How to Buy a Flute
by Mark Thomas
One of the most popular instruments in the world, the flute is played by people of all ages
and skill levels. Flute repertoire is extensive: the instrument is used in school band
programs, symphony orchestras, flute choirs, jazz ensembles, and as a solo instrument.
Popular, classical, jazz, and even rock music has been either written or transcribed for
Many people are unaware that the concert, or C flute is the best-known member of a
family of related instruments played in the same manner. The flute family consists of the
piccolo, E flat, concert, alto, and bass flutes. The concert flute is the instrument of
choice for beginners.
Beginner school bands usually introduce the flute in the fourth or fifth grade. It is
important for young players to be large enough to reach the keys without straining the
neck or hands. For an eager student whose reach is not sufficient, flutes with curved
headjoints are available; many flute manufacturers offer a beginner model instrument
featuring both a standard and a curved-style headjoint. The curved headjoint makes it
possible for a young flutist to hold the instrument without having to reach beyond his
or her capabilities at first. As the student grows, it is a simple matter to change over
to the traditional, straight headjoint. Be sure to check with your local music dealer,
band director, or flute teacher when deciding whether to purchase the extra headjoint
option; the initial cost is nominal. Purchasing a regular flute and discovering later
that the student really needs the curved head necessitates the purchase of the curved
headjoint and another case as well.
An ancient Chinese flute, the "tsche," played in about 2637 BC, is believed to be the
earliest transverse flute (an instrument held horizontally). Made of bamboo, both sides
were closed, with a mouth-hole in the middle. Flutes have been made of glass, wood,
ceramic, brass, and even human and animal bones. Gradually, improvements over the crude
designs were made, keys were added, and attempts were made to improve the pitch and sound
of the instrument. It is to the genius of Theobald Boehm of Munich (1794-1881), a flutist,
composer, and inventor, that we owe credit for the modern flute used today.
The flute as we now know it was conceived in 1846. After many experiments with the tube
itself, and the size and position of the toneholes in relation to it, Boehm produced the
modern flute. It had a parabolic, or tapered headjoint, a cylindrical body, and large
toneholes covered by keys. He experimented with almost every material available. In 1847,
he introduced his first flutes made of silver and German silver (a white alloy of copper,
zinc, and nickel.) At this time, the wooden flute was still preferred by players over metal
instruments, and remained so until the early 20th century. It is interesting to note that,
although the flute is thousands of years old, the instrument we know today was developed
within a period of approximately 50 years, and was chiefly the work of one person,
IS THE FLUTE DIFFICULT TO LEARN?
Most anyone, with practice, can learn to play the flute: the instrument described as
being most closely related to the human voice. It is important to learn proper breathing
techniques and breath support at the onset of playing so that a proper embouchure
(lip formation) can be developed. Most teachers suggest that only the flute headjoint
be used at first when attempting to make initial sounds. The headjoint must vibrate in
order for the sound to be produced; if a student is unable to make a sound with the
headjoint, putting the instrument together will not help. Some dizziness is common during
the early stages of playing: this happens because beginner players have to learn the proper
combination of embouchure [mouth] opening and air stream. This will go away as breath
control is learned and is nothing to worry about. Keeping a chair handy and reminding the
student to place his head between his knees until the feeling goes away is all that is
Since the flute is held across the body and not in front, it is difficult to see where the fingers are to be placed. It is recommended that one hold the flute in front so the new player can see correct finger placement without having to blow at the same time. Practicing finger combinations without worrying about sound production can help a student to develop the proper "feel" for the keys.
CHOOSING THE PROPER INSTRUMENT
The regular concert flute (C flute) comes in "one-size-fits-all." Unlike the violin,
there are no graduated sizes to fit students as they grow. The entry-level flute has
the same size finger placement as the professional model. Most young players, however,
do not experience insurmountable problems. As mentioned earlier, the young student who
has difficulty reaching the keys because of the instrument's length should start with a
flute that offers a curved-style headjoint. This headjoint positions the flute body and
keys within the reach of smaller players. As the young flutist grows, a change to the
regular straight headjoint can be made. The band director or flute teacher can assist
parents with this decision.|
Flutes vary in price, depending upon the model and material. It is extremely important for the
beginner student to have a high-quality, entry-level instrument. Nothing will discourage a new
player more quickly than an instrument that even a professional flutist can hardly make play.
Buying a used instrument or "bargain basement" flute without consulting a professional flutist
is ill-advised, as you may be wasting your money. Badly made flutes encourage early student
dropouts from band programs.
Most good entry-level flutes are priced in the $600 range for a plateau (closed-hole)
model. French models (open-hole) cost approximately $150 more. Originally, the open-hole
flutes designed by French flutemakers was thought to produce a better sound and also to
offer opportunities for using "trick" fingerings for trills and improving pitch of some
notes [by pressing the key and leaving the hole in the center of the key open]. Many
teachers feel that starting a player on the open-hole model helps to provide discipline
with regard to finger placement as well. While not necessary, it is something to consider
for all but the smallest players.
