans' interview

Here is the fourth and last part of our presentation of the South African nose flute, the Bocarina, with an interview of its creator, Mr. Chris Schuermans. Thanks to him for having taken the time to answer our questions with much details. : Is the nose flute a traditional instrument in South Africa ?

Chris Schuermans : No, I have sold thousands of nose flutes here and have not met anyone in South Africa who knew of the nose flute before they saw mine.

When and how did you begin to produce nose flutes ?

I started making nose flutes about 4 years ago, out of curiosity after I having read about them.

You began with clay nose flutes : how do you proceed to create them ? Do you use a mould, like Mr. Sasaki does in Japan, in order to obtain a first shape, and then work it manually after ? Could you please describe the whole process ?

The first nose flutes I made were completely hand crafted and shaped. I experimented with different shapes and sizes until I was pleased with the result. I made a resin (epoxy putty) original in a similar shape and size from which I then made a press mould. The moulded clay is then worked by hand to make the blowing parts. I soon became aware that it didn’t fit so well on other people’s faces. At that time I was experimenting with a computer aided design/modelling program called Rhinoceros 3.0 so I decided to design the next nose flute on the computer. The original was milled from the computer model. It was a flop because it was too narrow and the nose piece was too small. I modified the milled model by hand and then made a mould from this. The Delft blue ceramic model that you now have is the 3rd generation mould I made. This was made after I had done a lot of designing on Rhinoceros, and after making numerous prototypes (3D printing - fused deposition modelling on Stratasys machines) In the process of making ocarinas, I decided to use an industrial press moulding process whereby the moulded parts are ejected from the mould by means of compressed air and water. These Hydraulic machines are large and very expensive so I modified a hand press (arbour press) to achieve the same result on a smaller scale.

The press, modified by Mr. Schuermans, with the Bocarina mould set up.

When did you think of a plastic production ?

About 4 years ago after I got a large order for nose flutes from a customer. He became impatient with my production time and he urged me to make a plastic model. I was not interested at first because of the initial tooling costs of plastic injection moulding. I referred him to the Trophy Whistle Company. He ordered a few dozen Humanatones and was totally disappointed by the poor quality and performance of these instruments. He urged me to make a plastic version of my clay model and he was even willing to pay for the mould. It turned out however, due to demands he made, that I ended up paying for the mould.

How long did it take you to achieve the final specifications ?

Probably a year. I was new at 3D design on the computer and I was still learning (by myself) to use the Rhinoceros 3D modelling program.

How did you work on that matter ? Tests and rejects, computer assistance, or both ?

It took me about 6 months of working at night and about 12 prototypes to come up with overall shape. It then took me another six months and about 30 prototypes to refine the fipple (blowing parts that produce the sound).

What are the specifities of plastics, regarding nose flutes making, towards clay or other materials ?

Most importantly, ABS plastic (of which my instruments are made) is not easily broken. This is very important when marketing this product. I find that many people choose the plastic nose flute above the ceramic model firstly because it won’t break when it is dropped or carelessly handled, and secondly because it is cheaper. Ceramic nose flutes can be made to the same specifications by means of injection moulding, but the final product is a lot more expensive. Overall, I would say that I can achieve better results in terms of flute performance with injection moulding because of the reliable replication of the product. Producing ceramic nose flutes by means of press moulding does not give you the same degree of precision and reliability because it still involves some degree of manual work, and it is a much slower and laborious process. I don’t have much skill in woodwork, and I know that it is problematic in terms of porosity because it swells when it absorbs water and it can crack when it dries out. Wood on the other hand can be beautiful and warm to the touch….
As far as I know, metal, plastic, wood and clay are the most common materials from which nose flutes are commercially made. Each has shortcomings and advantages. However, as far as mass production and cost effectiveness are concerned then I think plastic is the best suited material.

What is your opinion regarding the importance of the material in the sound production (wood vs plastics...) ?

Good question, I have debated this topic before… Firstly,The nose flute shares acoustic properties with other instruments, such as the ocarina, gems horn and pan flute. In my opinion and in my experience, the material from which a closed vessel flute is made has very little influence on the sound it produces, with the exception of very light weight and porous wood (i.e. reed or balsa wood), which would produce very poor acoustics unless it is sealed with wax or varnish. It is the vibration of the air column in closed vessel flutes that produces the sound. Generally, the body of closed vessel flutes do not resonate the vibrations of the air column. If the vessel (body of the flute) is of the right size, density and shape to resonate in harmony with the vibrations that it sustains, only then would the material have a significant effect on the acoustic properties. In my experience nose flutes do not have the right characteristic to resonate any of the frequencies they generate. The acoustic properties of closed vessel flutes are more dependent on the structure, and the resulting physics of the fipple (mouth piece and blowing parts that produce the sound.)

