Thinking about upgrading to an intermediate flute? Some of us have gone a long way on our student model flutes. For the most part, student flutes are solid and reliable instruments that often meet a players needs through high school and sometimes beyond. But more ambitious players start to hit the limits of their instrument during the high school years. If you’re an advanced high school student and plan to continue playing through college or are an adult who’s active in the amateur scene, it might be time to upgrade to an intermediate or step-up flute.
The first thing to consider when flute shopping is your budget. An intermediate flute generally costs between $1500.00 and $5000.00 depending on materials and options. If you can’t afford the upper end of this price range then you’ll want to stick with the less expensive brands. However, you want to get an instrument that suits your needs now and in the foreseeable future. What if your budget is at odds with your needs? Consider putting off your purchase until you can save up for a better instrument. Another option would be to spend your money on a new headjoint and keep your old body. For more information read my article Buying a Head Joint . Shopping used may afford you a better flute for less money, but beware. Buying used can be a tricky prospect.
In choosing a new flute you’ll also want to consider your future plans. Are you playing just for fun or is there serious music study in your future? Do you expect to play through college and beyond? Are you an adult who enjoys playing in a community band or church group? Your current abilities and future plans should be considered in order to make a choice that will stand the test of time. If you have a private flute teacher, he or she can guide you through the process. Your high school band director or an experienced adult player may be able to help you out if you don’t have a private teacher.
Silver headjoint, silver plated body – A solid silver headjoint is the most important feature of an intermediate flute. The tone quality of a flute is determined primarily by the headjoint. Solid silver provides a richer tone color and texture to your sound. You may also notice a better responsiveness and more power. Headjoints at this level are machine made allowing the manufacturer to maintain reasonable prices while still providing the quality of solid silver.
Like your student model flute, intermediate flute bodies are made with silver plating over a nickel alloy. This nickel alloy is often called nickel silver, but in fact there is no silver content at all in nickel silver. The body material does not affect the sound of the flute as much as the head joint. Solid silver bodies are a feature of a professional level flute costing thousands of dollars more.
French or open hole key design – The most obvious difference between a student model flute and an intermediate flute is that an intermediate flute almost always has open holes. The five keys that are depressed directly by a finger have a small hole in the middle that must be covered by the finger in order to produce a clear note.
So what’s the big deal about holes? Some players will argue that the holes allow for venting which produces a better tone or makes certain notes more in tune. Others will argue the opposite. The jury is still out on that topic, but the effect is minimal at best. Others argue that there are certain techniques such as bends and quartertones that can be produced on an open hole flute by partially covering the holes. This is certainly true, however, these are advanced techniques which in practice are rarely used.
One advantage to open holes for the intermediate flute student is that it forces good hand position. If the holes are not completely covered, then the note will not respond properly. Sloppy hand position is generally corrected very quickly once a student starts playing with open holes.
The main disadvantage of open holes is that some players may find it physically uncomfortable to cover the holes. Hands come in many shapes and sizes. Some fit the key layout better than others. As we age our hands and wrists become less resilient. It may become increasingly uncomfortable for the older player to maintain a perfect hand position. Fortunately these problems are easily and inexpensively solved with hole plugs.
I recommend purchasing the French open hole model not because it’s superior to the plateau model, but because it’s more prevalent. Open holes have become the norm in the US therefore you have many more choices available for trial. If you have difficulty covering the holes because of unusual hand size or disability, hole pulgs are inexpensive and simple to install. And let’s face it, to the young player having open holes is a bit of a status symbol.
Drawn tone holes – Tone holes are the raised openings that come out of the flute at right angles from the body tube. The flute keys rest directly on the tone holes when they are closed. The term drawn refers to how the tone holes are manufactured. Imagine a cylinder of silver. The manufacturer uses a tool to pull out or draw the silver from the main body at a right angle to form a seat for the key. The edge of the drawn out tube is rolled to create a smooth edge. All mass produced flutes have drawn tone holes. Most high end, professional flutes have soldered tone holes which are formed out of a separate tube of silver and soldered on to the main flute body.
Inline or offset G key – This refers to the positioning of the G key. When all of the keys on the top of the flute body line up the keys are said to be inline. With an offset G, the two keys on either side of the A♭ key are slightly out of line with the rest. All student model flutes have an offset G key to accommodate smaller hands. Traditionally all intermediate and professional flutes were made with inline keys. But that convention has fallen by the wayside in recent decades. All flute makers now offer the option of inline or offset keys. There is no functional difference between an inline and offset G key. The choice is simply a matter of comfort for the player.
B foot joint – Most intermediate and professional flutes have an extra key on the foot joint that allows the instrument to play a low B, a half step lower than a student model which only goes down to a low C. This note is extremely rare in the flute literature. The B foot joint is not something you need, but it has become the standard in intermediate flutes. Proponents of the B foot say that the added length produces a darker, richer tone. Detractors claim that it adversely affects the upper register. The great flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal preferred the C foot.
I would recommend the B foot joint as it has become the norm for intermediate flutes. The C foot joint is generally available through special order. The B foot flutes available for trial will be much more plentiful. Very few flute players are as discriminating as Jean-Pierre Rampal. Certainly at the intermediate level the foot joint is not a major concern.
Split E mechanism/High E facilitator – The split E mechanism and the high E facilitator are both options designed to improve the response of the third octave E. Some flutists find it difficult to make this note respond as well or as loudly as the notes surrounding it.
On a traditional flute, the G key, operated by the ring finger of the left hand is directly linked to the key next to it. The keys are either both open or both closed. On a flute with a split E mechanism, the high E fingering allows the G key to be open while the key next to it is closed. This causes the high E to respond more evenly. A flute must be manufactured with the split E mechanism. It cannot be added after manufacture.
The high E facilitator, also known as the donut, is a feature that can be added at any time. It is a small washer shaped device that is professionally inserted into the tone hole of the key next to the G key. The restricted venting causes the high E to respond more clearly.
I have never owned a flute with either a split E mechanism or a high E facilitator and have never felt a need for them. However, these features are popular and recommended by many teachers. Ask your teacher for guidance and try out flutes with and without the split E feature. This is strictly a matter of preference.
Now that you have determined your budget and have an idea of what options you might like, it’s time to go shopping! If at all possible, bring your flute teacher with you. If that’s not possible, consider asking your band director or an experienced adult player to help you out. And keep an open mind. Just because your best friend endorses a certain brand, or you read an online post warning you against another brand doesn’t mean you’ll have the same opinion. Flute preferences are very personal. You might be surprised at what you choose.
Most large music stores will have a variety of intermediate flutes in stock. Play as many different flutes as you can. Compare the tone quality and ease of playing. See how they respond in extreme registers. Check out flutes with different features. Remember, every flute is different even within the same make and model so if you like a particular flute, ask the sales person if they have other flutes of that make and model to try.
When done right, flute shopping can be a fun and rewarding process. So take your time, do your homework, try as many flutes as you can and enjoy the process. Finding the right flute for you at this point in your development can be a real joy. Happy fluting.
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