Old ideas and band flutist's myths: updated
for the 21st century
The most common flutey
misconceptions I've come across as a flute
True or False?
Sticky noises coming from the flute's pads can be cured by using pencil
rubbings, cigarette papers, dollar bills, talcum powder, and by dragging
paper from under the pads.
False. What happens if
you press a pad down, and drag out a paper is that you abrade (tear the
thin skin covering of) the pad, and it will have to be replaced within 6
months to a year. Any talcum, graphite or ink from money will adhere to
the pad surface and make the sticky noises worse.
To have pads cleaned,
take to a repair person.
To avoid sticky pads,
rinse out mouth before playing, swab out after playing, and never place
flute with keys downward, or condensation from tube will drip onto the
If a single pad is
sticky, it could well have a leak. If all pads are sticky, it could just
be because of a humidity change in the weather. If you believe that
there is sugar on the pad, a tiny amount of isopropyl alcohol (buy in
drugstore) on a gum-less cigarette paper can be blotted very carefully
onto the pad, and then allowed to air dry. Never pull on an alcohol
dipped paper, or it will shred. Always keep pads clean and flute swabbed
out well during cold weather when condensation builds up fastest.
you want a complete care sheet for how to look after a flute, click
Also, some young band
flutists think this water forming in their flute is SPIT.
It's not spit. It's
condensation. And the colder the flute the faster the water droplets
from the steam you're breathing into the flute form. For this reason,
pre-warm your flute with a few slow lungful's of air before playing, and
never ever allow the flute to flip onto its keys, otherwise the
condensation will affect your flute's pads.
2. My band flute case comes with a
little tub of cork grease. This is to help the joining parts, or tenons
slide together easily.
False: Cork grease is for cork tenons (on oboes, clarinets, certain
wooden piccolos and wooden flutes). Some old band flute companies put a
space for grease tubs in the cases by mistake. Grease only gums up metal
flutes, attracts grit and dirt which can score and mark the tenons, and
may cause the need for a re-pad of the whole flute, eventually by making
the pads greasy.
you want a complete care sheet for how to look after a flute, click
3. Flute players need to keep the
outside of the flute clean and shiny with silver polish and special
False: You'll want to pay special attention to keeping the inside of the
flute dry and swabbed out before putting the flute in its case each
time.. On the outside the only enemy that's really truly horrible is
lint, pet hair and other fibers that eventually get lodged in the
tiny moving parts. All other tarnish, fingermarks, and general hand
grease is not that alarming.
Especially avoid household silver polish which will wear moving parts
and make pads sticky.
Completely avoid any
unecessary water on the flute (don't WASH a silver flute under any
circumstances. The pads will puff up and be ruined.) If a flute needs to
be sterilized use a tiny amount of alcohol on the lip plate.
Children with a tendency towards sticky lips and hands should wash up
before handling their flue.
Most flutists brush their teeth or rinse out their mouths before playing
to keep sugar from getting into the pads (later making sticky noises.)
you want a complete care sheet for how to look after a flute, click
4. Playing with the top finger
down for middle register D and Eb doesn't actually sound any different,
(so I don't know why flute teachers make such a deal about it.)
False. As soon as you start playing with a really clear and beautiful
tone you really WILL hear the difference. Also the notes sound with more
depth and less squeaky-space-noises when the top key is vented. So lift
the LH index key for these two notes and you'll soon learn to
hear a difference.
you need fingering charts for your flute or piccolo click here.
5. Flutists are supposed to avoid
using the Bb thumb key which is "cheating". The
"true" Bb is fingering with both index fingers and the regular
False: The best tone quality for Bb is produced from the fingering that
puts the least number of keys down. The two that are best in sound
quality are the Bb thumb key, or the Bb side-lever (found to the left
and above the "F" key on your flute.). If you look closely,
you will see how these two levers actually close the key that's below
the B-natural key to create Bb.
The index finger or
"long" Bb fingering is good to use in many cases, and is the
best fingering to learn first, and to practice in case it's needed. But
it has an audibly poor tone quality if used in slow lyrical passages,
and/or if there's a quick switch from G to Bb.
