How To Pick A Flute When You Can’t Play Flute
Tips for a beginning flutist to pick a flute when you can't play well yet.
I love the flute. While I played solo clarinet as a teenager in our local regional youth symphony, I also took up sax when I was in high school. And sax was a lot more fun.
But while I have played sax for well over 40 years now, doing a number of concerts and recording sessions over the years, I often, within the last 15 or 20 years, had a hankering to learn to play the flute.
I actually purchased one about 15 years ago. But up until this last year I only dabbled with it occasionally.
It wasn't until this year that I started to take it seriously. But I eventually got to a place where I came to understand that my instrument I purchased back then might be limiting my ability to improve.
So, is any advice I might have about picking an instrument worthwhile? I think so. You see...
At this point, I consider myself a "mediocre doubler." But I think my perspective might be helpful for other people in the same position.
So what is my position? Well, I do well on the sax; but although I play the flute now (somewhat - have been practicing daily for the last 9 months, due to Covid) I don't consider myself one to give advice to people who play better than me on how to pick a flute.
But if you're reading this article, maybe it's because you're in the same boat - you can play somewhat but you're not "repeatable" enough to be able to hit the embouchure right off the bat, from a cold start, without some adjusting the first couple minutes into the practice session.
You can find your way around the instrument but it isn't second nature yet.
Perhaps you're a doubler, too. Perhaps you're relatively new to the flute. You can play "hit and miss" at this point but you know you can't play well enough to push a different instrument to its limits to see if it is the best you can afford right now.
If this is you, then let me walk you through a little set of thoughts and circumstances I've been navigating for the last few days and see if I can offer any insights that will help.
If you're fairly accomplished at all, I think you can get better perspectives from others who are adequate on the flute and have some good videos out there.
Let me give you an example of what I mean by competent and adequate. If you can play like this, a woman like this is better qualified to tell you what to look for and how to evaluate.
She's good. And some of what she says helps me. I can appreciate advice of looking for the right features on a flute.
But do you see the problem here? I don't know how much these questions help a beginner.
She asks some good questions:
- do you want closed hole or open hole?
- do you want inline or offset?
- do you want a split-E mechanism?
- do you want a C or B footjoint?
- (what kind of headjoint do you want)?
- do you want silver? Gold? What do you sound like on Gold?
- do you want soldered or drawn tone holes?
Let me help you here with some suggestions you if you're totally lost.
These are only ONE GUY'S opinion about this but they are aimed at helping people starting out.
Closed or open hole?
Well, if your hands are small, and you're just starting out, go for closed hole. One less thing to worry about. But if you know you can cover the holes, go for the open hole. If you upgrade to a better instrument it will be one less thing to worry about.
Inline or offset?
Just my opinion but I would say always go for the offset. It's easier. I'm sure there are purists out there who will insist there is a benefit to inline. But I think it is going the way of the manual transmission. I think you'll find offset easier.
Perhaps this will annoy some people but quite frankly, I don't care about whether or not it has a split E mechanism. I only care if it plays in tune. This split-E is supposed to be a means to that end. The bottom line is if the instrument you otherwise likes needs it to play the high E in tune, go for it. Otherwise, probably save your money.
Do you want a C foot or B foot?
I'm going to say go for the B foot if you can afford it, for 2 reasons. Ironically, it has nothing to do with being able to play the low B. It is for a) resale value, if you ever decide to sell it to upgrade to a better flute, and b) for balance.
Holding a flute with no B foot puts the balance further to the left, requiring a different feel for how to hold the thing. This is especially true if you are looking at a step-up or intermediate flute that has a solid silver headjoint and a silver-plated body. The longer foot changes the balance point between your hands and makes it easier to hold the flute with the appropriate (light) pressure against the lower lip. Again, my "beginner" opinion but worth discussing with your instructor.
What kind of headjoint do you want?
Odds are if you're shopping in the price range of flutes that give you the option of selecting headjoints, either you're probably above a level where you need my advice or, perhaps, you're looking in the wrong range of class of flute. Just get the one that comes with the flute.
Unless your skills are developed pretty highly by now, you're going to find that a "pro" headjoint is a double-edged sword; a "pro" headjoint will be more responsive and give you more to work with; but if you don't already know how to make it work, it might frustrate you, anyway.
And in the end, every flute is going to have a personality, part of which is determined by the headjoint. And this brings me to the next point.
Do you want a gold flute?
Sure. Probably. Maybe. I guess if you have more money than you know what to do with, it's a great looking instrument. But your ability to appreciate the thing might be well beyond your abilities right now. I don't even think this is a relevant thing to worry about at this stage. So, next question.
Soldered or drawn tone holes?
This, like so many other items in the list of "flute features" is as much a distraction as anything else. Because after all, the reason for worrying about this is supposedly about how it affects the sound. The problem, if you're not an avid flutist, is that you're probably better off finding which flute sounds best and not how that sound happens based on the flute.
Actually, getting distracted about the tone holes is missing what you need to focus on. If the one you otherwise like best has soldered or drawn tone holes, it doesn't matter at this point.
Do you ever find the humor in commercials on TV for color TVs? You know - how your TV basically limits what the commercial can show you about their TV they are trying to sell you?
Similarly, it's hard for someone with limited experience playing an instrument being able to evaluate instruments and compare them one to another and really be able to determine which one is best suited for them now, let alone down the road - say, 5 years from now, or even 1 year from now.
