Tips on Purchasing a Flute (Advice for all levels of flute lessons)
By Michael Hoover
Of all the wind instruments, the flute perhaps has the most variety in terms of make, model, and materials. These instruments are often crafted of precious metals, so they are expensive and can last a lifetime. It is highly recommended that any flutist consult with a private instructor or professional colleague before ultimately making a decision to purchase an instrument, but here is some advice that can get you started in your search for a new instrument as you pursue flute lessons.
For the Beginning Flutist
Highly recommended that you rent your flute (most local stores have very reasonable rates). If you stick with it, you will probably want to upgrade to an open-hole flute within a year or two, but if you don’t, you can stop renting at any time.
Beginners’ flutes should be closed-hole (as opposed to open-hole). This means that the keys do not have holes that need be covered (in addition to the keys being pressed down) in order to create sound. If you are a beginner and find yourself using an open-hole flute, I suggest purchasing plugs for the key holes.
Offset G vs. Inline G – This refers to whether the keys played by the left-hand ring-finger are in line with other keys or slightly more forward on the tubing. There is no right or wrong for this. Usually younger players will be more comfortable with an offset G.
Most beginners’ flutes will be made of nickel or will be silver-plated. It’s unnecessary to invest in “fancier” metals at this point. Avoid plastic flutes. They may come in fun colors to entice young players, but they will not sound as good as the metal flutes.
There are many brands of flutes for this level. The most common brands include Yamaha, Gemeinhardt, Armstrong and Selmer. It is my own personal experience that Selmer is most likely brand to have problems.
When you first look at your flute, check to make sure that the keys close all the way without being forced and that the pieces of the flute (headjoint, body, and footjoint) fit together snugly. Nothing should be loose, but it should also not be too difficult to gently twist the pieces together. If you notice any problems, point them out to the dealer immediately so that they do not try to hold you responsible for any repair costs.
For the Intermediate Flutist
Intermediate flutes are going to be similar in quality and price to beginners’ instruments, but will usually have open-hole keys and a B foot joint. At this point it is recommended that you strongly consider purchasing the instrument (or look into rent-to-own possibilities). A quality intermediate flute can take even the most ambitious student through their entire middle school and high school careers.
Consider an in-line versus offset G, especially now that there will also be a hole on that key which will need to be covered. Particularly for younger players, an in-line G might cause discomfort.
There are, again, several brands available for the intermediate flutist. Many beginners’ flute brands manufacture intermediate flutes (again, Gemeinhardt, Yamaha, Armstrong and Selmer). Jupiter flutes by Altus are a particularly excellent intermediate flute option. Again, it is my own experience that Selmer flutes are the most likely of any of these brands to have mechanical problems.
It is a good idea to try playing a few different intermediate flutes before you purchase. Think about the quality of the sound and check both the high and low register to make sure that the flute has a good response.
The most expensive intermediate flute is not necessarily the best. Do not be fooled by a higher price-point or fancy add-ons, such as a gold lip plate or engravings, as these are only cosmetic differences.
Note: It is always advisable to consult with a private teacher before purchasing an instrument! Ask your teacher for advice at your next flute lesson.
Professional flutes are high quality instruments designed for musicians intending to pursue a career in playing and/or teaching the flute. The price-range varies greatly depending on the brand and the material (from $2,000 to over $30,000). Whether you are a high school or college student looking to purchasing your first high-quality instrument or a professional looking for an upgrade (or something different), it is important to be a well-informed buyer.
When looking at fine, hand-made instruments, there is not necessarily a correlation between price and quality. You are looking for a very individualized fit for your style of playing, your taste in sound, and your personal performance needs (orchestral, solo, chamber, contemporary or versatile).
In my experience, the most important thing to consider is the brand. If you love a Powell that you play, chances are good you will love other Powells. If you hate Powell, you very may well hate the feel of most Powells. This goes for any brand. Because of this, it is important to be familiar with as many brands as possible and try as many as you can. Here is a list of some of the most popular professional flute brands: Altus, Arista, Brannen-Brothers, Burkhardt, Emmanuel, Haynes, Miyazawa, Muramatsu, Powell, Sankyo, Straubinger, Williams, & Yamaha.
Consider your metal options. The metal that your flute is made of will create subtle differences in the sound, but may create a not-so-subtle difference in price point. Each individual will have different opinions of what a metal does to their sound, but the same changes in the sound can often be made just by changing the metal of the headjoint (or even just the riser – the piece of metal that connects the lip-plate to the headjoint). Many manufacturers have also developed various alloys meant to combine qualities of different metals.
Never completely write-off a flute brand or metal. Every instrument is different, so maybe you played a dud. You may find very little difference when changing the metals on one brand, but find a huge difference when changing the metals on another. Additionally, manufacturers are always tweaking their designs and developing new models. Always keep your mind and ears open.
Every handmade instrument is different even when they are the same model, same metals, same price, and same manufacturer. If you think you have found the type of flute you like, get your hands on as many flutes with those same specs (brand, model, and material) as you can and pick your favorite.
Get other people to listen. Don’t just be sold by a pretty sound. Play in every register. Consider the response when articulating and how easy it is to go between the octaves. Consider how flexible the sound is (different dynamics, different colors). Find out how it projects in a big room. Play in a live space. Play in a dead space. Consider the mechanism and weight (is it uncomfortable for you to hold?).
Check with a tuner. If you are always sharp or always flat, it might be you. Be wary if you are constantly jumping between being sharp and being flat. This could indicate a larger problem.
Consider a used instrument. A used flute is not bad and may even be desirable. It can be a good way to find a dream flute for much less money. If you find an instrument you like, look to see if there is a used one available for a trial.
Headjoints (for Professionals)
Buying a headjoint can be the most cost-effective way to make a dramatic change in your sound. Most flute makers will also sell just their headjoints, but there are also a number of manufacturers that only create headjoints. A few popular specialty headjoint makers include Mancke, Lafin, Jack Moore and Sheridan
ONE IMPORTANT FINAL NOTE
The flute will never compensate for problems in your playing. Sometimes people get so fixated on the problems with their instrument that they no longer improve on themselves as a player. I have heard wonderful musicians on “low-quality” flutes and not-so-wonderful musicians performing on some of the best instruments that money can buy. The flute is plumbing, but the music comes from you.
Michael Hoover is a Chicago-area flute and piano teacher and AMI faculty member. He has received numerous honors as a performer and has a Master of Music and Bachelor of Music in Flute Performance from DePaul University.
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