How to Use the Flute for Starters

07/02/2020
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Did you know the flute is the oldest instrument in the world?

The first specimens are dated to as old as 40,000 years ago.

Virtually every region in the world has its own variant of the flute, and you probably played it yourself at some point in school.

Remember these recorders?

Well, in this post I’ll be covering the Western Classical Flute, also known as transverse flute.

Why? Well mainly because:

  • It’s the most common type of flute
  • It’s the most versatile flute and you can find it in  virtually every music genre.
  • It’s the most complete flute, and the most complex one too.

So whether you always wanted to play the bird part in Peter and the Wolf, that smooth jazz  from the 50s/60s, be the next Jethro Tull or play the punchy flute in that Salsa tune you like…

You’ve come to the right place as I’ve compiled in this post the most comprehensive piece of information you’ll need to get started on the flute…

As well as to upgrade your knowledge AND your flute if you already play it.

Sounds good? Then let’s start.

 

First up…

A little bit of History

The transverse flute is a woodwind instrument from the transverse family. Transverse instruments are side-blown, which make them instantly identifiable thanks to their unique way of being hold.

They first appeared in central Asia during the middle-age.

They were then brought to Europe sometime during the 11th century where they got popular in France and Germany, therefore getting the name of “German flute”.

This name was given so as to distinguish it from the then ubiquitous recorder-likeflute format.

Alright, now that we’ve learned about the origins of transverse flute, let’s have a look at its anatomy.

Anatomy of the Flute

The flute basically consists of 3 metal cylinders fitting into each others. These 3 parts are called:

  1. The Head Joint – which is where the mouthpiece is. Its end is open.
  2. The Main Tube– which is the part where most keys are
  3. The Foot Joint – which can be more or less long in order to add notes

So let’s see each one of these pieces in more details, shall we?

First off…

1. The Head Joint

Funnily enough, by glancing at the headjoint you would never think it’s the most influential part of the whole flute in terms of sound.

After all it is essentially a tube with a whole in it, right?

Well, as you might have guessed there is more to the headjoint than just that and the fact is that advanced and professional flutists might spend years of experimenting before finding the right one.

Partly because a head joint has 6 varying factors:

  1. The Embouchure Hole – which is the hole in which you blow
  2. The Lip Plate and the Riser – on which the lower lip rests when playing.
  3. The Crown, cork and reflective plate – which is the cap that covers the end of the flute near the embouchure hole, the cork and the plate attached to it.
  4. The Riser – Which is the structure holding the lip plate to the tube. The higher it is, the more distant the lip plate from the flute.
  5. The Tapering of the headjoint – headjoints are tapered, meaning they’re not perfect cylinders.
  6. Straight/Curved headjoint – for young children, a curved headjoint is generally recommended over a straight one

Again, let’s take a closer look at each of these features, starting with…

1. The Embouchure Hole

Since the flute belongs to the “reedless” woodwind instruments family, sound is created not by a reed vibrating against a mouthpiece (like on the saxophone or the clarinet)…

Nor a reed vibrating against another reed (like on the oboe), nor even by the lips vibrating against each other (like on the trumpet).

But before we look into the varying factors of the embouchure hole, it’s important to understand basic acoustics; and specifically flute physics.

To create a sound on the flute you blow into the embouchure hole in a particular way:

The stream of air you create needs to be directed at the edge of the embouchure. As this happens the stream air is “sliced” in 2, with one half going into the hole and the other out of it.

This then creates waves that create the pitch depending on their length.

There are some characteristics to pay attention to when it comes to the embouchure hole. These are:

  1. The Shape and size of the hole – Old flutes used to have an oval shaped hole, while most modern flutes have a more rectangular shaped hole. In terms of sound, there is no set in stone consensus in the flute community but it is generally agreed upon that it is easier to achieve higher volume with rectangular holes.
  2. If the hole has been undercut and/or overcut– which is when flute makers round off the under part of the hole, compared to a straight undercut in student flutes. Advanced and professional flutists say this makes a major difference and allows for a better overall sound in both low and high range as well as more ease in interval playing.
undercutting the embouchure hole

 

Take a look at the image on the right to get an idea of how undercutting is done, and what the result looks like.

So that’s about what you need to know about the embouchure hole.

Next up…

2. The Lip Plate and Riser

sankyoflute.com

The lip plate is the part of the flute where the lips rest when blowing in the embouchure.

The part that directly links the embouchure hole and the lip plate is called the riser,sometimes “chimney”.

