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The flute is the smallest and highest pitched band instrument. It is technically a member of the woodwind family even though it's made of metal and does not use a reed to create sound. In order to produce a sound on the flute, the player blows across the tone hole of the mouthpiece, allowing the air to split at the far edge of the hole. This creates a whistle sound. It uses the same principle as a whistle or blowing across a soda bottle. In all cases the air splits to create a sound. Aiming a thin air stream at the edge of the hole to make a sound can be a bit challenging at first but it gets much easier with time and practice.
History of the Flute
The flute is among the most ancient and widely used musical instruments having existed in ancient world cultures including Egypt, Sumeria, South America and Mexico. In Europe there is evidence of a flute dating back to the end of the 12th century. During the Middle Ages, Renaissance and early Barogue periods the transverse flute was primarily a military instrument (a fife). Around 1650 the flute, which had utilized a conical bore (a preferred version being end-blown like a recorder) was developed with a conical bore which provided a better tone. By 1750 the transverse flute had become an important solo instrument. Bach and Handel often utilized the flauto (recorder) while flauto traverse in other works indicates the transverse flute. By the time of Haydn the flute had become an established member of orchestras. Around 1800 mechanical improvements were being attempted to alter the side holes which were cut to accommodate hand and finger position rather that acoustical considerations and the final step in this progression was the Bohm system which also reverted back to the cylindrical bore. The changes made the pitch accuracy much better. Modern flutes are manufactured with a large variety of options available including offset keys to accommodate small hand size, open hole or closed hole, additional tone holes to extend the range, numerous head joint and finish configurations, etc.,
How a Flute is Made
The keys on a flute are stamped in a forging process and then go thru a finishing and polishing process. The main body and foot joint tubes go thru tone hole pulling operations which, initially, leaves the tone hole chimneys with sharp edges so they are faced and rolled. Next the ribs (which will support the posts and keys) are jigged into place and soldered and the key posts are installed onto the ribs. The barrel (head joint receiver) is soldered onto the main body and the lip plate is soldered to the tapered head joint tubing and an embouchure hole is formed and shaped. Next, the keys are slid onto rods (left hand section, right hand section and trill section) and pinned which holds them in place on each rod. Keys are then corked and padded and the crown assembly is installed into the head joint. The assembled instrument then heads of to the final assembly and finishing area where springs are cut and adjusted, pads are leveled, and testers insure each instrument meets standards before it is packaged and placed in its case.
Flutes have a head joint, main body and foot joint (top, middle and bottom) The head joint includes a lip plate and a crown assembly, The lip plate is what the player blows air over and the crown assembly blocks the air at the top of the head joint by means of a cork and metal cap which reverses the air back thru the head joint and the remainder of the flute which creates the sound. The main body has most of the tone holes, keys and pads operated by the left and right hands. The foot joint keys are operated by the right hand little finger. The keys are held on key rods with metal pins and these are attached to posts anchored on ribs which are soldered to the main body and foot joint. Key springs are attached to the posts and ribs and provide the functioning ability of the keys.
So your Student wants to play the Flute, now what?
It is always advisable to seek the advice of music education and/or performance professionals who can assist in helping young students determine if the flute is a good choice. Of particular interest will be the shape of the student’s lips and their ability to form a good embouchure (the way the mouth is held) and, more specifically, a good aperture (the opening between the lips) which shapes the air column which is blown over the lip plate and embouchure hole. Some students will have a natural lip “tab” of flesh in the middle of the upper lip which will split and/or disrupt the air column resulting in a weak and airy sounding flute tone. This does not mean these students cannot play the flute, it simply means they will have to learn to manipulate the top lip to eliminate the issue which can be a challenge for young players because it is task that is quite abstract. Otherwise, the general size of the student can be a factor as regards the ability of the hands and fingers reaching all the keys and being able to hold the instrument properly. These assessments are best made by experienced professionals.
