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A Guide to the Flute
By Lisa Bost-Sandberg
12/7/2010 11:13:00 AM

A Guide to the Flute

flute care and maintainanceOne of the most important things to know when purchasing an instrument is that the process will take some time and research.  Instruments are an investment, and the effort will pay off in the long run.  Start by asking several musicians, including band directors, instrument sales associates, and local professionals, their opinions on brands and models.  Even if they are not flautists, they will likely have general advice and know of major brands.  The Internet is also a good place to do research, but when purchasing an instrument it is best to go to a reputable retailer.

Instrument Categories

This is an overview. The features listed here are described below in the section entitled "Other Important Features," and please note the effects of different metal options in the "Instrument Materials" section.

Student model flutes: Most student model flutes are made of silver-plated nickel and have plateau keys, off-set G key, C footjoint.

Intermediate model (step-up) flutes: There are many possible options to consider when researching intermediate model flutes. Metal choices include silver-plated nickel, silver headjoint with a silver-plated nickel body and footjoint, and solid silver. Other options may include:

  • open-hole or plateau keys
  • off-set or in-line G key
  • B footjoint or C footjoint
  • headjoint styles
  • standard or heavy-wall tubing
  • pointed tone arms
  • split-E mechanism
  • high E facilitator
  • C-sharp trill key

Common choices for an intermediate model flute include a silver headjoint or all-silver flute, open-hole keys, off-set G, B footjoint.

Professional model flutes: There are even more options available when purchasing a professional model flute, and more customization is possible. Professional flutes are handmade, resulting in a significant increase in quality; and more metal choices are available, including silver, gold, platinum, and alloys. Other options may include:

  • open-hole or plateau keys
  • off-set or in-line G key
  • B footjoint or C footjoint
  • headjoint styles
  • standard or heavy-wall tubing
  • drawn or soldered tone holes
  • pointed tone arms
  • split-E mechanism
  • high E facilitator
  • C-sharp trill key
  • D-sharp and C-sharp rollers
  • engraving
  • pitch

Instrument Materials

The material the flute is made of correlates directly to the tone it produces.

Silver-plated nickel is the standard for student model flutes, and intermediate model flutes are also widely available in silver-plated nickel. It is a cost-effective option.

Silver is a highly common material choice for professional and intermediate flutes. Though a solid-silver intermediate model flute will cost more than a silver-plated nickel one, the sound quality of the instrument will also be much better.

Gold is known for having a darker, warmer sound than silver.

Platinum is known for having a more powerful or penetrating sound.

Alloys are mixtures of two or more materials. Flute makers have experimented with making flutes out of different alloys.

Parts of the Instrument

The flute is divided into three parts:

Headjoint: The headjoint is the section of the flute that the flutist blows into. The added piece of metal that sits against the flutist’s chin is referred to as the lip plate, and in the middle of the lip plate is the embouchure hole. There is a cork in the end of the headjoint that essentially acts as a stopper, though its placement is important for accurate tuning. On the end of the flute is a metal cap referred to as the crown.

Body: The majority of the keys and rods are on the body of the flute.

Footjoint: The right-hand pinky finger operates all of the keys on the footjoint, primarily to play the lowest notes available on the flute.

Other Important Features

Below are the descriptions of various options available:

Open-hole (also known as French style or ring) or plateau (also known as closed-hole) keys: Plateau keys are the standard for student model flutes; open-hole keys are the standard for intermediate and professional model flutes. Open-hole keys are needed for certain extended techniques in modern repertoire and are useful for some alternate fingerings in traditional repertoire.

Off-set or in-line G key: Off-set G is a more ergonomic choice as it brings the G key closer to the ring finger of the left hand, preventing added reach and stress on the hand. Some flutists may prefer in-line G either because it is what they are used to or because it seems more comfortable depending on the size and shape of their hands. Though both choices are the same acoustically, off-set G is better mechanically.

B footjoint or C footjoint: Low B footjoints allow the flutist to play one pitch lower and are very common on intermediate and professional flutes. The low B footjoint does add a bit of length and, therefore, weight to the flute, but low B has become more and more commonly used in repertoire.

Headjoint styles: Headjoints are made in a variety of styles for professional model flutes, and sometimes intermediate model flutes have different styles from which to choose. Choices of different metals are available for the headjoint, the lip plate, and the riser (which is inside the embouchure hole of the lip plate). Different cuts also affect the headjoint, as the cut includes the size, shape, and other angles of the embouchure hole. As headjoints for professional flutes are handmade, each one is different, so it can be important to try different headjoints of the same style to find the right one for you.

Standard or heavy-wall tubing: The thickness of the metal tube can range from about 0.014 inches to 0.018 inches. This is an individual choice influenced by the way a flutist plays and by the sound he or she would like to produce.

Drawn or soldered tone holes: The tone holes are the extensions off the body and footjoint of the flute that the keys cover. Drawn tone holes are drawn up from the metal of the tube while soldered tone holes are separate pieces of metal that are soldered on.

Pointed tone arms: A pointed tone arm is an "arm" that extends partway across the top of the key; a flute with pointed tone arms has this on all of the keys that are not directly depressed by the flutist’s fingers. They are an aesthetic option, commonly associated with professional model flutes.

Split-E mechanism: The split-E mechanism is an additional mechanism to help the stability of the third-octave E, which is often a challenging note. Essentially, the mechanism causes an additional key (the lower of the two G keys) to be depressed when fingering the third-octave E.

High E facilitator: The high E facilitator is also an option to help improve the stability of the third-octave E. It is a ring that is inserted in the tone hole of the lower of the two G keys and is easily removable. It is a cost-effective alternative to the split-E mechanism, but the flutist may find that it affects the pitch of a few other notes.

C-sharp trill key: This is an added trill key, operated by the first finger of the right hand, primarily to provide an easier option to trill between B-natural and C-sharp in the second and third octaves of the flute range. It also provides a better-sounding trill between the third-octave G and A.

D-sharp and C-sharp rollers: These are rollers added to the D-sharp and C-sharp keys, which are both operated by the right-hand pinky finger, in order to make it easier to slide between the two keys.

Ornate engraving can be added to the keys, lip plate, and crown.

Pitch: Professional flutes can be pitched differently; A=440, A=442, A=444, and A=446 are all options that may be available, depending on the manufacturer. A=440 means that the first-octave A (the A above middle C on the piano) is tuned so that the sound produced is 440 cycles per second. A=442 is very common now.

About the Author

Lisa Bost-Sandberg

A flutist, composer, and improviser originally from Lewistown, Montana, Lisa Bost-Sandberg is on faculty at Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa, as Adjunct Instructor of Flute. Her current orchestral engagements include principal flute with the Ottumwa Symphony, substitute with the Dubuque Symphony, and substitute with the Cedar Rapids Symphony. A diverse musician, she has performed in orchestral settings with such conductors as Gunther Schuller and Tania León, improvised as a featured soloist with the NYU New Music and Dance Ensemble, and performed with such groups as Forecast Music, the University of Iowa Center for New Music, and the Gamut Soundpainting Ensemble. She has also worked as a studio musician in New York, taught at the Great Neck Arts Center, and adjudicated for the National Flute Association and the New York State School Music Association. Guest appearances include the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Vassar College, Iowa State University, the Iowa Flute Festival, the University of Evansville, and New York University. She received her Bachelor of Music degree in flute performance with Highest Distinction and Honors in Music from the University of Iowa and her Master of Arts degree in flute performance from New York University.

Tags: flute, flute guide, buying a flute
Categories: Band & Orchestra
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