The riser can vary in height and mostly affects the volume of the flute. And so, in the flute community it is generally agreed upon that:

  • high riser – creates a louder, more direct sound, to the expenses of flexibility
  • lower riser – allows for easier “pianissimos” (that is, very low volume notes) and offers more flexibility.

As for the lip plate, some players say its material affects the tone of the flute but there is no real consensus on this matter in the flute community…

Except that some players have an intolerance to some lip plate materials and may have a skin reaction to them. Some flutists are only able to play on golden lip plates, for example.

lip plate engraving 

One last thing: some customization options offer to engrave the lip plate, and the result can be quite beautiful and artistic.

But some players find the engraving to have an actual use, other than just an aesthetic one, and say it helps their lip stay in place, and not slip on the lip plate.

So there’s that.

Next up…

3. The Crown, Cork and Reflective plate

yamaha.com

You might not have noticed it, but the transverse flute is one of the few woodwinds that is not actually open on both ends.

That’s right, the end further away from the headjoint is open so as to let the sound come out, but the other end (nearest to the head joint) is closed with a small cap called the crown.

Sometimes referred to as “head crown” or “head screw”, the crown is called that way because it is often the most decorated part of the flute.

Now, attached to the crown is a screw that goes all the way to and through a cork.

The cork is there to perform exactly what you’d expect from a regular cork, — in a bottle of wine for example — that is, plugging up the flute.

Flute manufacturers generally agree that the quality of the cork does have someimpact on the sound of the flute, but there is very little actual information available on that matter.

However, we do know some manufacturers use and make plastic corks, or “head joint stoppers” as they call them, and some flutists say using a plastic stopper/cork increases response

Which seems to be a highly sought after quality.

Right on the end of the cork is the reflective plate. This little metal disc’s purpose is self-explanatory: it reflects the sound, sending it all the way to the other end of the flute.

Next up…

4. The Tapering of the Headjoint

Headjoints arent’t actually perfectly straight tubes. In fact, they are tapered towards the top end (near the embouchure hole)

There are 3 types of taperings:

  1. The “G” shape –  it expands in a evenly fashion all the way to the fitting end. It offers the most resistance to air and creates a rich, deep sound. It is not recommended for beginners.
  2. The “C” shape – is the easiest to play as it offers the less amount of resistance, and is therefore recommended for beginners.
  3. The “Y” shape – offers a mix of the 2 first tapering types and a moderate amount of resistance.

And finally…

6. Straight/Curved Headjoint

To help children (generally under 10 years old) play the flute without adding too much tension to their neck, manufacturers came up with an idea:

Bending the headjoint to 180°, so as to shorten the distance between the embouchure and the keys…

Thus greatly decreasing the strain on the body and even possible health issues such as neckand back problems.

In fact it is actually strongly discouraged to use straight headjoints with children, since — on top of health issues — it can lead to bad positioning and playing habits

Jupiter WaveLine headjoint

A fun-looking alternative to the curved headjoint is the children’s flute from woodwinds manufacturer Jupiter.

Instead of a regular curved headjoint they offer their own variant, called “Jupiter WaveLine Technology” which is really just a different way they found to shorten to distance between the embouchure and the keys.

Pretty cool looking, huh?

So that’s it for the headjoint.

Now on to the second part of the flute…

2. The Main Tube/Body

The second part of the flute is the main tube. The main tube is the longest part of the flute and the one with most keys, 75% of the total to be precise.

And although a beginner won’t probably look into it very much, there are 2 important factors — or features — to know about the main tube, factors that will greatly affect your ease of play.

These factors are:

  1. French or Plateau keys – French keys have a whole you need to obstruct when pressing them, plateau keys don’t.
  2. The trill keys – all flutes have trill keys, but some models have more than others
  3. The G key – some flutes’ G key is “inline”, and others’ is”offset”.
  4. The high E mechanism – There are 2 different “tools” that allow to easily reach the high E (E3)
  5. Roller keys – some models have a little “roller” built in the trill keys and aimed to facilitate hand movement

So let’s take a look at these features.

First up…

1. French (open) or Plateau (closed) Keys

Probably the most noticeable difference at a glance between one flute and another is whether the keys are open or closed. And so:

  • French keys – have a hole in them, and…
  • Plateau keys – don’t.

Closed keys are the most popular among beginners since, no matter the size of your fingers or the strength you’ve manages to build, as long as you press the key, you’ll get the desired note.

And, in fact, most student flutes have plateau keys.

Playing on open keys however requires an extra step when learning since you’ll need to pay attention to obstruct the hole correctly when pressing a key.

Most intermediate and professional flutes have French keys.

