Jennifer Cluff ~ Flute Myths

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

Most common flute misconceptions
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?

1. 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 pads.

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.

If you want a complete care sheet for how to look after a flute, click here.

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.

If you want a complete care sheet for how to look after a flute, click here.
3. Flute players need to keep the outside of the flute clean and shiny with silver polish and special polishing cloths.

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.)

If you want a complete care sheet for how to look after a flute, click here.
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.

If 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 thumb key.

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 handling are:
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 in tone.
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 go here.

If the flute is for a child or very small or quite young person click here.
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 too bendable.
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.

See 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 leaking.)
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 right hand.)

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 use it.

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 way.
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 avoid.
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 expert.

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 seal properly.
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 purchase opportunities.
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 companies.

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 size?

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 them).

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 at:

More 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 hole.

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 changes.
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 store!!!!!!!!!!!

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 lessons.

Read 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 this link.

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, Silver, Platinum.

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 private lessons.

Bad Habits Article.

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Copyright 2005 Jennifer Cluff