How to Choose a Flute
General tips include choosing an established and recommended model and brand and avoiding imitations sold by those not fully engaged in the music industry. Many “knock off” instruments have flooded the American marketplace and, even though they look like quality instruments, these are usually manufactured with poor quality materials and craftsmanship resulting in poor tonal and acoustical characteristics as well as being very difficult to repair since the materials are sub-standard. Consult with established musicians, music educators and music merchants to determine which are quality instruments and which are not. Learning to play a musical instrument is a significant challenge and young players should not be hampered by instruments that are poorly made. Used instruments should always be clean and sterile. Flute pads should be clean and supple and the instrument should be test played to make sure it is in good regulation (pads cover the tone holes without air leaks).
Recommended Beginner Flutes
The Jupiter 507S is a silver plated student flute with offset G key and the Jupiter 511RSO is a silver plated student flute which is open hole and still has the offset G key. The Selmer FL600 and the Armstrong 102 are also silver plated student flutes with the offset G key. All models include the case and tuning rod.
Recommended Intermediate Flutes
The Jupiter 611RBS features open holes, in line keys, low B foot, Gizmo key and a solid silver head joint. The Gizmo key is a small raised lever mounted on the low B key arm to facilitate the individual closing of this key. It is also known as the high C facilitator because it helps produce a clearer 4th octave C. The Jupiter 711RBS has all the same features and the entire instrument is sold silver. The Jupiter 711RBSO is exactly like the 711RBS except the G key is offset. The Azumi AZ2000SRB is open holed with inline keys, low B key, and a solid Britannia Silver head joint. The Azumi AZ3000SRB is like the AZ2000SRB except the body and foot joint are also solid Britannia Silver.
Recommended Professional Flutes
There are numerous features to consider when selecting a professional quality flute including solid silver or solid gold material, which type of lip plate, which embouchure hole cut, spring selection, Gizmo key, Split E key, etc. We recommend calling and speaking with one of our professionals at RMI.
Buying a flute vs Renting a flute
Renting prior to purchasing allows for the return of an instrument which is an important consideration with beginner students. Credible rental sources will apply rental payments towards the purchase price. Rentals are usually only available for beginner instruments. RentMyInstrument.com is the only source that also offers intermediate and professional level instruments on a rent to own basis.
Types of Flutes
There are Alto and Bass Flutes in addition to the regular C Flute. The Alto flute is pitched in G and therefore sounds a perfect 4th lower than written. It is usually available with both curved and straight head joints. The Bass flute is pitched in C and sounds an octave lower than the regular C flute. It has a J shaped head joint to accommodate players being able to comfortably handle the size of the instrument. The piccolo is half the size of a regular C flute and sounds and octave higher. Db piccolos are available and are often utilized on the famous Stars and Stripes Forever March written by Sousa, who wrote the piccolo part for Db piccolos.
Gold Flute vs. Silver Flute
Most flute professionals prefer a solid silver or solid gold flute and the general consideration is that the silver will produce a brighter tonal quality than the gold. There are other combinations such as a solid silver flute with a gold lip plate and reputable manufacturers can accommodate just about any request.
Flute Head Joints
Various combinations of materials, sizes, thickness, lip plate material, and embouchure hole cuts are offered in flute head joint construction. Advancing players should experiment with as many combinations as possible to determine which is best for them and the sound they prefer.
Reasons to buy a second flute head joint
If a flutist desires different sounds and response for different types of playing (solo, orchestral, jazz, etc.) then having more than one head joint is worthy of consideration since its construction will have a noticeable impact on tone and response.
How to take care of your flute
Since warm, moist air is blown thru the instrument it should be swabbed out with a soft, absorbent cloth after playing prior to storage or non-use of several hours or more. This is commonly done by either using the cleaning/tuning rod or having a cleaning cloth tied or sewn onto a string with the other end of the string weighted so it can be dropped thru the flute body and the cloth then pulled thru. Once moisture has been removed, many players also utilize a pad saver which is inserted into the body and foot joints to help draw any remaining moisture from the pads. A soft polish cloth is commonly used to wipe fingerprints from the outer finish. Care must be taken to not un-hook springs when polishing the flute. Springs can be put back in place by utilizing a small crochet hook.
Top Flute Brands
Jupiter, DiMedici, Haynes, Gemeinhardt, Powell, and Altus are all reputable manufacturers recognized as offering high quality flutes.