And that is because there are some advanced playing technique that can ONLY be played on French keys. These techniques are:

  • Quarter tones and microtones – which beginners won’t care about but advanced and professionals players will need at some point
  • Glissandos – which means “gliding” from one note to the other smoothly
  • Multiphonics – which enables playing 2, 3 or even 4 tones at the same time.

 

Of course if you’re a beginner you won’t need to know about these techniques for a long time, but…

One last useful thing to know is that there are some little silicon plugs that you can purchase and that are made to plug the holes of your French keys flute, just like the ones on the image on the right…

Meaning that if you’re planning on sticking to the flute for some time, you can always get a French key flute as a beginner, plug the holes and unplug them when you’ve reached a more advanced level.

Here are some good ones:

Got it?

Next up…

2. The Trill Keys

The flute has special keys called the “trill” keys.

If you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to a special technique meant to play 2 notes alternately very rapidly.

The effect created is called a trill.

So why does the flute have dedicated keys for this technique?

Well, simply put, it would be too difficult to play a trill using only the regular tone keys, as you’d need to quickly alternate between 2 keys, as opposed to only onewith the trill keys.

Which is why flute makers came up with dedicated trill keys.

Now, not all flutes are equal when it comes to trills:

  • Most flutes have 3 trill keys – DD# and B♭ which respectively allow for Cto DC to D# and G to A trills.
  • Some flutes have an additional C# trill key – which allows for easy B to C# trill and is only found on more expensive flutes, such as intermediate and professional ones.

Got it?

Next up…

3. Inline or Offset G Key

The G key on a flute can either be:

  • Inline – which means it’s aligned with the rest of the keys
  • Offset – which means it is not aligned with the rest of the keys

This feature is pretty much a no-brainer really, because it is 100% a matter of comfort.

Offset G key flutes were created to ease up the playing position and generally make the playing position more comfortable.

On inline G flutes, the G key is harder to reach because our ring finger — which is the one we use to play the G key — is shorter then our middle finger (at least in most people).

Offset G key flutes also solve some serious physiological issues many flutist face playing inline G flutes, such as:

  • tendinitis, or
  • carpal tunel

Of course some flutists only swear by inline G flutes, but honestly, unless you have a specific reason to  play an inline G flute, just go with an offset G one, you’ll find it much more comfortable to play.

Got it?

Next up…

4. The High E Mechanism

The E3 note — referred to as high E on the flute — is famous for being particularly hard to play…

Which is why flute manufacturers came up with specialized mechanisms made to make it easier to play. There are 2 types of “high E mechanisms”:

  • Split E Mechanism – this is the most “complex” mechanism of the 2 and most student flutes have it. It essentially closes the G key when playing a high E, which stays open on flutes that don’t have a split E mechanism.
  • High E facilitator – often referred to as the “donut” in the flute community,  the high E facilitator is a little metal disc inserted in the G# key to keep the key from closing totally, essentially having the same effect as the split E mechanism.

Ok but why do student flutes only get to have a split E mechanism if it only makes it easier to play the high E?

Well, because it also have drawbacks that — almost — never affect beginners, but are often a deal breaker for advanced and professional players. These are:

  • Inability to play some trills – notably G3 to A3
  • Additional weight added to the flute – which might be an important issue for some flutists

Moreover, the high E facilitator can be added to the flute at any moment, whereas the split E mechanism can’t if your flute didn’t come with one already.

Next up…

5. Rollers

In high end flutes you often find another upgrade: the rollers.

These are small self-rotating rods built into the D# and C# trill keys and meant to make moving your pinkie finger around the footjoint easier

Since it is often one of the more difficultmovement to master on the flute.

You can choose to have a roller on your D# trill key only, or on both D# and C# keys.

And this concludes the Main Tube section.

Now, onto the last part of the flute…

3. The Foot Joint

At the bottom of the flute is the foot joint. There are 2 types of foot joints:

  • C foot joint – which is the standard with student flutes
  • B foot joint – which comes with intermediate and professional flutes and extends the low range of the flute one half-step lower, to B.

The B foot joint may have an extra key, called “Gizmo key” and meant to help playing the high C note.

Now, realistically speaking, the probability that you’ll ever need to play a low B is very low…

And unless you’re playing a symphony in an orchestra you can pretty much ignore B foot joint.

So knowing that, how come most advanced and professional flutists do use a B foot joint on their flute?

Well it seems a B foot joint greatly improves the sound of the flute and particularly the overtones.

And for professional players, anything that has the capacity to improve their tone, even by the slightest, is invaluable.

