Flute Wet-out, Moisture, & Mold Growth in the SAC - September 4, 2010
It is well-nigh impossible to stop moisture from forming inside any flute; that's just what Nature's Laws dictate will happen given a particular combination of circumstances. When a player's warm breath meets the cooler inner walls of the Native American flute's slow air chamber, or SAC, condensation forms there, builds up, & then subsequently breaks free, following the flow of air out through the wind-way where it then constricts & eventually clogs the opening until forcibly removed. When this happens, the volume & tone of the flute change dramatically, and not for the better!
You can clear out the worst of the moisture by first placing your right hand index finger just in front of the sound hole (i.e. in front of the block) and blowing sharply several times. This will effectively mute the sound of the flute and at the same time dislodge the biggest water drops. Then grab the flute at the south end so that the mouthpiece is pointed at the ground and swing the flute back and forth forcefully a few times to remove the more stubborn droplets. Obviously, you need to ensure that you are holding onto the flute tightly so that it doesn't fly out of your hand! Also, it's best to be in a wide open space when you do this so that you don't bang the flute against any hard surfaces. Though it is indeed annoying to have to stop playing in order to eliminate the wetness, this whole procedure can be accomplished in less than a minute.
Several flute makers have attempted to address the wet-out problem through innovative SAC designs & other means. One such maker claims his innovation eliminates 80% of the wet-out issue, and I recently got to test this claim. In June & July 2010, I watched over a house in Albuquerque, NM for a fellow flute-playing friend who happens to have one of said maker's custom "wet-out protected" flutes, which I played on a number of occasions. (It's also worth mentioning that the climate in Albuquerque is rather dry; overall humidity levels typically fall in the 20-40% range.) The so-called “wet-out protected” flute, as it turns out, experienced wet-out out just the same as any other flute & in about the same amount of time, too. This was the case every time I played that flute. Others have proposed their own unique solutions to this dilemma which include drilling a hole in the bottom of the SAC & installing in narrow section of thick string to act as a moisture-absorbing wick, adding a ceramic insert in the flue to soak up wetness, & incorporating vertical rows of brass plates inside the SAC to catch moisture droplets.
Are such innovative attempts effective? Reports vary. Should makers abandon such efforts then? Not at all! What would the life of a dedicated craftsman be without the challenge to innovate? No doubt most Native American flute players would gladly welcome any improvements that reduced this incessant & annoying problem. The fact remains, however, that despite all well-meaning efforts, wet-out is still going to occur to some degree. A 100% solution is very likely not possible.
Short of a definitive solution, the best one can do is to lessen the likelihood of quick moisture build-up. Many flute makers coat the interior of the SAC with some kind of sealant (polyurethane, shellac, etc.) as a preventative measure although the primary reason for this protective coating has less to do with fighting wet-out-causing moisture build-up than it does with blocking condensation from entering the grain of the wood from the inside of the SAC & causing potentially destructive swelling, separation of glue seams, discoloration, & even cracking. Conversely, others will argue the opposite, opting instead NOT to coat the inside of the SAC, thus allowing the wood to naturally absorb the excess moisture that would otherwise cause wet-out. Still others point to a trick which involves applying a thin, even line of epoxy from the top of the SAC ramp to the back edge of the TSH - the flue area - which allows some moisture to dislodge freely & get blown clear of the wind-way during playing. A common trick in colder environments is to take off the fetish & wrap one hand around the nest area for 5-10 minutes before playing, thereby warming up the wood & bringing it closer to your breath temperature. This does in many instances extend the playing time available before the first wet-out occurs. One maker even suggests covering 50% of the mouth-hole with your upper lip when playing, thereby allegedly reducing by half the amount of moisture being introduced into the SAC.
The issue of wetness is especially relevant to flute players who live in climates with very high humidity. If any moisture is left to sit in the SAC, health-endangering mold growth can & will begin. The single best way to prevent such growth is simply to take the bird completely off the flute *every time* you finish playing. I would also blow out & shake out as much moisture as possible & then use a tightly-rolled-up piece of paper towel to swab out the interior of the SAC to remove any remaining wetness. The more quickly the interior can dry out, the less likely mold can gain a foothold. Leaving the bird off overnight is a wise move, too.
Personally, I'm pretty lucky in that I haven't had any experience with mold growth in my flutes. Like most players, however, I do have plenty of flute wet-out experience, especially from playing in such moisture-magnet locations as tunnels. In any case, you would do well in not placing unwarranted confidence in any design that promotes itself as having completely or even partly solved the wet-out problem. Speaking for myself, I wouldn't go out and buy any flute simply because I believed it to be less likely to wet-out; I would buy it because I liked how it played & sounded. In the end, wet-out & mold growth is something that we as individual players will have to find a way to control & minimize.