Have you ever tried to saw wood with a dull saw blade? Or tried to use a butter knife instead of a screwdriver?
While the job may get done, how much energy was wasted, and how much frustration ensued? This is what your young band student may be experiencing as he or she progresses, if his or her instrument is not appropriate for the player’s level. By the time a young flutist gets to his or her third year, in most cases, even the best of student flutes is no longer going to allow that student to reach his/her full potential as a player. So, before your young player gets discouraged, and wants to quit band, it’s time to consider a step-up!
But will any flute do? Here are some simple steps to getting the best return on your band student’s investment, and giving your student his/her best chance to reach his musical potential.
Some parents withhold purchasing a better instrument until they feel it would “be a good investment.” What will be their rate of return, they wonder? The truth is, a player can only grow to the level of their instrument. A poor-quality instrument will never make a great player. The band parent should engage the student in this process by making a pact, both committing to growing his/her musicality. It can be difficult for a young person to invest emotionally and time-wise in a pursuit when they were not part of the decision-making, and when they have inferior equipment. Would your band parent ask your child to participate in a 5K with sandals, and offer to buy running shoes only if they win? When parents say, “I believe in your musical potential, and your commitment to practice furthering your musical efforts,” the student is encouraged and motivated. And, when the child agrees to the plan, parents feel they can invest without reservation.
Try Before You Buy
Your student might be losing interest in playing the flute because he or she doesn’t have the right “tool” in their hands. Each person is unique in bone, palate, facial and dental structure; and unlike with other band instruments where the mouthpiece helps “shape” the air column, each flutist’s embouchure is as individual as that person himself.
So no one flute will play the same for every person, and it’s quite possible that two very excellent flutists will have totally different preferences when comparing equally excellent flutes.
Parents that may want to buy an instrument from e-Bay, or Craigslist , or other seemingly-inexpensive website may not realize that they may have to spend several times the purchase price to get the instrument into playing condition, or for ongoing repair issues — that is, if there are parts available. We have even seen some instruments sold online that are so disproportioned that they don’t even play in the correct key — talk about predestining an aspiring musician for failure!
Most reputable school music dealers will happily honor manufacturers’ warranties on instruments they sell, and offer repair services for any routine maintenance or future repair needs that may occur. Older flutes may not have the newer “scale” (placement of holes for ideal intonation) and technology that can make a young flutist progress more quickly.
Know Your Options
One of the wonderful things about purchasing a step-up or professional flute is the number of options available to the student. The materials used to make the flute determine the richness of sound. Most beginner flutes are all-silver plated, with drawn tone holes, plateau (closed-hole) keys, and a “C” foot.
Some beginners may start on open-hole flutes, with a “C” or “B” foot, but if these are still all silver-plated, they are still merely beginning flutes — albeit much more expensive ones! Moving up from this point, you will find these choices (in order of quality - and price):
• Sterling silver head, plated body and mechanism (keywork), drawn tone holes (“extruded” from the tube itself );
• Sterling silver head and body (“tube”), plated mechanism, drawn tone holes;
• All-silver flute with drawn tone holes; All-silver flute with soldered tone holes (The flutes in this last category would include such flutes as the Haynes Handmade Series, Powell Handmade Custom, and Burkart Elite, - all priced at $10,000 and up).
There are also professional flutes made out of platinum, gold, and Aurumite (gold bonded to solid silver), for the very serious player. A variety of gold/silver alloys are also available.
In general, the more silver, the better the flute’s sound. Adding a silver lip riser (the metal that attaches the lip plate to the head joint tube) vastly improves the sound of a silver-plated head joint. A 14K gold riser will add a special richness and different overtones, at a fraction of the cost of a gold flute. White gold and platinum risers are also available.
Among the things that influence the compatibility of a flute and a player is the cut of the head joint; the shape of the embouchure hole (round, oval, square), the height of the back wall of the tone hole, and the lip plate size, angle and distance from the tube all play a part.