Next up…

Materials

For some reasons, flute materials aren’t as big a deal as for other instruments, sound-wise. That is, it is agreed in the flute community that the various metals used in flute construction don’t make thatmuch of a difference…

As is the case with a lot of other instruments whose tones are highly dependent on the type of materials used in their construction.

Still, there are different types of metals used in flute manufacturing, depending on the range of your flute.

These metals are:

  • Some sort of metal alloy  – most cheap flutes are made out of a copper and nickel alloy, called cupronickel, nickelcopper or another name depending on the manufacturer.
  • Silver or gold plating – Most student or professional flutes are silver or gold plated
  • Solid sterling silver, gold or platinum – The most expensive models are made out of solid precious metals.
  • Finally, there are some transverse flute made out of wood but they’re pretty uncommon and unless you have a good reason to play one, you can pretty much disregard them.
    Next up… Recommended Flutes So here is my list of best flutes currently available. I’ll order it in 3 categories:
    • Student flutes – which are cheaper and don’t have some of the options we’ve seen earlier,
    • Intermediate flutes – which offer high quality
    • Professional flutes – which are more expensive and have more “advanced options.
    Best Student Flutes (Under $500) Best Intermediate Flutes (Under $2000)  Best Professional Flutes  Next up… How to Tune your Flute Although the flute never falls out of tune dramatically — like a string instrument does in certain conditions for example — it will fall sharp or flat from time to time. And when it does, it might come handy knowing how to actually tune it back in pitch. To sharpen or flatten the tone of your flute, first play a concert A on a tuned instrument and compare it withyour flute’s. Depending if your A is sharp or flat:
    • Gently pull the headjoint out of the main tube – it will the tone slightly more flat.
    • Push it gently in – it will make it slightly more sharp.
    And that’s about it.

 

Flute Care and Maintenance

The flute requires regular care, and you actually need to clean it everytime you’re done playing.

Cleaning the flute is done by using a cleaning rod with a piece of cloth wrapped around it, inserting in inside the flute and moving it inside so as to dry the moisture.

On top of drying your flute everytime you’re done playing, you might need to oil its mechanisms from time to time.

Here are 2 popular choices of cleaning kits that include everything you’ll need to clean and maintain your flute:

  • Instrument Clinic Flute Care Kit – (Amazon)
  • Yamaha Flute Maintenance Kit – (Amazon)

Next up…

Flute Accessories

Most beginners don’t think about it but the flute does have some accessories, some more useful than others.

And many cheap flutes actually come with these accessories as a pack.

But if you’ve purchased an intermediate or even professional flute, it most probably didn’t, which is why I wanted to list the most important ones.

So, among these accessories, 2 in particular are especially useful. These are

  1. The Case
  2. The Stand

So let’s quickly take a look at these, starting with…

1. Cases

If you’re planning on taking your flute with you on the go, then you’ll need a case for it.

There are 3 types of cases:

  1. Gig Bag – which are soft on the outside but molded
  2. Hard Cases – which offer the highest level of protection
  3. Handmade bags – which are often handcrafted, unique pieces of leatherwork

So in most cases, people go for a gig bag because:

  • They offer good protection,
  • Lots of storage compartments, and…
  • They are lightweight too.

In terms of pricing they are not necessarily cheaper than hard cases and the high-end models can get pretty pricey;

Check out my rcommendations:

Hard cases are generally priced the same or even cheaper than gig bags and are generally made out of:

  • ABS Plastic – for most models, or…
  • Fiberglass – for the more high-end models

Typically if you get yourself a $10k flute you usually won’t mind spending another 200 for a decent case. On the other hand, the same case might seem overkill for a $100 flute.

Check out my recommendations:

  • Andoer Portable Gig Box – (Amazon)
  • Crossrock Fiberglass Case – (Amazon)
  • MTS 809E Case – (Amazon)
  • Crossrock Molded Case – (Amazon)

Got it?

So now for the last type of cases, handcrafted cases. These are generally very expensive, unique pieces of leatherwork.

However, they’re not only good looking as they also offer some decent level of protection.

If you care to check them out, here are 2 of the most renown case makers:

2. Stands

If you find yourself gigging a lot, you’ll need a stand, guaranteed.

And if you don’t gig a whole lot, you’ll need one too.

They might not seem that important at first, but you will soon realize not having a safe place to put down your flute is actually a big pain.

Stands allow you to quickly put down your flute WITHOUT risking damaging it. They’re especially useful in a stage setting if you need to quickly switch from one instrument to another for example.

Here are my recommendations:

3. Moustache

Well, yeah, you kind of have to have a moustache to play the flute, don’t you?

And in case you don’t, here’s one that will definitely help you play better:

Brasstache-FluteStache – (Amazon)