Buying a new flute is one of the most exciting events in a flutist’s life. There are so many more options available today than in the past; this greatly increases the chances of finding an instrument that is a good match. However, the process of researching, testing and eventually selecting the right instrument can be frustrating.
When I was a child, student flutists played on one of a handful of brands of student model flutes. My Conn flute was a sturdy instrument and survived my repeated attempts in taking it apart and reassembling it. I was sure I could make it play better. Of course it was not the flute, it was the pads. They were ghastly, and the only time the pads actually seated was in the first few minutes after they had been installed.
There were no step-up flutes at the time. Instead when you bought a professional model flute, you made a choice between a commercial model (one with extruded tone holes that was slightly less expensive) or a professional model (soldered tone holes and full price). There were two manufacturers of flutes (William S. Haynes and Verne Q. Powell) who were both located in Boston. When you ordered a flute, your name was put on a list, and the company contacted you sometime in the distant future. One company had a waiting list of several years; the other several months. When your name was at the top of the list, the company contacted you and asked for a down payment, with the balance to be paid just before the flute was shipped. When the instrument arrived, this was your flute. There was no testing of different flutes (brands or models) or headjoint exchanging. You took what you got and learned to play on it.
In the next eight years, I repeated this process four times until the fourth flute I bought was a good match. I still own and play it frequently. My parents paid $930 for this flute in 1964.The flute was listed at $900 with an extra $30 for a roller on the D# key. If I pro-rate the cost of playing it over 47 years, this flute, which has provided me with hours of enjoyment, cost less than $20 a year to own. This flute was a good investment.
One of the best places to select an instrument is at the National Flute Association’s annual convention or at one of the many regional flute fairs. Manufacturers and flute specialty shops show their vast inventories in the exhibit halls. Often there are small spaces designated for the customer to try the flute in privacy. If you choose an instrument in this venue, most dealers allow you to take the flute home on approval for a week to ten days so you may play the flute in the settings in which it will be used.
Do Your Homework
Before you begin testing instruments, learn the terminology of the flute makers and dealers. If money is no object, then you may want all the bells and whistles; but if for everyone else who is on a budget, decide what extras you really will use. One less expensive option is a pre-owned instrument. For those buying a new instrument, it is often worthwhile to spend more to upgrade the material used in making the riser in the headjoint.
Make an Appointment
If you are going to select a flute from one of the flute specialty shops or makers, make an appointment to try instruments; don’t just show up. In addition to courtesy, this allows the store to have someone available with knowledge about flutes and their construction. The store will also make sure the inventory you are looking for is in stock and not out on approval.
Generally when you upgrade an instrument, there is something about the current flute that is wrong or limiting. At least a month before trying instruments, practice well so your embouchure is strong and flexible; breathing is relaxed and controlled; articulation is clear and expressive; and fingers are even and fluent. If there are problems when you play a new instrument, you want to know that it is the instrument’s problem and not yours.
Where do you play?
If you primarily play with a microphone, then a low resistant headjoint may be the best choice. A low resistant headjoint has a quick response and an interesting range of colors, but lacks the projection to perform successfully in a large concert hall. Those who want projection should select a high resistant headjoint. There is a flute for chamber music in a small, intimate setting as well. Most flutists do not have the luxury to have one flute for chamber music, another for large concert halls and another when playing with a microphone, so we compromise and select a flute that fulfills as many of our desires as possible. Remember that every flute will have flaws whether in tuning, timbre or dynamic control of a certain note, or the way the flute responds when slurring an interval. The goal is to choose a flute that best fits your playing and situation and with the fewest flaws to work around.
What to Play
Harmonics: Since the flute scale is based on the overtone series, play several harmonics to explore how the flute overblows. Start by playing three harmonics on a first octave F, F# and Bb. For the Bb, use both the long fingering (TH, 1000/1004) and the Thumb Bb fingering. Listen carefully for the quality of the sound of the third partial.
Scales: Play a slow, two-octave F major scale ascending and descending. Do not adjust for pitch problems because you want to know what the flute will do, not what you can do on the flute. Choose a flute where you have to make few adjustments to play in tune. Use a tuner throughout the process. If you are selecting an A=442 flute, set the tuner on A=442. Listen to the timbre of the scale as you play. If there are dull or bright notes here and there, then this is not the flute for you. Use a recording device or a friend in the selection process.
Octaves: Play slurred octaves beginning on the first octave F. Proceed chromatically up the flute. Listen for timbre and intonation. Again, use the tuner and a recording device.
