How To Choose a Flute: Your Complete Guide
Which Flute Suits You?
There are three basic categories of flutes: Beginner/student flutes Intermediate flutes, and Fully professional flutes.
The student range of instruments is generally manufactured and assembled quickly and with least concern for final finish. The low price of this range of instruments is basically achieved by minimal labour time. Despite this, many student brands are now made so precisely that a very good result is achievable.
The basic student flute is made of a brass tube with silver plating. Silver plating gives a better sound over nickel, which can be too metallic sounding and slippery to hold. The next model up has a solid silver headjoint, which greatly improves tone quality. The third level up is a silver head, body and footjoint, which adds even more “body” to the tone. It is possible to substitute the headjoint that comes with the flute for a much better quality ‘handmade’ headjoint that can potentially improve the tonal quality and response even more. With all these models, variations such as split E mechanism, C or B foot, open or closed holes and offset G are usually available as well.
The intermediate range drops back to solid silver lip plate with silver plated body then progressing to silver body, head and foot but still with silver plated keywork. Altus flutes also come in two grades of silver in this range. The difference from the student range however, is that the parts may be machine made but the flute is assembled and finally finished by hand.
This final ‘handfinishing’ results in an instrument that plays as well as possible with the maximum response and performance, but with less precious materials than a “professional” flute.
The fully professional quality instrument has been made almost completely by hand. Some parts are made with the assistance of machinery, however highly skilled artisans are involved in every step of the complete production process. This is the main reason the cost is so high, as it takes much skill and several months to make a whole flute.
Once again, many options exist in terms of Sterling silver silver (92.5%), Brittannia silver (95.8%), or Pure silvers (99.7%), various rare woods, Golds, Platinum, seamed or drawn tubing, soldered or drawn tone-holes, split E, C or B foot, C# trill key, open or closed holed keys, offset or inline G, different tubing thicknesses (more detailed explanation for all these options follows).
Next up: What kind of player are you?
What Kind of Player are You?
What kind of player do you regard yourself as? If you are a beginner, then you will more than likely be choosing something in the beginner student range. A well adjusted, good quality, basic student flute is good for anyone playing up to about 6th grade.
You will achieve a better quality and more variation to your tone with a silver headjoint, however you will get to a point, if you progress your playing up to and beyond 8th grade, AMEB, where no matter how good the headjoint is, the body will not be good enough. By that stage, your playing skill will no doubt be developed to the point where you clearly notice the difference by yourself. In fact, you will probably notice it well before then if you are producing a good tone.
The difference in moving up to the handfinished range is that the instrument will be well designed and very precisely made, resulting in far superior sound, more even connection throughout the entire range, clean articulation, better dynamic range and a greater range of colour.
You may find that starting with an intermediate model is a good idea, because if you are reasonably serious about your development, you will save money by not having to upgrade after a year or so. Also, in the meantime, you will benefit from learning and playing on a superior quality instrument. Most people start with a student flute and move up when they clearly notice the difference, and consequently spend more money.
Next up: Which Specifications Do You Need?
Which Specifications Do You Need?
There are several options when purchasing your first flute, but for most beginners the best choice is an all silver plated, covered holes, offset G, C foot model. Silver plated is best. Nickel plated flutes are slightly cheaper but not worth it because they are harder to hold if the player perspires, and in addition the tone is inferior because it is harder sounding.
Most student flutes in Australia are offset G which is preferable, as it means the player has less distance to stretch the left hand ring finger than on an inline model. Closed holes are usually preferable for beginners, although if the player can comfortably reach and cover all the holes, then the open hole flute is recommended. However, because it is slightly more complicated to make, the open hole flute is a little more expensive to purchase and service.
Most beginner flutes have a C foot. The B footjoint has one more key added to the bottom of the flute making it slightly longer and heavier. The tone is a little darker from about G down. For most beginners this addition is not at all necessary and once again will add to the price.
The curved head is of great benefit and highly recommended for children approximately under the age of 10. It causes the flute to be held much closer to the player’s body and significantly reduces the player’s spine being twisted. Stretching to reach the keys by little arms is undesirable from a postural and physical development point of view.
