Elkhart Flute Maker Awarded National Flute Association Lifetime Achievement Award

Aug 15, 2019

Emerson DeFord holding a flute headjoint he made.
Credit Annacaroline Caruso

An Elkhart flute maker was presented the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Flute Association to celebrate his contribution over 70 years in the business.

However, Emerson DeFord wasn't always in the flute making business.

After returning from the Korean War, he inspected airplane parts until 1950 - when he met Edward Armstrong, of Armstrong Flutes.

“Well I met him at the shop there on Sycamore Street and I walked in one day and he said ‘Em’ why don’t you come work for me,” DeFord said.

That's what he did until 1979 when he left Armstrong to create his own flute company, Emerson Flutes.

During the company’s peak years, DeFord had 50 employees who produced 300 flutes per week.

Now at the age of 91, DeFord spends his time building flute headjoints in his garage and repairing flutes for students. He doesn’t plan on ever stopping.

“I intend to keep myself busy as long as I live. I don’t ever want to retire. I tried that once and it didn’t work,” he said.

DeFord doesn’t charge students anything because getting to see them play is payment enough.

“Some people like to make a lot of money, and I’ve never tried to do that," he said. "If she wanted to bake some pineapple upside down cake and brought it over one morning, things like that I'lll gladly take, but not for fixing the flute, no.”

DeFord spent years trying to find ways to build good quality flutes that are also affordable. He invented his own version of something called the split-E-mechanism. It’s a part on some flutes that allows players to more easily reach the highest note. DeFord’s version is more simple and is less expensive than others.

“It takes less to make it and I offered to let anybody that wants to know how, i’ll tell them how," DeFord said. "I don’t want anything for it, I just would like to see them have something reasonable.”

Suzi Chilberg is the flute teacher at Concord High School. She encouraged her students to get Emerson flutes because they’re reliable.

“They just held up a lot better all the way around," she said. "I didn’t have to worry about these kids being without instruments.”

They sound better.

“He has this big fat dramatic dark sound on the flutes that the band directors really love,” Chilberg said. 

And they’re easier to play.

“If they were on Emersons they did not struggle to get the sound out because it’s not a user friendly instrument,” she said.

When Chilberg heard of a student who couldn’t afford a new instrument, she knew DeFord would help.

At the time Chilberg met Joshua Clampitt, he was first-chair flute in the Indiana All-State Honor Band.

“It’s not every day a child asks for something from their parents that’s made of solid silver or gold,” Clampitt said.

He drove with his mom for nearly four hours from Bloomington to meet DeFord at his shop in Elkhart.

DeFord made Clampitt a flute worth around three thousand dollars to replace the beginner instrument he had been playing - and DeFord gave it to him for free.

The flute Emerson DeFord made Joshua Clampitt nearly 10 years ago.
Credit Annacaroline Caruso

DeFord also promised Clampitt a lifetime of free repairs - but he’s never needed to take DeFord up on that.

“This flute has required no repairs in the nearly 10 years I’ve had it which is unheard of," Clampitt said.

He said the gift opened up several doors for his music career and shaped his future.

“This flute enabled me to audition at schools I never would have had a chance at," he said. "So there’s no telling what my life would have been like without this flute. I probably wouldn’t have been accepted to as good programs. I may not have pursued music.”

Clampitt said he can’t think of anyone more deserving of the National Flute Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.