Let’s learn some flute history
The first recorded usage of the flute dates back to the prehistoric Stone Age, circa 8700 BCE, making it the oldest wind instrument available to man. The modern flute is a 19th-century invention of celebrated German flute composer and musician, Theobald Boehm. He refined it by primarily working on the shape, size, and position of tone holes. By making the tone holes larger, flutists could now enjoy a more powerful sound. But the tone holes weren’t the only thing Boehm worked on.
He also changed the flute embouchure from round and oval to rectangular with rounded edges. His flute also had a cylindrical body and tapered headjoint, a shape that wasn’t seen in any other musical instrument at the time. It was Boehm, again, who introduced silver flutes. Prior to this, the flutes in use were primarily wooden or made from ivory.
Over a period of about 50 years, the flute was refined into the instrument we know of today, and Theobald Boehm takes the credit for doing most of the work. Learning the history of the flute will help you find out more about the instrument you’re about to buy as a student beginner and guide you in choosing the best flute.
How to choose the right sized flute for you
The ability to play the flute well may be hindered if the player’s arms are not large enough. To check your arm length, hold one end of a measuring tape to your lips and the 16″ mark in your arm. If your arm is bent at a right angle or less, you can comfortably play a full-size flute. If it’s bent at a higher angle, choose a beginner flute with a curved headjoint for ease in playing.
What level flute suits you best
There is a flute for every skill stage, be it the novice, student with a bit of experience, or knowledgeable professional. The more important thing is to buy a flute that enhances your skill, regardless of your level of play. Don’t be tempted to buy a cheap model, whether you’re a beginner or intermediate player. Find the flute with great intonation and projection, one that gives clear sound and has great playability. Go for the best quality flute that you can afford. There’s somewhat of a myth that has people believe you shouldn’t spend so much on a flute when you’re only beginning to learn how to play. But think of it this way: when you have a quality flute with effortless playability, won’t you be motivated to practice more and become a better flutist?
The biggest challenge in playing a full-size flute for beginner flutists, particularly younger ones, is arm size. Not to worry though, there are ways to beat this, for instance, by buying a beginner flute with a curved headjoint which extends your arm’s reach. Many manufacturers design their beginner flutes with curved headjoints to minimize reach, which makes the flute easy to play for young beginners. All you have to do to play is press the keys down to produce the sound and Jean Paul USA FL-220 flute is a perfect example. Beginner flutes are mostly made from silver and nickel alloys.
Student flutes are meant to help you improve your playing skill. They usually have closed holes to make playing them easier. When using a student flute, your focus is on improving your playing ability and not on the quality of sound you get from the flute. The materials used to make student flutes are also of a lower grade than what’s used to make professional flutes which is not the case with Yamaha YFL-221 flute which is made of the finest materials out there. Like beginner flutes, student flutes are made from silver and nickel alloys.
Intermediate and professional
The biggest difference an intermediate or professional flute has from the other two flute levels is in the type of holes used. Intermediate flutes like Gemeinhardt 3OB have open holes, which will feel strange for the player transitioning to the more advanced skill level. You may even have some difficulty playing the flute. However, as you become accustomed to the new sound, playing these flutes becomes a lot easier, and with time, you become comfortable with the new sound and can play your professional flute without struggling.
If you find it particularly difficult to play an intermediate flute at the beginning, try inserting key plugs into the holes to mimic the action of a student flute and see if it makes a difference. You may remove the plugs when you feel more comfortable playing the flute with the holes open. Key plugs are readily available at music accessories stores. Some flutes come with them as an add-on. You can enquire about them when buying your flute. One of the brightest examples of a perfect intermediate flute is the Jupiter 511S.
Professional flutes have a couple of extra keys and a more extended note range. They hit low B and high C notes well with the aid of these additional keys. This isn’t possible with the lower skill level flutes.
These flutes are also made from higher quality materials, with sturdier and thicker metals for enhanced projection. Premium springs and key arms with sharp precision are used for better response.
Assembling the flute correctly
To assemble your flute, slide the footjoint onto the bottom end of the body where the majority of the keys are located, twisting gently to ensure the two pieces line up. The rod of the footjoint should line up with the center of the bottom key on the body.
Take your headjoint and gently twist the open end onto the barrel-like opening at the top of the flute body. The embouchure hole should align with the keys on the body. That’s how you know you’ve assembled it correctly.
Be gentle when attaching the pieces together and avoid squeezing the keys or they might bend. Also, don’t pick or hold the flute by the keys to avoid bending or even breaking them.
Knowing the flute family
Flutes used in the early days were made from cane, hollowed sticks, wood and bone. The metal flute was invented in the 19th century by Theobald Boehm. Let’s now look at the different instruments within the flute family.