Low Range Articulation: Everyone wants a flute that articulates quickly in the low range. Play four sixteenths = 144 on each pitch, chromatically down from the first octave F to C. Check the clarity of the sound and the quickness of response. Repeat this exercise using contrasting dynamics.
High Range Articulation: Likewise, clarity and response of articulation in the top notes is necessary for artistic performance. Repeat the above exercise, beginning on the third octave F, ascending chromatically. Repeat this exercise using contrasting dynamics.
Tapers: Explore the tapers or the endings of the notes. The most difficult are in the third octave. Begin on the third octave D and taper or diminuendo the note over 12 counts. Repeat on each note ascending chromatically. Try to play from something to nothingness. Check the pitch with the tuner as you perform these tapers. Successful tapers require you to be in practice, which is why you should practice well before you try flutes.
Gilbert’s Ghosts: I read about the Gilbert Ghosts in Angeleita Floyd’s The Gilbert Legacy. This exercise has the flutist finger a third-octave note. While playing the note, the flutist retains his embouchure position, but changes the air speed to produce the lower partials. While doing this exercise with many of my students, I realized that the quality of the tone on the lower partial affects the quality of tone of the fingered note. If the lower partial note is airy and unfocused, then the fingered note was generally quite good. However, if the lower partial note was clear and focused, then the fingered note was poor. When doing this exercise pay particular attention to the pitches of Ab, F# and E. The goal is to find a flute where all the lower partials are fuzzy and unfocused. This means the fingered notes will be terrific.
Note-Connections and Intervals: Play the third and sixth exercises (see Patricia George’s Extras) slurred. Few flutes let you play fast thirds easily in the third-octave. I always feel that I have to wait for the instrument to respond. Most makers do not have the ability to execute the technical questions this exercise asks, so they do not realize how poorly their flutes perform in this task. However, if you are going to have agility in the third octave, the ability to play fast, slurred thirds is a must. The instrument should not hold you back.
Playing slow intervals is also important to learn how the response of the instrument is. Be sure there are no wolfs in the interval. Most flutes with the old scale had a wolf from the third-octave A to the third-octave E. Many of the new flutes no longer have a wolf on these notes, but do have a wolf on the third-octave G# to E when slurring. The weight of the crown will affect the wolf, so if you like everything about the flute except this one wolf, experiment by playing with a different crown. Be careful though, as a heavier crown can make the flute’s overall pitch flat, and the tone dull. It is all a compromise. When playing the slow intervals (4ths, 5ths and 6ths), practice making a diminuendo into the second note, followed by a taper.
Excerpts: If the flute checks out through these exercises, it is time to begin playing your favorite excerpts. Unfortunately most flutists start with the excerpts and then may never proceed to asking the really basic questions about how a flute overblows, responds in articulated passages, and allows beautiful note connections and tapers. Testing flutes takes time and effort. Since this may be one of the largest purchases of your life, take the time to do it well.
The Bottom Line
Look at the construction of the flute. It is also an object of art and the workmanship should echo that of a fine piece of jewelry. There should be no solder smudges or scratches. Many craftsmen have specially designed tools to allow you to look at the construction of the soldering of the lip plate onto the headjoint tube.
If the flute checks out, then ask: does this flute make me feel creative? If it is not an instrument that you can hardly wait to play, then it may not be the flute for you. I wish we could try flutes without knowing what they are made of – too many of my students have gold on the brain and focus on the material instead of selecting instruments that actually played very well. Once you have chosen your dream flute, I hope you find many years of enjoyment with it.
Glossary of Terms
Sterling silver (.925) or (.990, .958, .916)
Solid silver or coin silver (.900) or Silver plated (.999)
Rose Gold (9, 10, 14, 18, 19.5 Karat) 24 is the magic number: 18K is 18 parts gold and 6 parts alloy: 18 + 6 = 24. 14K is 14 parts gold and 10 parts alloy: 14 + 10 = 24)
Wall or tube thickness: .018 (heavy), .016 (regular), .014 (thin)
Tone Holes: soldered or drawn
G: Inline or offset
French model (open hole) or plateau (closed hole)
Springs: white gold, yellow gold, stainless or steel springs
Split E (actually a split G) mechanism (E Facilitator) or lower G key donut/crescent
D# roller & C# Roller
C-foot or B-foot
Riser: silver, 14 K gold, platinum
Scale: Modern, Cooper, or Bennett
A= 440, 442, 444, 446
Professional or Handmade
Mid-line, Intermediate, Step-up, Student