The Elder"s Advice
Physical Dimensions of the Flute
The Blowing End
Finger Distance, Finger Hole Size, Finger Hole Bore Shape
Shape of the Flute
Response of the Flute
Test to Determine Response Flexibility
Hello fellow flute players and makers, and welcome to the first "issue" of the Flute Forum! This week we begin to examine the most common concerns that affect both the beginner and the professional flute player alike. Whenever I do a performance or workshop, by far the two most common questions I receive are, "How do I choose the best flute for me?" and "What are the characteristics of a good flute?" With the tremendous increase of interest in flute playing, being able to feel confident about a flute purchase has become of great importance. This issue will begin a presentation of the various characteristics of a flute, how you can assess these features, and practical tips on how to take your new flute on a "test drive." I am sure that the readers of this page will have a variety of reactions to these observations and suggestions. We want to hear your comments and get to know you. Feel free to contact us at email@example.com.
Hearing these two questions about flute selection always reminds me of an old story about a young boy asking an elder to define the meaning of life. The elder replies with one of those typical frustrating coyote-rabbit-iktomi answers that are a blend of vagary, deception, simplicity and profound truth. Of course the youngster is dissatisfied with the answer. The elder then sends the young one on a life-long quest full of twists and turns, which ultimately results in the boy finding the wisdom of self-knowledge. The end of the tale finds the main character, himself now a wise elder, being approached by an innocent young boy who, of course, asks to be told the meaning of life. The wise old man pauses and reflects, then replies with the same answer that his own elder had offered many years ago. He now realizes that his elder had given him the most appropriate answer, but he needed to walk the path of life a lot longer to be able to appreciate and accept the answer. Part of the beauty in the metaphor of the story is the illustration that the circular process of life-experience is not only the source of discovery, wisdom and truth, but is also of much greater value than the acquisition of information.
The elder in this tale, were he asked the flute-related questions quoted earlier, might offer the following: "The best flute, and the best one for you, is the one that you play."
This may sound simplistic or like a cheap attempt to be profound, but the reality is that no matter which flute we play, each one is our teacher for the lesson that we are open to receiving at that moment, and is therefore, the best and most appropriate flute. Regardless of our conscious desire and intention, the lesson contained within the flute, in conjunction with our capacity for that learning, creates the real result. This lesson may be about the mechanics of flute playing or selection, or possibly about growing body-wisdom, but more likely it is the unfolding of a deeper self-knowledge. Sometimes this results in our intense frustration, which warns us of an impending lesson. Sometimes it allows for ecstatic surprise and true creativity, which are the rewards for lessons accepted and applied.
For those who need more concrete information and less philosophy, let"s examine methods of flute selection and what to look for in a high quality instrument. The first two areas are the most frequent source of problems.
1) Physical dimensions: Let"s first consider the places where your body touches the flute. Any place where you feel awkward or uncomfortable in your physical connection with the flute will prevent notes from responding, or distract you from your playing, unless you can become accustomed to that discomfort. The closest match of your body"s natural shape and size and the flute dimensions will eliminate most obstacles.
The Blowing End: Does your mouth feel natural on the end of the flute? Some people prefer a rounded blowing end, some like it more pointed, while some like a "nipple" structure or even a flat end. What is easiest for you? Is the flute made of a material that feels comfortable when in contact with your mouth? Is there a finish or coating on the flute that causes any discomfort when your mouth touches it?
Finger Distance / Finger Hole Size / Finger Hole Bore Shape: Does the flute fit easily in your hand in the position that you normally play? Is the distance between finger holes so great that you cannot reach or cover some of the holes? Let me share a costly lesson with you. I received a flute in the mail that I hadn"t played, from a maker that I had only met over the telephone, who had a non-return and non-exchange policy. When ordering the flute, I had described myself to him as having large hands. The flute that I received requires a tremendous finger spread. The finger holes are also huge. This combination of features makes the flute nearly unplayable by me, and is possibly a waste of the maker"s time and good intentions. For years I have stubbornly struggled to become comfortable with this flute, but it continues to teach me the value of good hand-to-flute matching, pre-testing, good communication between player and maker, and reasonable exchange policies. I have also seen very small flutes where the finger holes are so close that a person with large fingers can"t play them. Also, are the finger holes of your flute bored directly into the flute body, or are the holes surrounded by a depression? Some makers add these depressions for symbolic or decorative reasons, but this type of finger hole is generally harder to seal with your fingers. Are the finger holes oval or round? Oval holes are generally more difficult to seal with your fingers, unless the holes are very small.
Shape of the Flute: Does the shape of the flute body help or hinder your playing? This feature is usually important only to those people with small hands who want to play flutes that are in a very low key (large diameter flutes). Some flute makers make flutes with an oval bore instead of a round bore. This allows the player to have less distance between finger tips and thumb tips while playing. It may seem to be a subtle difference, but it can be very accommodating to a smaller person.
