If you’ve ever considered purchasing a new flute, the array of options can by dizzying -- even for seasoned professionals! This series of three articles contains some concise explanations of the list of specifications you may have to choose from (and their consequences, if any).
Closed Hole (Plateau) or Open Hole (French Model)?
Most students start with a flute that has closed holes (plateau keys).
Perk: Good for beginners because they don’t have to initially worry about covering holes with their fingers.
Consequence: Flutes with plateau keys are not as loud as open-hole flutes, because the covered key deflects the path of the sound as it is expressed.
Examples 1 & 2. Closed hole flute (plateau keys), and open hole flute (French model).
After a few years of playing, many students upgrade to an open-hole (French model) flute. Usually these flutes contain more precious metal and are manufactured to a higher standard of precision, so they have better tone.
Perks: Having open holes makes the flute louder, as the sound comes straight up out of the open holes (and is deflected sideways as in a plateau model); out-of-tune notes can be “vented” by sliding the finger slightly off of part of hole, improving pitch; open holes also make it possible to slide between some pitches.
Consequence: Many flutists initially choose to plug at least some of the holes because their finger position is sloppy, and they again have to work on hand position. (In my opinion this is actually a good thing, because as hand and finger position improves they actually can play faster.) Many flutes come with cork plugs for the holes, or you can purchase plastic or silicone ones. Open hole flutes are standard now, and more easily retain their resale value.
In-Line or Offset G?
This refers to the G key which you put your finger on, and the key just to the right of the G# lever.
On flutes with offset G keys, these keys are positioned at a slight angle from the rest of the keys on the body, and the tone holes are actually cut on an angle from the others as well.
Perks: For students with short fingers, this makes it easier to reach the G key; also, the left hand position is generally more comfortable for most people.
Consequences: On open-hole flutes with offset G, this hole is quite difficult to cover.
Examples 3 & 4. Flute with offset G key and flute with in-line G key.
C or B Foot?
Most beginner flutes come with C foot joints. This makes the instrument a little less unwieldy.
Perks: It’s lighter than a flute with a B foot, and you can’t make a mistake when you go to the roller key for low C.
Consequence: You cannot play a low B.
Many students choose a B foot when they upgrade to an open-hole flute. This feels and looks more professional, and provides the option of playing one more note (low B).
Perks: Low C is actually easier to play since it is not the lowest note on the instrument; fourth octave notes (C and up) become easier to play when the low B key is added to the standard fingering.
Consequence: The tone of E natural is compromised and becomes less bright (it is possible to compensate for this with the lips, but takes a lot of accuracy and quite a bit of work).
Example 5. B foot joint (top), C foot joint (bottom).
Flutes can be made from any kind of tubing. Since metal is what is used most often, I will list the characteristics of the most common types in use today.
Nickel Silver. Actually, this is an alloy of zinc, copper and nickel.
Perks: Flutes made from nickel are durable and great for students who are not as careful as they should be; nickel is also less expensive.
Consequences: Nickel does not have as good a sound as some other metals; nickel does not shine particularly well when polished.
Silver Plate. Typically placed over nickel silver.
Perks: Adding some silver to the outside of a nickel flute improves its tone quality; these flutes can be polished to a high sheen.
Consequences: Plating can wear off in areas that the fingers touch, creating “wear” spots that will lower the resale value.
Silver. Many different alloys of silver are used (sterling is 92.5% silver).
Perk: Silver flutes generally have a very beautiful sound.
Consequences: Silver is softer than nickel, so keys can be accidentally bent or tubing scratched easily; silver is also more costly.
Gold. Can be mixed with many metals, but typically copper is used (pure gold is too soft). The karat tells you how much gold is in the flute (14K is typical; pure gold is 24K).
Perks: Gold is heavier than silver, so these flutes are made with thinner tubing -- the result is a flute that weighs about the same as a heavy wall silver flute, but is capable of a MUCH bigger sound; gold also provides a different tonal color that many describe as “darker”.
Consequences: Much costlier; much easier to scratch/dent/bend; can be difficult to find a repairman who knows how to work with this metal.
Platinum. A pure element.
Perks: A bigger/louder sound than gold; articulates incredibly easily.
Consequences: Costlier than gold (and without the “bling” effect, since it looks like silver); much heavier than gold; more resistant, so it is more difficult to change tone colors while playing.
Example 6. Heajoints of three different metals: Gold (top), Sterling Silver (middle), Nickel covered with Silver Plate (bottom) [note the color change on the far right side of the tube].
To Be Continued...
Parts II and III, in upcoming months in Flute Focus, will explain the Split E Mechanism, High E Facilitator, Pointed Arms, Gizmo Key, Mechanism Choices, C# Trill Key, Extruded vs. Soldered Tone Holes, Tubing Thickness, Springs, Rollers, Pitch, Scale, Pads, and Head Joint Options.