Which Flute Suits You?
There are three overall categories of flute:
- Beginner/Student Flutes
- Intermediate/Advanced Flutes
- Professional/Custom Handmade Flutes
Beginner / Student Flute
The student range of instruments is generally manufactured and assembled quickly and with least concern for final finish. The low price of this range of instruments is basically achieved by minimal labour time. Despite this, many student brands are now made so precisely that a very good result is achievable.
The basic student flute is made of a brass tube with silver plating. Silver plating gives a better sound over nickel, which can be too metallic sounding and slippery to hold. The next model up has a solid silver lip plate which improves tone quality. With both of these options, variations such as split E mechanism, C or B foot, open or closed holes and offset G are usually available as well.
Intermediate / Advanced Flute
The intermediate range starts with a solid silver lip plate with silver plated head, body and keys; then progresses to an entirely solid silver head with silver plated body and keys; and finally solid silver head and body but still with silver plated keys. Altus flutes also come in two grades of silver in this range. The difference from the student range however, is that the parts may be machine made but the flute is assembled and finally finished by hand.
This final ‘handfinishing’ results in an instrument that plays as well as possible with the maximum response and performance, but with less precious materials than a 'professional' flute.
Professional / Custom Handmade Flute
The professional level instruments are made almost completely by hand. Some parts may be made with the assistance of machinery, however highly skilled artisans are involved in every step of the production process. This is the reason why the cost of these instruments is so high, as it takes a significant amount of skill and several months to craft an entire flute.
Professional flutes are made from a wide range of materials, from sterling silver (92.5%), Britannia silver (95.8%) and pure silver (99.7%) to various rare woods, gold and platinum. Other construction options include seamed or drawn tubing, soldered or drawn tone-holes, split E mechanism, C or B footjoint, C# trill key, offset or inline G and different tubing thicknesses (more detailed explanation for all these options follows).
What Kind of Player Are You?
If you are a beginner, then you will more than likely be choosing something in the beginner student range. A well adjusted, good quality, basic student flute is good for anyone playing up to about 6th grade.
You will achieve a better quality and more variation to your tone with a silver headjoint, however you will get to a point, if you progress your playing up to and beyond 8th grade, AMEB, where no matter how good the headjoint is, the body will not be good enough. By that stage, your playing skill will no doubt be developed to the point where you clearly notice the difference by yourself. In fact, you will probably notice it well before then if you are producing a good tone.
The difference in moving up to the handfinished range is that the instrument will be well designed and very precisely made, resulting in far superior sound, more even connection throughout the entire range, clean articulation, better dynamic range and a greater range of colour.
You may find that starting with an intermediate model is a good idea, because if you are reasonably serious about your development, you will save money by not having to upgrade after a year or so. Also, in the meantime, you will benefit from learning and playing on a superior quality instrument. Most people start with a student flute and move up when they clearly notice the difference, and consequently spend more money.
Which Specifications Do You Need?
There are several options when purchasing your first flute, but for most beginners the best choice is an all silver plated, covered holes, offset G, C foot model. Silver plated is best. Nickel plated flutes are slightly cheaper but not worth it because they are harder to hold if the player perspires, and in addition the tone is inferior because it is harder sounding.
Most student flutes in Australia are offset G which is preferable, as it means the player has less distance to stretch the left hand ring finger than on an inline model. Closed holes are usually preferable for beginners, although if the player can comfortably reach and cover all the holes, then the open hole flute is recommended. However, because it is slightly more complicated to make, the open hole flute is a little more expensive to purchase and service.
Most beginner flutes have a C foot. The B footjoint has one more key added to the bottom of the flute making it slightly longer and heavier. The tone is a little darker from about G down. For most beginners this addition is not at all necessary and once again will add to the price.
The curved head is of great benefit and highly recommended for children approximately under the age of 10. It causes the flute to be held much closer to the player’s body and significantly reduces the player’s spine being twisted. Stretching to reach the keys by little arms is undesirable from a postural and physical development point of view.
Probably the most difficult option to decide on, though, is that of the split E mechanism although these days it is almost universally adopted. This extra piece of keywork only affects the third register E and causes the proper opening of the keys for that note resulting in correct tuning and ease of sound production. This feature is now available on almost all student model flutes, however it adds significantly to the price. The issue becomes one of deciding whether playing top E with greater ease is worth the additional cost.
Almost all professionals now order or play with a split E, which is some indication of its usefulness and significance.