LefreQue... c'est chic?
When I decided to write a blog about the lefreQue sound bridge I knew it would be controversial. It was obvious from the get go that there really is no middle ground. It's pretty much like Marmite, love it or loathe it! So why am I doing this? I think it's important for me to state that I am not sponsored by lefreQue or any of their distributers. I have not received any gratuities from them or their affiliates so am not trying to endorse or sell the lefreQue. My intention is just to share my experience honestly as an interested player and teacher.
Journey down the rabbit hole
I'll be honest with you, I can't remember exactly how or where the lefreQue crossed my radar but I'd hazard a guess that it was through social media or You Tube. That in itself made me a little suspicious of it and yet, I couldn't help but be slightly intrigued. So, simply out of curiosity, I started doing a little research.
What exactly is the lefreQue sound bridge?
Essentially, the sound bridge is made of 2 uniquely shaped pieces of metal that are placed one on top of the other and fastened or strapped to your flute at the point where the head joint inserts into the body. The manufacturer also recommends positioning a second lefreQue bridging the foot and body for maximum effect but most players I have seen using them are only using the head to body position.
The lefreQue is made in a variety of sizes and precious metals to suit your requirements or preference and is manufactured for application across the woodwind and brass family.
It is not a uniquely flute playing phenomenon.
According to the official lefreQue website when used as directed, the
"lefreQue bridges the frequency-dependant resistance of the joints, so your tone can move freely through the material of the instrument."
The results of this are...
An impressive pitch but at the time of reading, the claims were just that, a sales pitch. What was perhaps more impressive to me were the endorsements from top class professionals, players that I personally admire. That kept me curious and wanting to know more.
A recent independent study published in the journal Acoustics 12 June 2021, makes the opening statement:
"Although a recent study did not detect significant perceptual differences with or without such a bridge mounted on a trumpet, the arguments of professional musicians and musical conductors in favour [sic] of the use of such metal bridges are in contrast with these findings...As professional musicians and experienced musical conductors hear a difference... it can be concluded that the emitted acoustic waves must differ after mounting the bridge..."
The subsequent findings of their study make dense reading for the layman but the document is well supported with visual representations that help elucidate the technical process and findings.
There will be some who will argue the veracity of this study for flute players. All experiments were carried out using a tenor saxophone and a gold bridge but if we are calling for good, reliable and in depth science, we have to allow certain control boundaries for the collection of data. Otherwise, the data capture range is too wide and therefore not useful at all.
A translation of a Spanish study titled Spectral Analysis of the Behaviour of an Acoustic Bridge applied to a Piccolo can also be found on lefreQue's website. It should be noted that this study was not commissioned by lefreQue, nor were they consulted in any way but it's findings support their claims and understandably they provide access to it. The study found:
"The sensations that the instrumentalist said had been noted when he used the acoustic bridge can be summed up as being an improvement in sound quality, with more brightness and greater ease of staying in tune. These improvements are not unfounded since we have seen that physically it is proven that the availability of the acoustic bridge on the piccolo has made the harmonic spectrum change. This change is towards higher frequencies, displacing the spectral centroid and, as such, improving sound quality."
Having attempted to digest the technical information and findings of these two studies I decided to widen the net and have a look at the internet's flute community chatter who I anticipated may have some opinion.
Opinions from the Internet
I visited a few flute forums and wow, it was pretty savage! Put mildly, the weight of feeling on the forums was negative - it's a fad, it'll be forgotten tomorrow, there's no proof they exclaimed along with cries of snake oil. The general consensus was that anyone fool enough to buy a lefreQue was a bad flute player and looking to cheat their way out of it. I was quite shocked by the vitriol of the threads and unnecessarily cruel memes and so I duly discounted these opinions.
It is safe to say that there isn't really a great deal of information to be found that isn't sponsored, affiliated or designed to harvest the most amount of clicks in the world of social media platforms and You Tube. As such, these sources are unquestionably biased, whether consciously or unconsciously. Perhaps the most genuine, informative and balanced review I found was a blog written by Geoffrey Bridge, an accomplished oboist, teacher and Chairman of the British Double Reed Society.
