Common Misconceptions About the Flute
(as published in Flutewise – Summer 2002)
Commonly held misconceptions about flutes and flute playing was a recent topic on the FLUTE internet discussion list...
This popular subject elicited a large number of misconceptions. While some misconceptions are based on truth, often they are oversimplified in a way that could do harm to a young player's progress. Many misconceptions are surprisingly common while others are rare. Shedding the light of clarity on these indefinite areas may be beneficial.
"The proper way to tune is by rolling the head joint."
A slight rolling outward of the head to sharpen or backward to flatten may be used sparingly to tune but generally a better technique is to use air speed variation in combination with air stream direction changes.
"The flute must be held straight out to the right of your body."
Holding a flute comfortably can be a complicated issue. Attention should be given to discovering a tension free, comfortable position. Keeping the flute horizontal to the ground is possible but doing so may cause tension. A slight downward angle is generally accepted and, if not exaggerated, will likely result in the most tension free stance.
"Open-hole flutes are better quality than closed-hole (plateau) flutes."
Some things can be done with open-holes that cannot be done with closed-holes. Many multi-phonic notes require open holes and subtle tuning can be accomplished by partially covering open holes. However, an open hole flute is not necessarily better than one with closed holes.
"A single, unique distance for cork placement is applicable to all flute head joints."
Each flute and each flute head joint is unique. A generally accepted "correct" position for head cork placement exists, but tuning and response can be refined by altering that position in very small amounts either up or down the tube.
"This old clunker flute will do for the kid to learn on. If he or she likes
the flute and plays well, we can see about getting a decent instrument."
Having a flute that works well is vital in the early stages of learning how to play. An expensive flute is not necessary at the beginning of study, but a flute that is in good working order is critical for success.
"A smiley, tight-cornered embouchure is correct."
A well developed flute embouchure must be flexible and able to easily and accurately redirect the angle of the air stream. Lips that are pulled back in a smiley position with muscle tension at the corners limit flexibility.
"High notes are played by squeezing the embouchure tighter."
High notes are best achieved through a combination of reducing the size of the aperture through which the air is flowing, aiming the air stream slightly higher, and maintaining a fast air speed. Squeezing the embouchure generally leads to a rise in pitch or to no sound at all.
"If you can whistle, you can blow into a flute."
Little similarity exists between a typical lip shape generally used for whistling and a well developed flute embouchure. The "whistle" approach is quite useful to produce exotic sounds like "whisper tones" but equating a good whistle with a good flute embouchure is irrelevant.
"Silver flutes are better than silver-plated flutes."
What materials are "best" for flute construction has been debated among flute players for as long as flute makers have been producing instruments out of various substances. Each player tends to find a flute (silver, gold, platinum, wood, and various combinations of materials) that works best for him/her. A verifiable and repeatable test to determine the best flute construction material has yet to be designed. The "best" material for a flute is a matter of personal preference and individual opinion.
"The flute is a little instrument. Therefore it doesn't take much air to play."
If only that one were actually true! All of the other wind instruments (woodwinds and brass) make their sounds in such a way that a certain amount of back pressure is created by the various instruments and by the embouchures used. The flute does not provide any back pressure of its own. The flute players lips have to take care of providing that back pressure, resulting in the need for a large amount of air. This is especially true in the early stages of a player's development. Oboe players often find themselves getting rid of unused air but a flute player experiences that only rarely.
"No one will hear if I use fake fingerings in all fast passages if I get the sound out?"
Alternate or "fake" fingerings are useful tools in appropriate situations. These special fingerings are useful to make difficult passages slightly easier but often the tone or pitch of the note is inferior to the normal fingering. Alternate fingerings are best used only as a last resort because even at fast speeds many alternate fingerings are clearly audible.
"There's no difference in sound if you leave the left hand 1st finger down for D2 & Eb2."
I often ask students to make their best sound on a long D2 or Eb2 with their eyes closed and listen very closely. I then have them do it again but this time move the left hand first finger up and down while they play and listen very closely. They instantly perceive a big difference in sound between the two fingerings. Those two notes must have the first finger off to make the best possible sound.
"Wood flutes are old fashioned and out of date."
Wood flutes are neither old fashioned nor out of date. Many modern flutes are made of wood and have the same keys as metal flutes.
"To play the notes in the third octave, use the same fingerings
as for the first two octaves, and blow REALLY HARD!"
The most important consideration for any flute player is to create the most beautiful and in tune sound throughout the entire range. Third octave fingerings are more complicated than the lower two octaves but produce the best sound with the least amount of effort for the air stream and embouchure. Learning those high note fingerings is important because flutes generally play the high notes in an orchestra or band.
"Tone and technique exercises aren't necessary."
To play well, one must spend the time needed to develop the best sound possible and a fast, fluent technique. Tone and technique exercises may not be exciting but devoting a good portion of practice time to them is the quickest way to develop the skills required to play demanding flute music. One beautiful note is worth more than a million ugly ones, so beautiful tone should be considered the most important skill of all. Nearly all music uses patterns and note combinations based on scales and arpeggios. Learning technique thoroughly will minimize the time spent to learn new pieces and improve sight reading ability.
"My flute comes 'tuned' from the factory, therefore I should
leave the head joint pushed all the way in to play in tune."
Flute scale or tuning is done by the flute maker. Tone holes are placed in the tube of the flute according to the total length of the whole flute. To allow for small adjustments either sharper (shorter) or flatter (longer) flute makers tune the flute expecting that the player will keep the head joint pulled out slightly. In that way players can push in the flute head slightly if the pitch needs to be raised.
"Flute tenons need to be greased."
The metal parts of the flute that fit together are called tenons. In previous periods of music history those connections were often constructed using cork. The modern flute does not use cork but it does use highly refined tubes of metal that fit extremely precisely. Adding grease to a well made metal tenon will shorten the normal life of the tenon by adding volume to an already well fitted tool. The grease will attract dust and further enhance the damage caused each time the greased flute is assembled. Metal tenons should be kept clean in order to get the longest life from the flute.
"Tarnish must be removed at all costs."
Tarnish does no harm and there is no need to clean it. Areas of the flute tube, the head joint, and the key tops can be wiped with a soft cloth to minimize the amount of tarnish but attempting to clean tarnish from between the keys is unwise. Rods, springs, and keys can easily be bent by attempting to remove tarnish so the best thing to do is leave them alone. When the flute receives its routine servicing the repair person will likely take off the keys and give the instrument a good cleaning.
"This flute is a great flute; I haven't had it to a technician in years."
Flutes that are used often wear out and need repairing and servicing attention at regular intervals. Normal wear and tear affects the pads more than any other part of the flute. Leaks develop naturally over time so small pad adjustments or changing deteriorated pads will reduce leaking and keep the flute in optimum condition. With careful and proper handling a single set of flute pads can last for several years. A routine servicing will generally include cleaning and oiling the key work so that the keys will function freely and without undue wear for years. The cork on the inside of the head joint can shrink over time causing leaking or poor intonation if the cork should shift out of place. Commonly, professional flute players take their instruments to the repair shop several times per year for regular maintenance and servicing. Students are advised to seek out routine maintenance about once per year.
Larry Krantz © 2002