More on Siccama's 1-key flute

You'll remember, in our first chapter, we made a reconstruction of Siccama's 1-key flute, using the only information we had available, the drawing and brief description in his 1845 Patent.  Since completing the flute, it's made its way around the world, to meet its new owner, flute researcher Adrian Duncan of Vancouver, and the professional flute player in our research team, Andra Bohnet, Professor of Flute at the University of South Alabama.  As feedback about the flute comes in, I plan to keep you informed here.

3rd Octave Fingerings and beyond!

You'll probably have picked up in the first article how I smoothly skirted around the issue of third octave fingerings.  Hey, give me a break, I'm an Irish Flute player, and we have a special dispensation from the Pope not to have to play in the third octave!

But Andra, being a professional flute teacher and player, including playing flute for the Mobile Symphony and the Silverwood Quartet, has no such dispensation.  That's bread & butter territory, and was too back in Siccama's time.  So I asked Andra to investigate the third octave and report back.  She lists several fingering for some notes, with the most successful presented first....


RH: T 1 2 3 4 LH: 1234 no thumb
actually sounds best with BOTH thumbs open, no undertone
overblow 2nd octave with LH thumb vent
LH 123, no thumb, RH 2 3 4 OK, thumb doesn’t seem to matter


best – finger fundamental and lift LH pinkie
finger fundamental Eb, lift LH thumb
sounds less good with RH thumb up instead, flat

E: Finger fundamental, pick up LH 3, leave LH 4 DOWN, no RH pinky
F: Finger fundamental, pick up LH 2, RH pinky is UP
Finger fundamental, pick up LH 2 & 3 if RH pinky is down
F#: Finger fundamental, pick up LH 2, ADD RH 3 & pinky
G: Finger fundamental + RH pinky, pick up LH 1, add key & RH 3
Finger fundamental with no RH pinky, pick up LH 1 & add key
G#: Finger fundamental + RH 3 & pinky, pick up LH thumb and add key
Finger fundamental + RH pinky, pick up LH thumb and add key
A: Overblow 2nd octave D, LH thumb open
LH: 1 2 3 4 RH: T 1 2 3 4
LH: T 1 2 RH: T 1 3 4, sharp
Bb: LH: T 1 RH: T 1 4, hard to get out but good pitch
LH: T 1 RH: T 1 2 3 4
B: LH: T RH: T 1 2 3
C: LH: T 2 3 4 RH: 1 2 3 4
C#: LH: T 2 RH: 1 2 3 4

LH: 2 RH: key

Andra also reports a few useful alternative fingerings:

  • For F# and above, it doesn’t seem to matter if RH 3 is down, in either 1st or 2nd octave, especially with no pinkie, so go Boehm, which enabled me to find some better choices up high

  • In the first 2 octaves for A and above the RH thumb hole can remain closed with no affect

  • Best alternate C natural with no key – LH 1&2, no thumb, thus a move from A to C and back, just pick up thumb

  • 2nd octave C alternative LH 1 only, RH 3 & 4 optional

  • 2nd octave D – vent LH thumb, also for 2nd octave Eb, needs to be back down for E natural

A full fingerings chart

So we can now show a full fingerings chart for Siccama's 1-key flute. Because the chart gets so long, I've repeated the heading for each octave.  "/" indicates optionally covered.

1st Lth C-key L1 L2 L3 L4 Rth R1 R2 R3 R4
D' X X X X X X X X X X X
Eb' X X X X X X X X X X  
E' X X X X X X X X X    
F' X X X X X X X X      
F#' X X X X X X X     / /
G' X X X X X X       / /
G#' X X X X X         / /
A' X X X X     /     / /
Bb' X X X       /     / /
B' X X         /     / /
C' X O         /     / /
  X X X     /     / /
C#'   O         /     / /
2nd Lth C-key L1 L2 L3 L4 Rth R1 R2 R3 R4
D''   X X X X X X X X X X
Eb''   X X X X X X X X X  
E'' X X X X X X X X X    
F'' X X X X X X X X      
F#'' X X X X X X X     / /
G'' X X X X X X       / /
G#'' X X X X X         / /
A'' X X X X     /     / /
Bb'' X X X       /     / /
B'' X X         /     / /
C'' X O         /     / /
  O X       /     / /
C#''   O         /     / /
3rd Lth C-key L1 L2 L3 L4 Rth R1 R2 R3 R4
D''' X X X X X X   X X X X
  X X X X X   X X X X
  X X X X X X X X X X
  X X X X   /   X X X


X X X X X   X X X X  
  X X X X X X X X X  
X X X X X X   X X X  
E''' X X X X   X X X X    
F''' X X X   X X X X      
X X X     X X X     X
F#''' X X X   X X X     X X
G'''   O X X X X       X X
  O X X X X          
G#''' X X X X X            
X X X X X            
A'''   X X X X X X X X X X
X X X X     X X X X X
  X X X X X X X X X X
Bb''' X X X X     X X     X
X X X       X X X X X
B''' X X         X X X X  
C''' X X   X X X   X X X X
C#''' X X   X       X X X X
D''''   O   X             X

Great work, thanks Andra.  So, not only will Siccama's design give a far stronger response and more accurate tuning compared to the baroque 1-key, but a full three octaves as well; indeed up to D''''.

