The E Controversy

Some flute players love the Split E, and some hate it. Some think the High E Facilitator (AKA G Doughnut) is the bomb. Some purists want none of it. So why do we have this discussion about the high E in the first place, and why so many different approaches?

It all comes back to the problem that Theobald Boehm had to face when creating his fingering system. We only have 10 fingers, and they must play 12 notes!  Somewhere there must be mechanical compromises to compensate.

On most flutes, you have probably noticed that High F and High Eb both have a clear tone and quick response and tuning, but the E, right between them both, is stuffy, slower to respond, and not as well in tune.

Boehm’s original fingering system didn’t have this problem with the high E. It was simple to make and the High E was acoustically perfect, but it was almost immediately and universally discarded. It was called the “Open G#” and you can still find a rare example from time to time. Players of pre-Boehm flutes were already used to playing a G with the first three fingers and the thumb. Boehm asked them to switch to 1-2-3-thumb sounding a G#, and to play the G you had to add the pinky! That means that every single note in the right hand would have to be played with the left-hand pinky down. This proved to be such a substantial change in fingering technique that no one wanted to buy the flute, so the flute makers that licensed Boehm’s invention quickly created the Closed G# we use today.

The biggest drawback to the closed G# is what it does to the High E.

Let’s start by looking at what happens when you play a high F, just a half step above the problem note. Notice that all the keys are closed to the F except for one single key, the A key, opening one single tone hole. That open A key creates an “Anti-node” which pops the high F out. To show how this happens I want you to pull out your flute and play the overtones of the low F. Start playing the low F and don’t change the fingering, just overblow to the middle F and you are now playing the first overtone. Now overblow to the second overtone without changing the fingering and you will get a C. Now overblow to the third overtone without changing the fingering and you will get the high F. Now while playing that high F try opening and closing the A key to prove to yourself that you are in-fact playing the third overtone of the low F key. You can walk through this same exercise with the overtones of the low Eb as well.

Now find a flute that has no Split E or High E Facilitator. Finger the high E and look closely at which keys are up and which are down. You no longer have just one key up in the air, but you have both G keys up, uncovering two toneholes. Two toneholes are way too wide to only create an anti-node there. Instead you are now fingering a “fundamental” pitch of low A. Now try playing the overtone series from that low A. Finger the low A and overblow to the first overtone and you get a middle A. Overblow to the second overtone without changing the fingering and you get the high E. The second overtone is out of tune, so the quickest and easiest way to make it a little better in tune is to put down the first and second fingers of the right hand, and now you think you are fingering a fundamental of E! You are not playing the third overtone of the E, but instead you are playing the second overtone of the A and trying to compensate for the poor tuning by adding extra keys.

The High E Facilitator

The simplest and least expensive way to correct for this problem is the High E Facilitator, also called the G Donut. Look inside the toneholes of the two keys that move when you press your G key up and down. These two keys are often called G1 and G2 (or upper G and lower G) by flute makers. G1 is closer to the headjoint. G2 sometimes has a High E Facilitator disk inside it covering up part of the tone hole. Some are round with a center hole just like a doughnut. Some makers offset the hole, or create different shapes of hole. By reducing the functional size of the G2 tone hole you create a smaller opening when fingering high E. This allows an antinode to form and suddenly when fingering the high E you are now playing the third overtone of the E and not the second overtone of the A.

High E Facilitator 

Notice the cresent moon shape in the tonehole to the left of the G# lever. On some flutes the hole is in the center like a donut.

Your stuffy E problem is solved, but not all is perfect. Play any octave of your As and carefully note the tone difference between the A, the Ab and the Bb. Now that you have restricted the size of the G2 tone hole you have changed the timbre of the A just a bit. Most players feel that the loss is nowhere near the gain you get with the improvement in the E, but some don’t like what happens to the A. 

The Split E

The Split E is a solution to this problem that is acoustically perfect. A lever arm is created that extends from your E key in the right hand. This lever leaves the E key with a long bridge that comes around the F# and then presses down G2. Now when you finger a high E the G2 stays closed. This creates the exact patterns of open and closed keys for E that you get for F and Eb! You produce your high E by playing the third overtone of the E instead of the second overtone of the A. The tone and tuning of the E matches the notes around it perfectly and there are no other notes that have their tone compromised.

A Flute Without a Split E

Notice the key to the left of the G# is up in the air when pressing on the E key.

A Flute With a Split E.

Notice that the key to the left of the G# is down when pressing on the E key.

The split E does change the mechanism of the flute. The E finger goes from needing to overcome 2 springs (the E and the F#) to needing to overcome 3 springs (add in the lower G). This subtly changes the feel of the right hand. The mechanism is also more difficult to build which increases the cost and value of the flute. It is also more difficult to build a split-E with an in-line G, so often intermediate flutes only offer the Split E with offset G. If you want an in-line G with a Split E you often need to step up to a Handmade flute. With the proliferation of the pinless mechanism in handmade flutes the Split E mechanism has become less noticeable in the feel of the right hand.

Some flute players have very pronounced opinions when it comes to the high E. The best way to decide what you like is to try flutes with each of these options. Please make an appointment to come by FluteWorks Seattle! I would be happy to let you play my flutes to see what you like.

~ Erik Nugent

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