Try all three of these
fingerings out, and see for yourself why using the F key, which adds two
more, unnecessary closed holes, sounds fuzzier and less pure than the
thumb key or the Bb side lever. Hold a Bb in the middle register, and
play the simpler Bb levers, listening closely to the tone change when
you switch to the F-finger/index/long Bb fingering, and if your tone
you're using is very clear, you'll hear the difference.
The Bb thumb key should be used for fast playing and when B naturals are
not typically part of the music you're playing in. The Bb side lever is
best for slow moving passages, where there are B-naturals, but the clean
change from G to Bb is important.
Continue to exercise all
three Bb fingerings for different uses in different musical applications
in your future pieces. Some studies are even written to make you switch
to all three Bb fingerings one after the other.
A good system for
pencil-marking your music would be:
+ sign above note where
Bb thumb should go on
o sign above note where
Bb thumb should come off
6. The most easily ruined part of
the flute are pads, tenons, keys and rods in that order.
True: Pads are abused through constant wetting and air-drying, but you
abuse them even faster if you try and clean them with papers. Pads
usually last up to ten years if never abused. But small leaks do
develop, regardless, so a yearly pad-check is important (more frequent
if you play more than 2 hrs. a day.)
Polishing the flute can
also abrade pads, so be careful to never swipe near enough to catch
their surfaces with your finger-print cloth. Tenons are the thinned
metal of the joining sections. Beware of quirky ways of twisting your
flute sections together. Tenons can be "out of round" from
constantly putting the footjoint on at a slanting angle etc.
The quickest way to bend
keys and rods is to grasp the keys and rods with your hands as you
assemble and disassemble the flute. Avoid clasping any moving parts;
have an expert demonstrate how to assemble only by handlling the smooth
sections of the flute.
The first keys and rods of the flute to become bent from improper
a) the low C and C# keys (bent from hand pressure while twisting flute
parts together, or if you use them to lift the footjoint out of the
case) eventually causing low notes not to sound, or to sound very weak
b) the F, E and D keys. (same as above)
c) the footjoint connector or tenon begins to loosen until footjoint
feels like it may fall off
d) the upper keys (C, B,A)
If you suspect you have
already damaged your flute, don't be afraid to take it in for repair.
These repairs are not too expensive.
7. My old flute from out of the
closet should be good enough for my youngster who's just beginning.
True to a point: As long as any old flute has been seen by a competent
flute technician, checked for bugs, mould, etc. and completely cleaned,
oiled and adjusted., with bad pads replaced so that none of the pads
leak, it's fine to start a beginner on. However, after they've been
playing 6 months or so, you may want to have a professional teacher test
the flute to be sure there are no fundamental problems with it (such as
a poorly made headjoint that sounds fuzzy no matter who plays it) that
could hold a student back.
Newer flutes have better
scales (more in tune) better headjoints (less fuzz) and lighter weight
mechanisms than old band flutes from earlier decades.
If you want to read about
affordable beginner flutes that are highly recommended
If the flute is for a
child or very small or quite young person click
8. I should be able to find a good
beginner's flute for under $400.
True: If you have a professional teacher test your purchase, you should
be able to secure a well-known brand name flute in decent working flute
from Buy and Sell type newspapers, or other second-hand household
sources for alot less than you'd pay in a music store for a new
instrument. But it must be a well-known brand. Don't go for cheap Ebay
flutes, coloured flutes, unbelievably cheap flutes, or flutes that
repair shops say they will not take in for repairs because the metal is
However, be sure it's play-tested by someone who truly is an expert, and
that it's fully repaired before starting a beginner on it.
article on recommended brands here.
A Yamaha 200 series,
closed hole student flute is always a good brand to look for used. New,
the Jupiter series are very good, lightweight, and easy to play.
AGAIN: Under no conditions buy a cheap flute from Costco, Walmart, or
other department store.
These are not repairable, and are bendable "toy" flutes (under
$200 and impossible to play on for any length of time without the pads
9. A great way to warm up quickly
is to play a Bb major scale, one octave, all tongued.
A great book to teach
yourself out of is the Rubank Method.