Flute Length: Is the flute length comfortable to you? Can you easily cover the lowest finger hole without radically changing the position of the flute in your mouth? Rarely is a flute too short, unless it is so small that your fingers collide while playing it, but comfortable finger space is obviously desirable. As flute makers respond to a more competitive marketplace and more knowledgeable flute players by creating flutes in more unusual keys, we see flutes that are incredibly long. There are many flutes on the market that are around 3 feet in total length. Even some large adults can"t play these instruments because of the arm reach required to cover the lowest finger holes.
I think that the old method of creating a flute to specifically fit the body dimensions of the player had and has considerable practicality, especially for the beginner. In the long run, the flute that you are most comfortable with will be the one that you play the most. The flute that fits you is a sound description of both your spirit and your body.
2) Response of the flute. Response could be defined as the sensitivity of the flute to the air that you blow through it. In other words, response is related to how much "wind effort" is required to make the flute play a particular note.
Some flutes respond to very little air volume or air speed, while others require a great deal. Some flutes have a response that is very similar through the entire range of the instrument, whereas other flutes are very sensitive in one range and very resistant in the opposite range. Flutes also vary greatly in "back pressure," or the resistance to the air moving through the flute. Back pressure is a measurable characteristic within the air column of the flute. Response is a description of how easily the flute plays, and is a highly subjective observation due to the fact that no two players blow in exactly the same manner.
The response of a flute is frequently linked to its possible volume range. Some flutes are made by traditional craftspeople in a manner consistent with the need to play the flute in a specific environment, either indoors or outdoors. For example, flutes made in a historic method by woodland people play and respond much differently than flutes made by plains, desert, mountain or coastal people. For example, a delicate and very responsive woodland flute, especially those made of river cane, will have a narrower "dynamic range," or volume potential, than a plains-style flute, which historically had to compete with unpredictable wind in the open prairie. This limits both types of flutes by narrowing the choices of music that can be played on each flute. The more delicate flute probably cannot be played at a loud volume, which might be necessary while interpreting an aggressive emotion. The plains-style flute, naturally requiring more effort and air, will be much louder and the player will struggle to capture quieter, more reflective emotions. The "ideal" flute is the one that is very responsive, and can be played both at very quiet and very loud volumes. This is also, unfortunately, an unusual instrument.
Additionally, each flute is created by an individual who has his/her own blowing habits. As the maker tests and adjusts the flute, the flute then is adjusted to respond to the consistent blowing method used by that maker. This results in flutes made by one maker having a vastly different response than the flutes of another maker. These qualities are part of the uniqueness, individual beauty and character of each flute, and the broad palette of tone colors that we appreciate.
It then becomes important to consider the match-up between the natural air use of the player and the air volume and speed that is needed for good response of the flute. Someone with a more reserved air use will get a real workout on a very resistant flute. Someone who uses their air in a naturally more aggressive manner will overblow the more delicate flute. This doesn"t imply that a particular flute is inappropriate for any player. We just need to understand the instruments, their characteristics and limitations, and adjust our playing approach accordingly.
Even-ness of response and volume capacity are also important considerations for those who perform at outdoor venues or in any situation where the flute is to be played through a microphone. It is a good idea to identify the flutes in your collection that play well at louder volumes, and those which only play at very low volumes. The first type would be more appropriate at pow-wows or outdoor festivals where loud volume is necessary, and the second type would be more fitting for use indoors in a very small gathering where a loud flute is intrusive.
First, play up and down the entire range of the flute, using all of the note fingerings with which you are comfortable. Keep your air flow even, without changing the speed of your air. Does the volume of the flute change as you go up and down the range? Some flutes get quieter as you go into the lowest notes. If you speed up your air on those lower notes, does the volume begin to match that of the higher notes? I think that it is important to me to be able to play the lowest notes as loud as the higher ones, and the higher ones as quiet as the lower ones. Will this flute allow you to be able to do that? This is a good measure of the flexibility of response to air speed.
Second, play each fingering and experiment with a wide variety of volumes when starting the tone. Try beginning the tone with air motion alone, not using your tongue. Try starting the tone many times just with the air, playing at an assortment of volumes. Does each note start with relative ease, regardless of the volume level? Is there a delay, chirp or other disturbance at the beginning of the tone? You probably want the flute that has the most consistent and easy response throughout the entire range and at all volumes.
Third, play each fingering at a loud volume, beginning the sound with the tongue (using a "Tah" or "Dah" syllable). Gradually increase the speed of your tonguing, even to the level of double or triple tonguing. Does the sound start easily on every fingering, no matter how fast you repeat the note? Now go back and retest each fingering the same way, but using a very quiet volume. Do you still get a quick and even response?
Do you have questions about caring for or playing your Native American flute? We"d love to hear from you. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org