I watched a fair few videos on You Tube and struggled to hear a difference on 99% of them. In all the demos I watched I was frustrated at the players talking too much between playing with and without the lefreQue. It was almost impossible to anchor the ear to make a comparison and there were just too many variables in player style, ability and instrumental factors. A further problem arises with You Tube demonstrations to compound the issues. We are always listening within the limits of our own technology and that of the videographers recording equipment.
I felt myself becoming more sceptical until I hit on JustAnotherFlutist. Joanna is based in the US, a professional flautist and experienced content creator and as such, not only is she a great player, she also makes good quality recordings with excellent sound capture. It should be noted that her review is sponsored but a positive aspect of this is the range of lefreQue sound bridges Joanna has been supplied with. This allows her to give good comparisons across materials. She also makes a point of using gold and silver flutes for the trial. I recommend her review if you are, as I was, hoping for a bit of clarity on the aural effect to the listener.
It was at this point that I decided there was only one thing for it. I needed to find out for myself.
Taking the plunge
I purchased my lefreQue from Just Flutes, London. Their reputation as a flute specialist is second to none and it gave me confidence that they carried the lefreQue among their accessory range. I wasn't looking to 'change' the sound of my flute, only to perhaps enhance my 30+ year old Yamaha 481ii, so opted for the 41mm solid silver as a complimentary add on.
The lefreQue arrived in what reminded me of an old cassette box from the 80's. I was a wee bit miffed that I'd had to buy the band separately. I appreciate the option to choose a colour but still think that for the price it wouldn't hurt to include a standard one with the option to purchase extra of a different colour. I also anticipate the band will probably stretch over time and need replacing but one in the box to get you going would be reasonable I think.
First impressions? Honestly, I wasn't immediately convinced but I realised I was doing one of the many things that had frustrated me in the demos. I was pushing too hard. Pushing to the extremes and probably 'pushing' where I wouldn't ordinarily. I was so determined to prove or disprove that I wasn't playing like myself.
So I made a conscious decision to continue in my practice routine as if the lefreQue wasn't there. Over the course of the next few sessions I started to feel really positive about sound production, tone quality and intonation, particularly at the upper end of the top register. As I continued to play with the lefreQue I became more relaxed, less determined to have it prove itself and more pleasantly surprised by the connection I was feeling with my flute. I seemed to be getting greater response with less energy input.
Time for some second opinions. I started to enquire with those around me and familiar with my playing style if they could hear any difference. I encouraged them to be brutally honest - as always! The short answer though, is that they could and most notably in the third register. I've played with the same accompanist for years so was particularly interested in whether he would hear a perceptible change. He did. He's not a flute player but he is, after a few decades of working with me, accustomed to my style of play and as an experienced professional I regard his aural perception highly. I also had some of my more experienced students play with the lefreQue during lesson and can say in all honestly the feedback was positive.
Real world effect or psychosomatic?
In spite of this positive beginning, during this initial period I still wasn't sure if I was effecting the change in my playing, responding to the lefreQue just being there and thereby experiencing a placebo effect. As observed in the Acoustics journal:
"Further investigations are needed, in order to understand the underlying mechanism of the observed phenomenon, as it cannot be excluded that slight changes of the vibrations in or close to the mouthpiece may lead to sophisticated feedback reaction of the player, which may cause or accelerate the observed effect."
With this in mind, I wanted to live with the lefreQue for a few weeks while consolidating my opinion. I continued to read any information I could find and was eager to listen to feedback from others who may have tried it out, be they positive or negative. I threw out a post on Instagram @trutonetuition hoping for some interaction but the only opinion shared was a rather indignant one. The commenter was quite adamant that the lefreQue contributed nothing and he challenged me to be scientifically rigorous in my enquiry. I thought for an evening on how to answer his comment in a measured and truthful way but by the time I went back to reply, the comment had been deleted. Clearly it had been a knee jerk reaction that on reflection was taken back for whatever reason. I was a little disappointed. I enjoy points of view that are in opposition to my own and find new ground can be broken through sharing such oppositions.
The truth of the matter is we musicians are as varied in our physicality, technical foibles and aesthetic nuances as are our instruments manufacture and personalisation. I am not robotic enough to sustain a scientifically precise measure of play, one that would stand up to the rigours of peer review in a science journal nor do I have the equipment and condition of an acoustic lab. That, however, does not invalidate my experience, nor that of musicians like myself. We are a sharing bunch and rely on each others opinions as much as we do the science. We are also accustomed to operating in the realms of that which cannot be codified, deliberately and actively developing in a way that nourishes our own uniqueness whether that is in style, approach or set up.