The concert flute, also known as the C flute, is what every beginner first learns to play. It’s the most common and popular type of flute and is used by marching bands, in orchestras, concerts, and even jazz bands.
The alto flute is longer than a C flute and is tuned to the key of G, giving a richer, mellower sound. Alto flutes are most preferred for professional performances and feature commonly in orchestral acts.
The longest flute in the ensemble, the bass flute is only used in flute choirs. It is tuned an octave lower than the C flute and is considered a professional level instrument.
The Piccolo flute is tuned to the key of C and plays one octave above the C flute. It is the smallest flute in the family but requires a high level of skill to play. Its keys are close together and require skill to play. You must also blow a consistent stream of air to sustain its high tone. Piccolo flutes are mostly used in marching bands, concerts and symphonies. So if you are interested in it, give a try to Pearl PFP105E piccolo flute which has a delightful sound and is easy to play.
Features to consider while choosing a flute
Knowing the flute skill level that is right for you is only one part of the equation when it comes to finding the best flute. The other half has to do with the features that matter in a flute. Below, we show you what to consider when choosing one.
Size and weight
As a beginner player, choose a light flute like a Gemeinhardt 3OBGLP that you can play with ease. Long flutes that have to be placed on the floor and heavier flutes are best left to professionals with the experience to handle them. Flutes with a B footjoint may feel a bit weighty, especially if you’ve been playing a flute with a C footjoint, but with time you learn to balance the flute and get used to the extra weight.
The body is the mid-section part of the flute, onto which the headjoint and footjoint are attached. It’s where the mechanism and most of the keys are located.
The headjoint is the topmost portion of the flute, where the embouchure hole, cork, and lip plate are located. It attaches to the upper end of the body.
This is the bottom part of the flute and it attaches to the lower end of the flute body. The footjoint houses a number of keys. These are the keys that allow you to extend the bottom of the range.
In a flute, the G key can be offset or set inline. In flutes where the G key is inline, it simply means that the G key aligns with all other keys you’ll be manipulating with your fingers. Where the G key is offset, it means the key is set slightly off the center and is not aligned to the other keys. Some people prefer offset to inline, others prefer inline to offset. None is better than the other. It all depends with which setting you find more comfortable for your hand positioning. Players with small hands may find the offset G key easier to play, for example. You can try both types of G key setting to see which one you like better. For introducing yourself with an offset G-key you might want to choose the universal instrument like the Gemeinhardt 3OB flute.
Other key positioning
The key positioning can either be French-style or plateau-style. In French-style positioning, the center keys have open holes for better intonation. This style of key position calls for proper finger placement. It’s the preferred positioning for most intermediate and professional players. But even as a student, playing on one of these can help build your technique.
Plateau-style key positioning uses an offset G key and does not call for involved finger movements. It’s the best positioning for beginner and student flutes.
What material is used?
Nickel silver is the material of choice for most beginner flutes. It’s strong, durable, doesn’t dent easily, and light enough. Sterling silver is used to make many intermediate and professional flutes. It’s durable and produces a warm, dark tone. But it’s also heavier than nickel silver and requires careful handling to prevent tarnishing. Wooden flutes are also commonly available in the market, and these are unique because of their warm, soft timbre.
Types of plating
Silver plating is the widest used type of plating in flutes. It’s used across all flute levels, from beginner to intermediate. Because of its heavy weight, silver plating gives the flute a warm, rich and dark sound. Its lustrous appearance adds a glossy finish to the flute like in Jupiter 511S flute. For those who may be allergic to silver, nickel plating is a good alternative. Far lighter than silver, like the Jean Paul USA FL-220 has, nickel plating adds a bright tone to the flute sound. We also have gold plating, whose high density lends a rich and warm sound to the flute. It also boosts projection and adds traction for the lower lip, ensuring swift passages that beginner players will appreciate.
The riser is the little piece that joins the lip plate to the head. It’s also called a chimney. The weight of the riser affects the tone, with risers made from heavy materials giving the flute a darker sound.
Flute arms are either pointed or Y-shaped. Note that the arms on keys where you need to place your fingers are mostly Y-shaped for enhanced playability, even if the rest of the arms are pointed.
The embouchure refers to shape of the lips in relation to the positioning of the lip plate and how you hold the headjoint while you play. Practice different ways of shaping your lips as you blow into the flute to find the sweet embouchure spot for the sound you want to produce.
The strings hold the keys in place when the flute is not in use. They’re mostly made from stainless steel, although premium strings come in gold.
Most flutes come in a flute case for safe storage and carrying. If buying a used flute, ensure you also buy a case for it. The best cases are sturdy and come with latches for secure locking.
Buy a flute with a warranty as a guarantee of quality. Should your flute become faulty, you can get a replacement or have it serviced by the manufacturer or authorized dealers at no additional cost.