False. Playing your very first band scale, and one that goes *up*, when
you're a beginner can bring too much strain to your embouchure too
quickly. It's far better to start on a fairly low note, like B on the
middle of the staff and slowly, half-step at a time, slur gently
downward. Then your lips will become gradually stronger and more
flexible prior to ascending on the flute.
Read about the
professional flutist's warmup (that all private flute students learn
when they take lessons under LONGTONES
at this link.)
The Rubank Method book also causes problems by asking the learner to
play in the difficult high register too quickly, often resulting in
shrieky or pinched tone. Avoid the Rubank methods and seek a method book
recommended on my flute books for the budget minded.
10. There is an important use for
the saxophone F# fingering (middle finger instead of ring finger of the
True: Whenever an F# appears between two E naturals at very fast speeds,
during a trill, or during very fast triplets or other fast rhythms, it
can be your only hope to play the F# with the "sax fingering".
In particular, do not use it if you can HEAR the ugliness of it. If you
are playing so fast the ugliness disappears into the ether-go ahead and
High F# can also be improved in tone, reliability and tuning in some
situations by using middle finger F#, but get your teacher's advice, as
this depends on what key the piece of music is in, and how loudly the
high F# is to be played (softly played, it may to TOO flat in pitch.)
If you need to know the
most common fingerings for the flute, and the alternates and when and
why they are used click
for print-out-able flute fingering charts here.
11. I've got a silver plated
flute, by my friend has one with a gold embouchure plate. I've heard
that the gold plating shouldn't make any difference.
True: Gold plating is just for aesthetic appearance. The gold is so thin
it virtually does nothing to change the sound coming from the flute.
However some people have skin acids (or wear makeup on their face) that
tends to turn silver black. If this is the case, then gold plating can
be an advantage to them.
12. The Eb pinky key is very heavy
and stiff on my flute. I hear that that is a normal setup on a flute.
False: The spring on the Eb key should only be stiff enough to keep the
key from leaking or blowing open. However in making hasty pad
impressions on cheaper student flutes, many technicians at one time
would over stiffen the Eb spring, and then merely forget, after the
impression had been made, to back it off again.
This takes just a minute, and will go a long way to making it less
likely to experience pinky fatigue and "locking" in the pinky
of the right hand.
13. Our band leader says we should
roll in more to get a more centered and less-whispy flute tone.
False: The key to a less airy flute tone is embouchure strength and
poise, which comes with much experimentation, and frequent practice
sessions at home, with help from a teacher or flute expert.
There are TONS of tone exercises that will help you get a great tone.
Rolling the flute inward
only covers the embouchure hole too much with the lower lip and
strangles the tone quality, and is not a "cure all" in any
14. Our band leader says that if
you're sharp you should roll in.
False: Rolling in is one of the biggest problems flute players must
If you're sharp on every single note you play, you should pull the
headjoint out from its socket a millimeter at a time, until you are no
longer sharp, and seek to control the speed and pressure of the air
stream with a teacher's or expert's help.
Lots of information on how
to control sharp playing at this link.
15. I hear that some of the newer
flutes are more in tune with less work.
True: Altus, Yamaha and Jupiter, among other companies are all working
at making flutes with new and improved scales (William Bennett Scale;
Cooper Scale) that are more in tune with less adjustments being required
of the player. Older flutes (more than 15 years old) should be suspect
in the tuning department, until proven innocent. (especially old, heavy,
clunkers like Selmers, Bundys, Emersons, Armstrongs and Artleys.) Old
professional flutes such as Powell and Haynes which are now being sold
off relatively cheaply as second hand flutes from the 1970s or earlier
have VERY poor, out-of-tune scales. Avoid them. They are too difficult
to play in tune by today's standards.
16. My cork and crown can be slid
right out of the flute by just pulling on them, or when cleaning the
headjoint. But the flute sounds fine when I play it so I'm not worried.
Answer? Worry!! :>)
A cork that is that loose will cause leaks in the headjoint. Getting the
cork re-fitted will cost just a few dollars and you'll immediately
notice how much easier it is to play that flute.