"Step-up" flutes range in price from $1,200 to $3,000, depending upon the amount of
precious material used. These flutes may have sterling silver headjoint and/or tube with
silver plated keys; many have a hand-cut embouchure (mouthpiece). Professional models
range from $5,000 to $30,000, with pricing dependent upon options and whether the flute
is made of sterling silver, solid gold, or platinum.
For many beginners, a good alternative to outright purchase is the rental-purchase
plan. Most rental programs allow for part or the entire rental fee to apply towards the
purchase price when you eventually buy the flute.
WHERE TO BUY YOUR FLUTE
There are many options available for purchasing new flutes: your local music store,
a mail-order music company, a shop specializing in flutes, or someone selling a used
one. When making your decision, first consider the availability of service. Buying
your instrument from a local dealer that has a fine flute repair person is important,
as repairs and key/pad adjustments are needed from time to time. If you choose to use
a mail-order company, inquire about their repair operation and if any is available
locally. Shipping an instrument back to a mail- order company for repair work can be
costly and take a great deal of time. Have a qualified flute repair person thoroughly
check over any used instrument you may be considering.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A FLUTE
Entry-level flutes are made from nickel silver and are then silver plated, although a few
are nickel plated. Most players prefer the less slippery silver plated models. Ribbed
construction is recommended, as post and key mechanisms can be fastened to the rib
[a strip of metal attached to the tube] and not directly on the body tube itself.
Rolled tone hole flutes offer a better pad-seating surface than the straight, faced
only, tone holes. The three sections of the flute should fit together snugly, but
not overly tight. Spring-wire tension should be even, so all keys have the same
balanced feel under the fingers. A flute that requires a different amount of strength
to push each key can contribute to bad technique; these should be adjusted before purchase.
It is most important to be certain that all pads cover the tone holes properly and
without air leaks. Leaking, out-of-adjustment pads and keys make any flute unplayable.
Finally, the flute headjoint is critical to the sound of the flute. Fortunately, most
first-line manufacturers offer good headjoints on their beginner models today. A good
flute outfit consists of the instrument, case, and cleaning rod. Some manufacturers
include a soft cleaning cloth.
CARE AND MAINTENANCE
All musical instruments require maintenance from time to time. Have your authorized flute
repair person check the flute over at least once a year. Pads may require some adjustment
to insure a proper seal and may occasionally need replacement. Key oiling should only be
administered by an expert, as excess oil will cause keys to become sluggish.
Every flutist should wipe off the outside of the instrument when daily practice has
been completed. A soft cloth such as an old, lint-free cotton flannel (not polyester) or
specially designed silver cleaning cloth should be used. The inside of the tube should
also be swabbed out by inserting a cloth through the slotted end of the cleaning rod
that is provided with the flute [do not use the same cloth_an old, soft cotton handkerchief
works well]. Clean the inside of all three flute sections. Most music stores sell flute
cleaning swabs that may be used instead of the cleaning rod.
Health note: if a student has a cold or other virus or bacteria, it is advisable to swab
out the inside of the instrument with some rubbing alcohol or other disinfectant so that
he does not re-infect himself. Do not, however, spray the instrument _- simply dampen the
cleaning cloth and run the swab through all three sections of the instrument. Use an
alcohol pad to clean the lip plate.
Playing the flute can be a very joyful experience, and is something that can (and should)
be done throughout a lifetime. Keep playing after graduation from school; do not relegate
the flute to the attic! Let the flute, with its vast music repertoire, be your companion
as you take life's journey. Remember that the flute is played by males and females of all
ages. There is something for everyone when it comes to playing the flute, whether you play
in the school band or orchestra, a community orchestra, an adult flute choir, or simply
serenade your cat in your condo. Play the flute _ you'll be glad you did!
Mark Thomas is founder and honorary life president of The National Flute Association (NFA),
is professor of flute at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he also directs
the university flute choir. A recitalist, soloist, conductor, and clinician, he has appeared
in 20 foreign countries and 49 states. He has been on the faculties of The American
University, George Washington University, The University of Notre Dame, Indiana
University at South Bend, National Music Camp at Interlochen, and Sewanee Summer
Music Center, and has lectured at many universities and conservatories. Thomas has
numerous published flute works, including the Mark Thomas Flute Method series. He
has served as board member of National Public Radio, board President of the Elkhart
County Symphony Association, and as artistic design consultant to several leading
flute manufacturers. Thomas can be heard on Golden Crest and Columbia Records.
"How to Buy a Flute" is the fourth in a series of instructional guides on the history and
use of musical instruments. SBO grants permission to photocopy and distribute the article
to both students and parents.