There is no doubt that there is a great deal of anger and getting on one's metaphorical high horse where the lefreQue is concerned. I simply don't understand why some people react to it quite so dramatically. As far as I am aware there has been no law passed mandating its purchase and application? As a passionate researcher of history I am accustomed to such reactions with respect to new theories in the field but we are hardly talking about re-dating the Sphynx!
So what's the verdict?
Having tried to absorb and understand as much technical information about the lefreQue as I can and also keep an open mind to both sides of the debate, I have ultimately reached my own conclusion through living and playing with the lefreQue. In short, I like it and I rarely play without it now. Could I tell you why? I'm not sure but lefreQue's claims ring true for me. I experience a definite positive effect when playing but that effect is nuanced and like any aesthetic experience, hard to pin down.
It bothered me that I couldn't find that silver bullet reason I was looking for and I asked a trusted friend and instrument technician for her qualified opinion. Not having interacted with the lefreQue, she was unable to respond specifically but she was able to apply her instinct both as an engineer and musician:
"I think that anything that you perceive to make you sound better will help your playing slightly as you relax and gain more enjoyment from the sound you think you are making. It does probably reduce out those harmonics/overtones that you as a player hear but other people farther away can't hear.
So much of our playing is intuition and it is very difficult to be scientific about these things, at the end of the day if you think it makes a better sound it probably does, if that makes sense."
I loved the way she was able to cut through the fog of controversy I had become mired in and I felt able to put all the researching behind me and just enjoy this great little addition to my flute!
So would I recommend you rush out and by one?
There's no easy answer to that question. There is value on both sides of the argument worth considering. There is no substitute for the development of good aural perception and tonal control through diligent practice and the application of technical exercises such as those of Marcel Moyse, Trevor Wye and more recently Stephen Clark to name but a few. The lefreQue sound bridge does not, nor does it claim to repair any defects in sound quality or production caused by underdeveloped player technique or indeed a poor quality instrument. It should not be sought as a solution to such problems nor judged in its capacity to solve or mask them.
What the lefreQue does offer is a technical improvement in the material reality of wind instruments that by their nature are made of connecting pieces and arguably demonstrate an acoustic disruption as a result. In my opinion the effect is nuanced and players should not expect to hear a huge change in their playing as a result of the sound bridge, but rather feel it.
The lefreQue suits me. I enjoy greater intonation security in the extremes of my top register, feel more precision of attack and generally more relaxed and although those benefits are nuanced, they are positive. It would definitely be interesting to try alternative metals to see what effect that might have and I am curious as to whether I would have the same experience were I playing a different flute. Those are some experiments for the future.
From a teaching point of view it isn't something I would look to introduce too early. I stand by the development of natural technique through traditional methods. I am happy to be able to discuss the lefreQue with students though and let them experience it. My philosophy is very much grounded in making music accessible to all and additional costs can be prohibitive. This journey down the rabbit hole was made from personal interest and not to explore teaching augmentation. That being said, everything we do as players informs our teaching so there will be some transfer by natural osmosis!
My final thoughts for the blog are that the lefreQue sound bridge cannot be discounted without giving it a fair try and that to give it genuine consideration takes more than a few minutes. It is true that the lefreQue may not be to everyone's liking but universal approval of anything is hard to come by. There are so many environmental and player variables that can influence us differently from one day to the next, not to mention the choices and changes we make when it comes to our instruments, be that choice of material, head and riser specification, open and closed G# keys... the list goes on.
We are each nuanced in our approach to playing and as such the lefreQue is,
I think, a welcome addition to the tool box of choice.
Links to Resources in blog order
Dr Alexander Rehm, Institute for Structural Analysis, Frankfurt, Germany.
Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain in cooperation with the Professional Music Conservatory of Valencia, Spain.
Geoffrey Bridge - Blog Post
Joanna Soh in partnership with the Flute Center of New York
Professional Soloist and author of The Flute Gym
A presentation & Demonstration by Hans Kuijt, inventor and founder of lefreQue sound bridges.