17. Although I've been playing the
same flute for 10 years, and it's never had a single problem with it,
I've been told I should still take it in to be seen by a flute repair
True: The flute's moving points are lubricated with a fine oil that
needs to be replenished on a regular basis (every 2 years at MINIMUM.)
Without this oil the moving parts will just rub against each other and
become looser and looser until there is alot of "play" in the
mechanism. This will show up as unclear sound when the pads no longer
Pad leaks are the second most common problem with an un-tweaked flute,
and you will have begun unconsciously squeezing the keys shut, slowing
your fingers down, and creating possible hand & arm problems with
tension in your future.
The longer you leave a flute without oiling it, the more you score away
metal with grit and dirt as you repeatedly raise and lower the keys wile
playing. Eventually the moving parts become quite loose, and the flute
will be considered unrepairable because of too much "wear".
18. The best flutes cost over
$10,000 and so I guess I'll always have to play on this old junker
that's holding me back.
False: Some excellent flutes can be had for $1000 to $5000 if you follow
expert advice, ask your teacher to keep a look out for a good
second-hand instrument for you, and/or keep your eyes open for flute
Altus 807 and 907, DiMedici 1011 flutes, and some other companies have
student flutes with professional handcut headjoints coming out for under
$2000 U.S. (at last check). Some of these "student flutes" are
equal, in my opinion, to any number of $10,000 flutes made by other
Ask a reputable and
respected flute dealer who knows the best brands within your price
range. Good dealers in flutes in the U.S. can be found listed here:
If you can't afford a
whole new flute, simply buying a better headjoint (ask your teacher if
they have any old ones to sell) can make a huge difference if your flute
body is holding up well.
If you have less than $2000 to spend, check my list of good buys at:
19. I'd like to start my very
young child on the flute. I suppose a piccolo would be about the right
False: A plastic Yamaha fife is the correct instrument for a very small
child (under 10 years old approx.) Piccolos are very strenuous to play
and require very poised and exacting lip muscles and a fast airstream
that would make your child's head spin.
Even the unbreakable (almost) and relatively cheap penny whistles, or
brass simple flutes (no keys, just finger holes) are better for children
then the expensive and challenging piccolo, unless the child is
exceptional (I've heard of ONE case of a child of 8 starting on the
piccolo 60 years ago in the U.K.)
20. I don't want to buy any flute
books, or music, since I'm really on a budget, so I'll just download
music off the internet.
Bad idea: Most misc. internet music is very bad for flute. Either its
vocal music or piano music, or just written in the wrong range for the
flute, with no chance of it making you a better flute player. One or two
good flute beginner books for less than $20 each will make a HUGE
difference to how fast you learn, as will private lessons (even if you
only commit at first to four private lessons just to see if you like
My fave books with playalong CD can be seen (and heard in MP3) at:
Making them into amazing
duets (with you and the CD) is great fun and instructions can be found
beginner, novice, intermediate and advanced flute instruction books and
fun flute sheetmusic can be found listed here.
21. It doesn't matter how I
"line up" my headjoint. I can play in several different
positions, and they all sound just as good.
False: Your muscles need to learn when and where they can relax and
balance. If you keep changing the way you line up your flute when you
put it together, you will not develop a consistent way of blowing it,
and will not progress quickly.
Also, if you play in an
eccentric way, with unbalanced posture because your headjoint is
misaligned you can eventually develop a literal pain in the neck,
shoulder blades, arms, hands, wrists, and even develop jaw problems.
Get a teacher to help
experiment with headjoint assembly, if you feel that the way you're
currently doing it is not working, you're unsure, or if you can't find a
comfortable way to hold the flute.
Many experts actually mark their flute headjoints with new alignment
markings on them, so that they can play the same way everyday, and thus
balance their bodies more quickly.
If you want to experiment with my alignment suggestions see:
22. The best way to play high
notes, or to play really softly, is to squeeze the lips into a smaller
False: Any squeezing can eventually be heard as a small, tight,
constricted high register.
What you want is an open, singing, free sounding high register, with
many choices of dynamics (from very loud, to very soft, with lots of
tone colour choices.)
It's a gentle balance between faster air from the abdominal muscles, a
slightly smaller but loose and flexible lip-hole, and a delicate
changing of the blowing angle by experimentation.