Probably the most difficult option to decide on, though, is that of the split E mechanism although these days it is almost universally adopted. This extra piece of keywork only affects the third register E and causes the proper opening of the keys for that note resulting in correct tuning and ease of sound production. This feature is now available on almost all student model flutes, however it adds significantly to the price. The issue becomes one of deciding whether playing top E with greater ease is worth the additional cost.
Almost all professionals now order or play with a split E, which is some indication of its usefulness and significance.
Next up: Advanced Assessment
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30. Do’s & Don’ts of Flute Care
The most fundamental rule is to STOP if you are not absolutely certain that what you are doing is correct. It is then best to either carefully think through what you are doing or consult with a competent repair person.
DO keep your instrument dry. This means wiping any moisture from the inside with a clean cloth like a man-size handkerchief.
DON’T put the damp cloth back inside the case as it will just be leaving moisture with the instrument.
DO clean the moisture out of a wooden instrument as moisture will quickly swell the wood and cause it to split.
DON’T subject your instruments to sudden temperature changes, especially leaving them in a parked car when it might get very hot. If you have to leave it in the car put it in an empty esky in the boot.
When travelling in a car DO place your instrument on the floor or in a secure bag in case of a collision or having to stop in a hurry. Your instrument can become a projectile which can injure the occupants of the car or damage the instrument.
DON’T use chemically impregnated silver cloths on the flute anywhere near any part of the mechanism or pads as the fine chemicals in the cloth potentially abrade the moving parts or pad surfaces.
DO wipe finger marks off with a non treated cloth. You’ll need to do this usually within half an hour of using the flute otherwise tarnish will start to occur. Repairers love working on clean flutes and hate working on dirty ones. Most manufacturers now supply these cloths with instruments.
DO leave to a competent repairer, cleaning parts of the flute that you cannot reach and are not absolutely certain you can clean without damaging the flute.
DON’T clean the flute using silver polishing powder. It’s made for cutlery, not flutes!!
DON’T ever leave the flute on a couch or bed. Sooner or later someone is sure to sit on it and make it look like a banana and it’s very difficult and expensive to fix. In fact it may not be repairable.
DO assemble and dismantle the flute properly by holding it without bending keys.
DON’T use vaseline on the joints. It attracts dust and causes the metal surfaces to grip. If they become too tight work some candle wax on to the surface of the exposed tenon, put the two parts together thereby working the wax into both surfaces, take them apart and then wipe the wax off both surfaces with a tissue. This will leave a small film which will stop metal surfaces binding together (especially silver).
DON’T use cigarette papers to clear moisture from the pads. They usually have an ingredient which slows burning but which also damages the skin of the pads, and they can get stuck to the skin of the pad and tear it off. Use the cloth you use for swabbing the moisture out of the flute (man sized handkerchief) but don’t press hard, only enough to soak up the moisture.
DO clean your teeth before playing so you don’t get bits of food in the flute embouchure hole or through the flute and onto the pads. Your breath speed is at least 100 kilometres per hour when playing the flute, so anything left over after lunch will soon end up in the flute.
DO wash your hands before playing.
DON’T lean on your flute. A common cause of flutes becoming slightly bent is when young students are at band or orchestra practice and they lean forward to talk with their friends. Without realizing, they put pressure on the flute which is across their legs or lap and this slightly bends it.
DO develop your finger technique so that you use light finger action. DO NOT slap the keys if you want your flute to keep working well for you. Hitting the keys does not get any more sound from the flute and causes early loss of adjustment.
DO NOT oil your flute. If you have it serviced regularly, it should not need oiling until the next service. However, if you absolutely must oil it yourself, use Mobil One oil. To apply the oil use only what you can pick up on the eye of a needle and touch the join where the rods move. The oil should soak into the crack. Remove any excess with a tissue or cloth as you do not want any oil to contact the pads or run onto the rest of the flute and collect unnecessary dust.
DO have your instrument serviced by a competent repairer every one to two years. Make the booking well in advance as good repairer technicians are in high demand. Flutes & Flutists has a service division headed by Angus McEwan which is the best in Australia, with all work guaranteed and with a complete money back guarantee for either 3 or 6 months.