So how do you "test" a flute if you don't even know how you can play it the same way twice?
There are some "non-negotiables" that you should be able to evaluate even as a beginner.
Non-negotiable #1: Intonation
If you're experienced at all, you'll surely know what I mean by "intonation." But if you're new to the music world, or maybe self-taught and have never heard the term, "intonation" is the tuning of the notes relative to each other within the range of the instrument.
It doesn't matter how good it sounds if the intonation is so wonky you can't play with anyone else. And THIS was actually the reason I ended up shopping for a new flute. I found on my old one that every time I tried to use it with the worship team at church, I could never play in tune. It was because the tuning was off depending on the key I was playing in. My NEW ONE is STELLAR compared to the old one.
Non-negotiable #2: time with the instrument.
Love is a many-splendored thing. Sometimes it takes a while to find that "je ne sais quoi" (which, for those who don't know, is French for "I do not know what..."
Non-negotiable #3: RESTED time with the instrument.
It's tempting to play-test to death. But if you're like me, lip endurance is a thing. There are ways to improve it. But let's just say that if your lip is tired, you're not going to get the best out of it or you.
Be aware of issues that may be a quirk with the particular instrument rather than the make or model.
One of the examples I think of is mechanical setup. When I visited a Flute World location, I was given the opportunity to sample several flutes to see if I found one that jumped out at me as a good one to become the new love of my life.
But before that opportunity, the technician at the store took about a half hour to check them all out and make sure they were in good mechanical shape.
- The low C key (which often needs adjustment and/or maintenance over the years).
- The G# key (which is often one of the pads to leak and/or stick over time).
These types of issues shouldn't necessarily be a show-stopper for the test; but be aware if that low C doesn't speak freely, it might be because something simply needs tweaking.
Consider re-sale value.
Consider used - especially if you can get some help.
Consider the dealer you're working with.
Many instrument dealers (especially the larger ones) will let you purchase an instrument "on trial." They give you a chance to try them in a setting you're familiar with.
Don't forget to put your current instrument in the mix (if you have one).
Sometimes it helps a lot to have a baseline to compare to. And the more baselines you can find, the better.
That is why I mentioned using a tuner previously. It gives you a hard standard to measure pitch against.
But you might also want to compare the sound you get on the new one to the sound you're getting on your current one.
Don't underestimate the value of experimenting with embouchure between instruments.
If you've spent any time at all watching flute review videos on the web, there are a number of videos out there by a lot of competent players. I notice more demo videos from women than men for some reason. And they each bring some color to the evaluation. They bring personality.
One of the players I love to watch on video is a young lady named Jennifer who goes by the video name "Just Another Flutist." She's a hoot to watch. She's bubbly and a lot of fun.
And before I found her videos, I felt alone in this flute world wondering about some of my questions about flute embouchure. Even a young lady who is a graduate of a music program at our local university with a degree in flute performance didn't seem to have immediate answers to the questions I asked about tongue position and location in the mouth while you play.
But if you watch Jenn's videos, you'll see she is a) a very competent flutist, and b) she talks a lot about the shape of the mouth cavity (including tongue location and position in the mouth while playing). As an example, watch this video where she reviews the Gemeinhardt 3SHB and 33SHB flutes. During the video she draws graphics to show how she finds the optimal position of all the oral hardware to get the best sound out of the instrument.
The point is you might find you need to get used to a different lip or tongue position that makes you and that particular flute work the best for you.
(I'm planning on doing a post specifically about this issue, conveying what I've found about it.) But suffice it to say, the embouchure you've been using on your current flute might not be the best with the one you're testing.
So live a little. Experiment.
Don't necessarily look for "best overall." Look for those "moments of greatness, too.
Here's what I mean. In my exercise of evaluating the three flutes I had under consideration, there was "a sound" that I heard from the one in its finest moments that just "did it" for me. It wasn't the easiest one for me to coax out of it at first. But I heard it once in a while.
So even though I didn't have command of the embouchure as much as I would like to have had, I realized that this elusive little butterfly of sound-love was in there. I just had to tinker with my embouchure enough to find it. It was my lack of experience that was the factor I had to overcome. But I had heard this sound in this flute and so I kept coming back, experimenting as I went, and eventually found how to coax that sweet, sweet sound from it.
Repeatability is good. But as a newer player, your best repeatability will be on the easiest notes to play. So test with what you know will work - repeatedly.
What I found was a good starting spot for me was to go through some of the warmup exercises a flute teacher had given me in my first lesson. These exercises were most valuable in me finding my best sound on my current flute.
As I was trying these new flutes, I found that going to these exercises with each flute helped me understand what each one was looking for. And since this B in the middle of the staff is the easiest and clearest note to sound on the flute, it will also be a good starting point for you to try to find on the new flute(s) you are trying.
Go through these exercises with each one. If you're a virtuoso on the flute, these exercises will be easy enough for you. You'll probably be beyond needing to do these exercises as a test for a new instrument.
But if you can't do these exercises repeatedly on the flute you already play, they're probably all the more a good place for you to start.
Consider over time, with some help
- Play for friends if you trust their ear
- Have them listen for the "best" in the sound and not the overall
- Come at each one. fresh, after rest
- RECORD yourself if you can
- Try to test with similar pieces of music, and also noodle around and see where it takes you.