These things take time, and balancing of a variety of minute lip
Consult a private teacher to learn this more quickly and effectively.
23. It's better not to
lean your flute on your left hand at all, but strengthen your fingers by
holding the flute with the tips of the fingers and thumbs only.
I'm not kidding, I've
come across this bizarre and doofus myth THREE TIMES as a fluteteacher.
Two were kids in middle school, but one was a self-professed flute
teacher in Australia teaching flute and recorder at a local music
What they were trying to
do is NOT rest the flute on the first finger of the left hand, but
instead, to grip the flute with the fingertips only. This notione of
holding the flute in mid-air without letting it sit on the shelf of the
left hand index finger is of course FALSE. The left hand index finger
has a segment that's closest to the hand called "the first
phalange." This is where the flute rests. It MUST rest on this
phalange. It cannot be held in midair like a recorder.
24. I'm a self-taught flutist, and
I don't need private lessons because.... I can't afford them, I'm not
that serious, I'm only doing this for fun, the location is too far, hard
to get to, I'm afraid to put myself in front of a teacher who'll try and
correct everything I do...etc.
The above is a fairly
common statement on the internet flute discussion groups. And the people
who have taken lessons always answer: "At least take a few lessons
and find out first before you decide these things. Lessons make a WORLD
of difference to your satisfaction with your progress, and the curing of
bad-habits before they become ingrained. They help you ZOOM ahead."
And then about 20 more amateur adults and teens agree and offer up THEIR
"moment of ephiphany" when they finally started taking
about whether you think you need a private flute teacher here.
A funny book to read
about this topic is Noah Adam's Piano Lessons.
An article that I've
written on how to find a good private flute teacher can be found here.
25. I'm only in my third
year of playing flute but I really want a gold headjoint. My parents say
I have to pay for it myself and it's WAY too much money. Is it true that
the best players play on gold?
False. Gold flutes became
a fashion when James Galway and Jean Pierre Rampal toured with a gold
flute. They're flashy and they're expensive, but there is absolutely no
proof whatsoever that the gold makes an improvement to the sound. Some
players think the gold sounds DARKER, and blends better for chamber
music. This has not been proved. Robert Dick who judged the Geneva Flute
Competition announced that when the judges are seated well back the gold
flutes don't project very well, and sound less brilliant, perhaps
damaging the impression one makes in solo competitions.
You can read Dick's
comments on the Geneva competition by searching for "Geneva" at
Most importantly, Galway
himself says in his biography video that he cannot tell, when listening
to his solo CDs which flutes he was playing; gold or silver. This means
the difference is so little to the ear of even the greatest players,
that it is negligable. To prove this Galway has recorded a platinum
flute, 24k gold flute, and a Yamaha student flute (400 model) back to
back, playing the opening phrase of Debussy's Syrinx. Listen to this
demonstration by clicking on the final
sound file of the Vancouver masterclass If you get to the James
Galway page, click on the links at the top for audio-visual files, and
then on the third link for the UBC masterclass, and hear for yourself: Gold,
Probably the reason that
people play on gold flutes is that they prefer the luxury of a very well
made instrument, and as Galway said in a Scientific American article, a
few years back, the craftspeople probably work more carefully on the
gold flutes because the materials are more expensive.
The article this appeared
in is entitled "Unsound Reasoning" (look for it using google---it's
on the net). Many tests have been done to see if professional flutists
can guess the material of the flutes they're hearing and/or playing
(blindfolded) and they cannot.
25. It's alright to put
the swabbing cloth in the case when you've finished swabbing your flute.
False: The moisture on
the cloth, and it's pressure against the flute inside the case are both
bad for the flute's repair costs over time. Tie the cloth to the case
handle so it can air dry instead.
26. My friends in band
tell me that flute players are all Air Heads.
I suppose we *do* take in more oxygen than all other instruments?
Please add more to this list if you feel I'm missing the big points that
are so important.
I'm sure there must be more.
You can write to Flutenet Yahoo group if you like, to help us add to
this project of curing the myths. :>) Jen :>)
Also see: What are the
most common bad-habits that self-taught students bring to their first
Back to Jen's