Don't you think the labium vibrates, and vibrates in a different way depending on the material, fibrous or not, hard or springy ...), thus providing a different color ? In other words : would it be possible to change the timbre, adding harmonics for instance ?

It’s a difficult question and I haven’t done the science. I also don’t want to get drawn into a long debate. I think the surface texture of wood, for example, in the air passage and on the labium would influence the acoustics more than its ability to resonate or vibrate. As you no doubt know, crystalline solids will resonate at specific frequencies and at multiples of those frequencies, but the moment one touches the resonating solid, it would dampen the vibrations. Now, I doubt if a nose flute in contact with one’s face will resonate, or vibrate in any significant way as to effect the harmonics. The player’s face will absorb any energy that may cause vibrations within the structure of the nose flute. Furthermore wood does not carry resonance/ vibrations nearly as well as crystalline or homogeneous solids. It would be interesting to make identical nose flutes from plastic, wood, and metal using a computer model and a CNC milling machine, to test this. The surfaces that make up the fipple or blowing parts will have to be polished to get a uniform finish and in the case of wood it must be sealed with wax and then polished.

And how do the labium specifications influence the sound ?

From my experience making ocarinas I know that there is an ideal fipple or labium window size for each size ocarina. In other words, there is a direct proportional relationship between the ideal labium window size and the inner volume of closed vessel flutes. When the labium window is too big for a certain inner volume size, the sound will be higher in frequency, loud and harsh and it will have tendency to squawk on the high notes when blown softly. If the labium window is too small the sound produced will be lower, softer and tonally pleasant, but the sound will cut out in the lower register if blown slightly too hard. The same applies to the nose flute, but the mouth cavity has a variable volume size. Therefore, the ideal labium window size is also a variable. Either one has to design a variable labium window or you have to make a sacrifice. I opted for the midrange. If you reduce the labium window size of the Bocarina then it will produce very pleasant high notes but it will cut out in the low registers and it will play softly. Increasing the labium window size will produce loud and very harsh tones in the high register and the low register will move up in frequency, thus losing some of the lowest tones. With the Bocarina as it is now, the tonal quality of the high notes can be improved by leaving a gap between your lips and the body of the instrument, or in hands free playing, by pulling the corners of your lips away from the instrument. This gap has the same effect as opening the tone holes of an ocarina. The gap between your mouth and the Bocarina will produce softer and more pleasing tones in the high register and it will increase the relative volume of your mouth cavity, required to produce those frequencies and hence it will give your more control.

In a first time, how many plastic flutes do you intend to produce ?

Due to financial considerations my first order was for 2000 units only. I will make as many as I can sell to the world.

You made a mould for plastic injection. Are you proceeding to the plastic casting with your own equipment or asked a local industrial partner to do it for you ?

The injection moulding is done by a factory in Johannesburg.

Are you still working on your model and have planned further improvements ?

I have learned a lot from designing the Bocarina and I see it as an evolving process. We learn from experience and mistakes. – in the future I will try to improve the Bocarina in terms of acoustics and ergonomically I already know that it could be improved as to accommodate more facial structures.

Do you play yourself ? What kind of music do you whistle on your nose flutes ?

I do play the nose flute. Not as often as I should and not nearly as well as I wish. I have a very limited repertoire of music I can play. I mostly play traditional songs, like the ones in my book ‘play the ocarina’. I do however enjoy playing along with the music of Secret Garden (album: Songs from a secret garden)

What does represent the little logo/stamp on your clay Bocarinas ? a pomegranat ? a firevase ? What is the meaning ?

My logo, represents earth, water, fire and wind. All the natural elements are brought together in my ceramic music instruments. Just in case you are wondering; air is represented by the circle also symbolising earth. Air surrounds earth, and air is specifically symbolised in the gap at the bottom of the circle which ends in an arrow-like point, showing direction. The gap also symbolises the fipple of whistles where air vibrates to produce sound. (Interestingly, when sound is produced then the 4th dimension of time is introduced). Water also surrounds the earth, but it is specifically symbolised by the wave-like structure at the top of the circle. Fire; I think is obvious.


On the same topic, you can read :

Bocarina part I : A South African Ferrari
Bocarina part II : The clay original
Bocarina part III : A player's report - by Birdy K.
Bocarina part IV : Chris Schuermans' interview
Bocarina part V : The Ones you'll never have...
Bocarina part VI : The Ancestors
Bocarina part VII : Experiments 1
Bocarina part VII : Experiments 2


Where to get a Bocarina

Brionski Ebay store
Dan Moi online shop
Grothmusic online shop

And for larger quantities, for sure :

Chris Schuermans
95 Farnham Rd. Lynnwood Manor
Pretoria, 0081 RSA (South Africa)

Cell phone no. +27 83 954 3224
Telephone no. +27 12 361 4659,

email : chris[at]schuermans[dot]org


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