Which flute? Finding a good flute

Whether you are looking for a new flute to start learning on, or wanting to “upgrade”, or desiring a completely different flute, there are many things one should consider before buying.    Here is my advice for anyone on the journey of buying a flute!

1. Get excited!
Firstly, this is an exciting experience- so you should take your time to enjoy what all these different flute companies have to offer.  Each manufacturer makes flutes that rarely sound the same, so you could play the same model of flute by the same manufacturer but still find a subtle difference between them which might make all the difference to your playing.

2.  Decide on your priorities.

Much like buying a house, one cannot always get what they want, like that balcony view with swimming pool and roof garden, so sometimes a compromise is necessary!  Perhaps you don’t need open holes with diamond keywork, a B foot joint, or an engraved lip plate.   I will give my priorities below.

3.  Plan

Make a plan of where to try flutes.  There are any number of places that sell flutes.  In London, there are 3 specialist flute shops  (Topwind, All Flutes Plus and Just Flutes) which all have an impressive array of flutes to try, not to mention very helpful staff.  The staff are all flute players who know a lot and have a lot of experience, so ask them all the questions you can think of!   Perhaps send an email before you go to the shop letting them know your requirements (you might want to try a particular make of flute, so they can get that ready for you and also provide alternatives which you might like).      But remember it is you that decides, so make sure you bring your own set of ears!

Sometimes I have tried flutes out with a friend, who has told me which one they think sounds best.  This might be good after the initial “screening”, when you have narrowed down your choices, but can be a little problematic if there are 20 flutes and you both have completely different opinions!   If you are a beginner, ask your teacher if they can go with you to the shop.  They can help guide you.

If you don’t live in London, then search for flute shops near you.  Failing that, go to the flute manufacturer’s website and search for a licensed dealer of their instruments.  It might be a bit of trek to find a good shop, but it will be worth it.

4.  Warm up!

So many students have picked the last flute they try because it’s the one they sound best on.  But don’t be fooled!  This may be because you have only just warmed up.   So, either before you go or when you arrive, do your usual warm up to get your lips, breathing, resonance and body ready for action!  This is going to be a flute playing marathon, so you need to prepare for it!

5.  Go shopping!

At the shop, introduce yourself to the staff and kindly ask them to try out the flutes (if you have given some notice by email, even better!).  You will be given a warm-up room and much like Olivander’s Wand Shop in Harry Potter, different flutes will be brought to you for you to try.   Make sure you know which one is which, so put them in a logical order.  I usually arrange them in order of preference after an initial trial.  This order will change!

6.  “The wand chooses the wizard!”

The Wand chooses the Wizard!

You may be lucky enough to play a flute that just takes your breath away (in a good way!).  It sounds amazing, the intonation is great, the response and flexibility is awesome etc etc.  Then, definitely take this flute away for further trial “on approval”, meaning you will need to pay a fee to cover insurance costs to enable you to try the flute at home for about a week (depending on the shop).

Then again, you might sound exactly the same on every flute, like Sir Galway:  James Galway 16 Flutes demo.

Now, for some pointers when trying the flutes:

7.  Condition/Response

Is the flute in good working order? (if new, it should be!).  If second hand, make a note of any pads that don’t cover properly or any other mechanical issues.  You might find a really great flute that has a very bad  G sharp- but these things can usually be fixed.    Generally, when playing, do all notes speak clearly and easily?  Does it suit your style of playing?  Or do you have to fight against it in any way?

8.  Intonation

Is the flute in tune?  This is a difficult topic, since it also relies on the player having good ears and the knowledge of how to play in tune.   Take a tuning machine with you and use your ears to their limits!  Tune up each flute to A=440 or 442  (or 444+ if you are in Germany) and do some intonation tests.  Flutes are tuned to different “scales” .  The most used scales are the “William Bennett scale” and the “Cooper scale”.   Some flutes that are not so good do not follow these scales terribly accurately and can result in having very poor intonation.  Some “handmade” flutes can have discrepancies because they are made by hand!   So, human error has to be factored in.      So, listen to each register – is the high register uncontrollably sharp?  Is the bottom register flat as a pancake?    Does the second C sharp sound like an asthmatic dove (airy colour)?!   These are all questions you need to ask yourself!

9.  The sound

This is probably what we hear first and what our audience will hear first.  Does the flute have a beautiful sound?  Does it enhance your own beautiful sound?  You are looking for a flute that helps you express your voice, so if the flute dampens your sound or limits your expression, you should put it to the bottom of the list.  Listen to the sound across the whole compass of the instrument–  for this, play legato scales SLOWLY!

10.  Flexibility of colour and dynamic

Does the flute play very well in forte but limp and colourless in piano?  Play a simple melody in all registers  (Use “Tone Development Through Interpretation” by Marcel Moyse or your favourite melody.  For me, I like to play Saint-Saens’ Romance or Enesco Cantabile.)    Play the melody in all dynamics and see how well the flute responds to your gestures.    Look for a balance between free blowing and resistance.  Sometimes a flute will work really well, but after a while you (or your audience) will get bored by hearing only one colour or dynamic.  Make sure you pick a flute that makes you sound interesting and colourful!

11.  Articulation

Try some scales with different articulations.   Also, play notes with different “attacks” – with and without the tongue, so you can hear how well the flute responds.    For example, start the note “wa” (soft attack without tongue)  “ha” (clear attack without tongue)  “da”, “ga”, “ta”, “ka”  – (with tongue in different places).

12.  A few things to avoid:  

a) Playing lots of fast passages – this will only show that your fingers work.

b) Swapping between flutes too often.   Give each flute its own time.  Allocate 5-10 minutes for each flute and give it the “drill” of items mentioned above.  It if fails the test, then you can pack it away!   If it passes, leave it out and try again later.

c) Getting impatient/tired.   Take a break now and again.  This process takes time and effort – grab a snack and drink plenty of water.   Have a walk to refresh your mind and body.   Don’t be in a rush to get a flute that you might end up regretting buying.

13.  NEXT STEPS:

Take the chosen flute(s) away to try at home.  You might find that the flute you chose sounds terrible when you get home.  Don’t despair!  This happens.  Give it a week and if it still sounds terrible, take it back and try another one that you liked.    If you like the flute that you chose, play it to friends and teachers in a variety of settings.  For example, play it in a concert hall and get someone to listen to you from far away and then closer.   Does the sound project well in all dynamics?   Play it in orchestra or band  – ask your colleagues what they think.  You might not even need to ask!  Sometimes they will just say “wow, what flute is THAT!?”

14.  Buy it!   If you can’t think of a good reason not to buy it, then buy it!    You have worked hard and now you can enjoy playing your new flute.  Treat it with respect and you will have a great partnership, much like any relationship!

I hope you found this useful.  Please leave any comments you wish to make – what do you look for when trying a flute?   What flute chose you?!

In future blogs, I will do some reviews of flutes.  But that’s for another time.

Thanks for reading and happy fluting!

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