Which finger for the key?

One issue that puzzled us in approaching the reconstruction was which fingers were intended to operate the key.  Siccama in the patent document only mentions R1, but the drawing mysteriously places the touch beyond the R1 hole, almost as if the key might be operated by R1 or R2.

If it's only used by R1, it would be best to have it stop a bit before the R1 hole (as most people seem to angle their RH fingers rather than approach the flute at right angles).  We decided to go with what the drawing showed, on the basis that we can later shorten it if necessary:

After some experimenting, Adrian reports:

"I have not noted any advantage in being able to use R2 – that would only be necessary if there was a note that required R1 to remain on its hole while the key was being activated."

"Andra has now completed her testing and has found no notes that require the use of R2 to activate the key – R1 is always available when the key is required. So I think that we may take it that Siccama was correct in assigning the key to R1.  On that basis, it could definitely be shorter.  As it is, I’m activating the arm rather than the touch, although that works OK."

So, looks like the overlong key was probably just a drawing issue.

You'll notice too that the drawing has the key guide very close to the key hinge block.  I was worried that this would leave the very long key relatively unprotected against damage if the section got dropped, so I shifted the guide closer to the cup.  Seems fine in that location.

"All fingers and thumbs"

One of our concerns in approaching this flute was whether the player could ever become proficient on a flute requiring the use of both thumbs.  Thumbs are not our most accomplished digits, and they're oh-so-handy for supporting the flute.  Adrian concurs:

"Both of us find that the main challenge with the one-key Siccama is that it goes directly contrary to one’s “programmed” actions from playing the regular simple system flute. The big hang-up is the thumb hole for G, which means that to get F# you have to raise both R1 and R2 instead of just raising R2 as usual, and then you have to slide the thumb off its hole to get G. It’s not that hard to get used to R3 and R4 working as a unit (same goes for L3 and L4), but that F# and the associated thumb–operated G are a bit tricky."

But it seems that there's hope, even for this tricky aspect:

"On the thumb hole for G natural (Rth), Andra finds that she can manage quite well by lifting the thumb rather than sliding it downwards (towards the foot). I find that the flute remains under better positional control with sliding, but I think that either technique could be learned. They both work."

I'm reminded of the old expression "all fingers and thumbs".  In 1870, The Echo printed a direct reference to the earlier expression "all thumbs":

"Your uneducated man is all thumbs, as the phrase runs; and what education does for him is to supply him with clever fingers."

Seems they could almost have been talking about learning Siccama's flute!  But the left thumb was already required to handle the Bb key in the old 4 to 8-key flute, and the c and Bb keys in Boehm's 1832 conical.  So it's mostly the right thumb we need to work on.

Remember Rockstro?

About at this point, it's interesting to recall the words of Rockstro:

"On March 13th, 1845, Siccama obtained a patent embracing four flutes, three of which were absolutely worthless ..."

(He goes on to run down the fourth flute, the very successful Diatonic, and Siccama himself, in subsequent paragraphs!)

Since our reconstructed flute was one of the three "worthless" designs, we're forced once again to consider Rockstro's reliability as a witness.

But what does it sound like?

Ah, so explanations, drawings, tables and charts not good enough, eh?  You'd like to hear what it sounds like.  Well, OK, let's have a listen.  Our professional flautist, Andra Bohnet has recorded "The Star of the County Down" twice, to illustrate how the flute sounds in both its high and low ranges.  Research team leader Adrian Duncan accompanies on a guitar of the same period.  Depending on your download speed, these tunes may take a little time to download, so be patient, it's certainly worth it.

Siccama1keyhigh 1.mp3

Siccama1keylow 1.mp3

Heh heh, not bad, eh, for a first attempt at a flute based largely on assumption!  Nicely done, Andra and Adrian!  Sweet and sonorous are my thoughts.

Conclusions, so far

So, Siccama's 1-key hasn't met with total rejection yet, even with Rockstro's unstinting support, and my colleagues are continuing to explore its possibilities.  I'll keep you updated here as reports come in.


Thanks to Adrian Duncan, Vancouver flute player and flute researcher, and Andra Bohnet, Professor of Flute at the University of South Alabama, for their observations on the reconstructed Siccama 1-key.



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  Created 17 May 2009