Other options to consider include:
• In-line versus offset G. For years, nearly all step-up flutes were made with in-line G, but now over 80% of step-up and pro flutes have an offset G, which greatly reduces stress on the player’s left hand. The offset G is actually easier to maintain, and helps prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.
• Pointed (French) key arms versus Y-cup keys. Pointed arms add to the stability of the keys; and add more weight, adding richness to the tone.
• Springs. Many student flutes have beryllium springs. White and yellow gold springs greatly improve response. Also, the thicker the spring gauge, the faster the keys move or react. Better quality springs can make a huge difference in the ability of a young player to negotiate fast passages, and can make passages that have been a real struggle for your child suddenly “work just right.”
• C# trill key, which improves the ease of many trills, and also improves the sound of middle (“open”) C#.
• D# roller (to facilitate moving from the right-hand D# to C#, C and B).
• Standard versus heavy wall. Heavywall tubing provides a darker, more powerful sound. It is well-suited for players who play with a high volume of air or fast air stream.
• Split E key, which some believe helps stabilize and improve the response of high E. This key, however, is widely disliked by repair techs, as it makes it harder to regulate a flute, and can easily bind the g# key. It also creates extra harmonic sounds on some notes (including high e and f ), which may be undesirable. Many teachers believe that if a flute is well-made, this key is not necessary. Some manufacturers offer a “g disc” as an alternative.
• Pinless mechanisms - found mainly on top-line flutes, these allow for smoother, quieter mechanisms and more stable adjustments.
Many flute specialists feel that a gold lip riser is one of the most important options to consider; a C# trill key is also a “must” for an advancing player who is planning to major in music in college.
Find a Flute Specialist
Suggest to parents that they shop at a music store that has a flutist and/or flute specialist on staff. Trying many different brands and models is a must in finding that “just-right” instrument, and having a flute specialist on hand to work with your student and is essential in helping you sort through all the various options available in your price range. An experienced “personal flute shopper” will be able to educate you about the differences between the various brands and models — the materials, options, prices, and sound — and how the right combination can most benefit your student.
This process takes a little time, and a lot of encouragement from an experienced sales person who will be just as excited as you are to see your band parent’s child find the ideal instrument — at a price they can afford. There is no better reward to a true flute specialist than to see both parents and students enthusiastic about a new instrument.
One important note: when young players try out step-up flutes, they often have difficulty getting the full richness of the silver, as solid silver is much harder to vibrate than silver plated brass. So, encourage your student to play with a full sound, and to spend time playing long tones in all ranges, to bring out the beautiful, “shimmery” silver sound.
An experienced flute specialist will take the time to work with your student, and help him hear that “silver sound” so that he can make a wise selection — a flute that will not only motivate him now, but also will give him plenty of room to grow in the future.
Another issue that can frustrate young flutists trying open-hole flutes for the first time is hand position. Be sure to ask for plugs if the student is not used to an openhole flute. A flute specialist will be able to guide the student regarding correct hand position if needed, and also explain how and when to take each plug out (in what order).
Encourage the use of the new tool. Find playing opportunities for your student with a youth symphony, church, parties, and at extra school events. Sharing one’s talent in different venues with a new instrument can be incredibly motivating, reaffirm the value of the parents’ investment, and also benefit your community.
Investing in the right tools not only facilitates a task, but also it allows a player to perform to the best of his abilities and to reach his full musical potential. The rate of return on your investment, then? Priceless!
Tracy Leenman is the owner of Musical Innovations in Greenville, SC, the NAMM Top 100 Dealer of the Year. She holds her B.M. in music ed (magna cum laude) and her M.M. in music ed from Syracuse University. She has done additional coursework at the Eastman School of Music. In 2015, Tracy was named winner of RPMDA’s Sandy Feldstein Service Award. She performs regularly on bassoon with the Palmetto Concert Band, Foothills Philharmonic, and the Poinsett Wind Symphony.