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J. James Phelan

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J. James (“Jim”) Phelan is an American horn player, instrument repairman, a manufacturer of flutes and oboes, and author of The Complete Guide to the Flute and Piccolo.

As a horn player, Phelan studied at the Boston Conservatory, Berklee School of Music, and New England Conservatory, was first horn in Monterrey, Mexico, Sy,mphony then freelanced in the Boston area, and later played with various orchestras in China while managing flute manufacturing there.

He learned brass repair with Bill Tottle and worked as a brass and woodwind repairman at Carl Fischer Music and Rayburn Musical Instrument Company in Boston. He joined Powell Flutes on the basis of his repair experience, expanding his repairing skills and learning flute making, eventually buying into the company.

After selling his share of Powell Flutes, Phelan earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering at Northeastern University in Boston. With his wife Lillian Burkart, he founded Burkart-Phelan Inc. and applied his engineering skills and Computer Numerical Control (CNC) technology to improving the manufacturing of Burkart-Phelan products, beginning with piccolos. The company prospered and added manufacturing in China to expand its manufacturing capacity and sell instruments in the region.

With production and sales in both the US and China working successfully, Phelan retired and moved to Sydney, Australia. Helping A. Laubin Oboes and English Horns in Upstate New York with its production and sales led to Phelan buying the company and moving back to the US.

Early life and education[edit]

Phelan was born on May 6, 1951, son of Woodrow and Virginia Phelan, grandson of inventor Louis A.M. Phelan, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, later moving to Brookline, Massachusetts. His father was a music educator and his mother a piano teacher who gave him his first piano lessons and his first lessons in physics. At age 11, he became a soprano in the boys’ choir at Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Newbury Street in Boston. He started playing the horn in fourth grade and played in District and All-State bands and orchestras.

Trombonist Eddie Madden was the music director at Brookline High School in 1969, the year Phelan graduated. Madden was a fine arranger of music and a mentor to Phelan. Madden hired Phelan to copy the parts for his arrangements. Madden wrote his scores in concert pitch, so part of the job was for Phelan to transpose the parts as he copied.

Career as horn player[edit]

With a full scholarship, Phelan attended the Boston Conservatory of Music. He was placed in the first horn position in the ensembles, so he was not challenged on horn, but he appreciated the solfège and theory classes and studying horn with Osbourne McConathy, a former member of the Boston Symphony.

In second year, he transferred to the Berklee School of Music and studied with Harry Shapiro, a member of the Boston Symphony, who recommended the New England Conservatory of Music. Phelan was given a half scholarship, enough to finish his Bachelor of Music in horn performance in 1973.

During his senior year at NEC, Phelan won an audition for first horn in the Monterrey (Mexico) Symphony, and he played there for three seasons (1972-1974). Then the Mexican government nationalized the schools and the school prospects for his daughter became untenable and the family returned to Boston. Phelan freelanced in area orchestras while repairing instruments during the day; repairing was more remunerative.

Career as repairperson[edit]

The summer after graduating from high school (1969), Phelan offered to work for brass repairman William Hamilton (“Bill”) Tottle (1914-1976) without pay for the opportunity of learning the job. With this skill, Phelan found employment with the instrument division of Carl Fischer on Boylston Street in Boston. He oversaw cleaning and refurbishing the brass school rental instruments. In his second year, the company fired the woodwind repairman and Phelan took over that work as well. Next, he worked at Rayburn Music Company on Huntington Avenue, where he met saxophone players such as Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins and got to know the players in the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

After Phelan returned from playing first horn in Monterrey, Mexico, he set up his own repair shop. The foreman of Powell Flutes called and invited Phelan to apply for a position as a finisher at the flute company. He was hired in August 1976.

Career as flute manufacturer[edit]

Powell Flutes auditioned Phelan by asking him to pad a flute foot joint. On the basis of that successful text, he was hired as a finisher in August 1976. Powell needed more skilled technicians because their waiting list had grown to seven years. Through the efforts of Boston Symphony flutist Fenwick Smith (1949-2017) and Powell’s general manager, Bickford Brannen (1941-2023), the company offered the Cooper Scale exclusively. Albert Cooper (1924-2011) was a British flutemaker who devised a system of hole positions and size that was more accurate and produced better intonation than previous systems (such as the Boehm system) and has since been universally adopted.

During his first two years at Powell, Phelan did nothing but repairs, overhauls, re-pads, dent removal, and modifications. In the years he spent in general repair, he had developed good soft soldering and dent removal skills. He introduced arbors (tapered steel rods for removing dents) and dent balls (graduated balls for dent removal) that were new to Powell. Having had his own brass repair shop, he had specialized tooling that was not common in a flute manufacturing facility. He learned new skills such as tightening mechanisms, removing lateral motion, and brazing. He developed machining techniques and tools to improve the manufacturing process.

At that time, flutes were made by hand in four departments: making bodies, making keys, making headjoints, and finishing. Later, laser scanning, 3D computer-aided design (CAD), and computer-aided machining (CAM) were introduced, taking the guesswork out of the process.

In 1979, taught a class on flute maintenance and repair. One of the attendees, Mitchell D. Brody, suggested that they write a book on the subject. The Complete Guide to the Flute was published in 1980 by Conservatory Publication. The Complete Guide to the Flute and Piccolo, Second Edition, by J. James Phelan with contributions by Lillian Burkart was published by Burkart-Phelan, Inc. in 2005.


Birthdate: May 6, 1951

Degree at NEC: May 1973

Years at Monterrey Symphony: Sept 1972 - May 1974

Work with Bill Tottle: Summer 1969 after graduating HS

Joined Powell Flutes: August 1, 1976

Bought [stake in] Powell Flute: March (?) 1984

Sold shares in Powell Flutes: March 1989

Enrolled at NEU: Sept 1990

Graduated NEU: May 1992

Worked for Ferrofluidics: May 1992 - June 1993

Worked for D&R Products: June 1993 - May 1995

Co-founded Burkart-Phelan: 1981

Started manufacturing in China: 2001

Retired from Burkart and moved to Sydney: February 2020

Bought Laubin Oboes: August 2022


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