How to make your first flute sound
Basically, a sound can be produced by blowing partly across and partly into the embouchure hole of a flute. In blowing a small stream of air thru the lips a natural tendency is to pucker in an attempt to direct the air stream and this usually results in a round aperture in the lips and, when applied to the flute, produces a sound that is very “airy” – too much air is inefficiently striking the edges of the embouchure hole. The corners of the mouth should be drawn back slightly (like pouting) to elongate the shape of the aperture (opening between the lips). In forming a flute embouchure the upper lip should be somewhat firm while the lower lip is looser or fleshier. In most cases, the aperture will naturally form in the middle of the lips and the embouchure hole should be centered accordingly. The flute lip plate should be held parallel to the line formed by the juncture of the lips. The column of air should be split approximately in half by the far edge of the embouchure hole. The flute head joint is placed so that an average of 1/4th to 1/3rd of the embouchure hole is covered by the lower lip. Using only the head joint the first sounds can be achieved by paying particular attention the this formation of the lips and positioning of the air stream in relationship to the embouchure hole.
How to play high notes on the flute
Register shifts on the flute bring into play the back and forth movement of the lower jaw by which the direction of the air column can be effectively governed. Simply stated, the lower in range or in pitch the more the lower jaw must be drawn back (not down) and as the flutist goes up in range or pitch the jaw is thrust forward. This movement serves several purposes: changes in the air stream’s direction are accomplished with corresponding adjustments of the amount of embouchure hole covered, the size of the aperture, the openness of the throat, and the relative lip tension. The beginner student should only be concerned with use of the jaw in controlling the register and begin learning the technique with the slow practice of octaves in which the lowest tone of those octaves with the same fingering is sounded first, then the jaw brought forward until the upper octave sounds. These studies are best when slurred but the beginner may find it necessary to tongue them in the first trials.
How to find a teacher for Private Flute Lessons
Teachers can be located by contacting local school band directors, music stores, and colleges and universities. They will have flute teachers/specialists on staff or will usually know contact information for recommended teachers.
How to Tune a Flute
For basic tuning accuracy the tuning/cleaning rod has a mark at one end and, when inserted into the head joint and touching the crown assembly, should align with the middle of the embouchure hole. The crown assembly can be adjusted outward by using the tuning rod to push it out further or the crown cap can be unscrewed away from the head joint and then pushed further inward. The head joint can also be moved further outward or inward to change the overall length of the flute and , in most instances, flutes are manufactured so the head joint should be pulled out from the middle joint about an eighth of an inch. But the real area of focus for flute tuning remains with the player and embouchure development.
The air flow over the embouchure hole has a direct and significant bearing on intonation accuracy and flute students should consult with experienced players on the intricacies of making these adjustments. Generally, intonation on the flute is more of embouchure development and mental awareness than of adjusting the instrument itself. The student that continually plays flat is probably blowing down into the flute at too great an angle while also covering too much of the embouchure hole. Conversely, blowing too much across the embouchure hole, usually accompanied by covering too little of the hole, will cause the student to play quite sharp. In either case, the pitch will suggest the difficulty and the necessary correction of lip formation and jaw position that needs to be made. When considering intonation difficulties of flute students a tolerant attitude is highly advisable as embouchures vary widely from person to person and a great deal of observation and practice are required to pinpoint the adjustments necessary for accurate intonation.
Dangers of starting with a Used Flute
Starting with a used flute poses some obvious questions: (1) has it been consistently kept clean and is it sterile (2) are the pads, felts, corks and springs in good condition and is the instrument in good regulation (3) is the crown cork and crown assembly in good condition (4) are there serious dents that restrict airflow thru the instrument (5) is their significant finish deterioration (6) are parts still readily available for the instrument or is it antiquated?
Cautions with Pawn Shops and Ebay
Musical instruments need to be regularly kept clean and this is often not the case of instruments being sold from sources other than credible music merchants. Flute pads can also be destroyed by moths or simply decay and become dry and brittle from age. Even though a flute may appear to be in good shape it could need a total repad and regulation (overhaul) which could cost hundreds of dollars. A qualified expert should inspect any flute prior to its being purchased by an unsuspecting amateur.
James Galway - Sir James, of Irish decent, is one of the premier, classical solo artists in the world.
Jean-Pierre Rampal - Internationally known French classical artist who also is known as a conductor.
Hubert Laws - Internationally known classical artist who also has mastered jazz.