Monday, September 01, 2008

Flute Choices for the Beginner

Recently I conducted an email discussion about the difficulties beginners face learning to play the flute. This exchange challenged me to further explore some of the factors alluded to in my February 2, 2007 post entitled Silver Flute vs. Irish Flute.

The email dialogue began with this question: If you've never played the flute, would it be better to start with a silver orchestral/band flute or a wooden Irish flute? (In the email context, the question assumed the learner would play Irish music some of the time if not exclusively.)

My answer: If the goal is gain a general introduction to flute playing, I recommend starting on the “regular” silver flute. It offers many advantages, detailed below, and there's no reason it can't be used for Irish music as well. The orchestral flute and the Irish flute share the same basic techniques of breath control, tone production, and physical coordination of arms, hands and fingers.

I would advise beginners of all ages to find a teacher -- a regular, classically trained teacher -- and take some lessons. A teacher will keep you from forming bad habits that have to be unlearned later in order to make progress. You’ll also learn to read music. Additionally, the discipline of preparing for a lesson organizes the learning process and leads you systematically through the rudimentary stuff. Definitely get a teacher.

What to expect: Absolute beginners should know in advance that producing those first sounds on the flute is difficult for most people. You must blow across the hole, not into it. Consequently, tone is initially encased in whooshy air sounds. Once you're able to produce a predictable sound on the notes that speak the easiest, the real work begins. Your lips and surrounding muscles (called embouchure in flute parlance) must learn to make the subtle changes required for the high and low notes. Afterwards, additional embouchure refinements must be made in order to bring the whole range of notes in tune with each other. Instruction books usually teach tone production by starting the beginner with B above middle C and simultaneously work up and down the scale from there until the student can play all the notes of the flute’s 3-octave range. Most people find the middle octave the easiest.

Advantages of the orchestral flute: Its larger and more rectangular blow hole help the beginner produce a sound more readily. Key placement is more comfortable, particularly for smaller hands, and closed-hole keys remove the frustration of not completely covering the finger holes. The orchestral flute has superior internal tuning of the notes of the scale -- that is, the flute is more in tune with itself. Finally, the flute's three-octave chromatic range means it can be used in a wider variety of musical styles – folk, classical, marching band, sacred music, jazz - opening up both social and musical opportunities, something that's particularly valuable for school-aged children.

Disadvantages of orchestral flute: Because of the more complex keywork, there are more things to break. Kids can be especially hard on silver flutes - bending keys, knocking off corks, fraying the pads, bending the springs, getting the flutes wet (resulting in possible rusted springs & screws and warped pads), even denting the body of the flute. Repairs can be expensive and frequent.

However... If you find yourself playing primarily traditional Irish music, you may indeed decide you want to play a more traditional instrument. While it's true that silver flutes are becoming more and more common in Irish sessions, you still run into a certain prejudice against the silver flute. If you are coming to the flute from the whistle, the fingering is the same so any tunes you know will translate to your flute repertoire. Teachers of the Irish flute may be scarce unless you live near a major concentration of Irish traditional players. Depending on the teacher, an Irish flute lesson might put more emphasis on learning tunes than technique. Also, reading notes is sometimes seen as a handicap as it can be used as a crutch to avoid learning the traditional way - by listening and playing back what you hear.

Advantages of the Irish flute: The wooden Irish flute has the distinctive dark and woody sound favored in traditional Irish music. Keyless flutes allow easy execution of traditional ornamentation (applies mainly to advanced players). Irish flutes are very pretty, and if you enjoy finely crafted wood, Irish flutes are especially nice to handle.

Disadvantages of the Irish flute: Its rounder, smaller blow hole makes it harder to get a good sound, particularly for beginners. Covering the finger holes is frustrating and difficult for beginners, particularly for those with small hands. Wooden instruments need oiling and require relatively stable humidity conditions to avoid cracks in the wood. The keyless Irish flute, the most popular model, plays only in the keys of D major, G major, B minor and E minor which limits its use outside traditional Irish music. The keyless wooden flute has a two-octave diatonic range unless you purchase a keyed flute. Irish flutes with keys are expensive, and because the keys are very labor intensive the waiting list for a new keyed flute is usually 3 years or more.

Before you buy: Regardless of what flute you decide upon, don't just go downtown and get something from your local music store. Let a teacher or an experienced player of either instrument advise you. Readers of this blog can also email me. I can help you find a decent new or used orchestral flute for a reasonable price. I can advise on Irish flutes as well. You should be able to get a flute that's adequate for a beginner (while still being a good instrument) for $400-600 USD.

In summary: Deciding which flute to play is an individual choice based on many factors. Those factors may change over time as your abilities and preferences change. Any flute in good repair can bring you satisfaction. The key is to learn to play it well. The better your technique, the more fun the music becomes. Don't fall into the trap of thinking a better flute, or a different flute, will make up for your lack of proficiency! Practicing and seeing your playing improve over time can be as satisfying as a good performance. A little time spent with the flute every day yields better long-term results than irregular bouts of practice.

All these thoughts about practicing have inspired me to finish up this post and go to work on a few new tunes and techniques. Hmmm.... now where did I leave my flute?

Rufus, an Australian Shepherd, fetching a flute!
Photo used with permission, courtesy of

© 2008, Linda Mason Hood
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