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Pay the Piper
Cost: from £100, though we suggest you should pay more than this to find an instrument of reasonable quality - say £200
Best age to start: 10 years upwards
Easy to start? Yes, quite easy
The flute is a member of the woodwind
family although almost all are made of metal these days. You hold it
out to one side (to your right) and blow across the mouthpiece to
create the sound, rather like blowing across the top of a bottle. The
hole in the mouthpiece has a sharp edge, known as a fipple, and it is
the air passing across this that makes the sound.
To make the different notes you cover and uncover holes with a system
of keys operated by rods and levers. The system is known as the "Boehm
system" after the man who invented it in the 19th Century. Before
that, most of the holes were just holes. The advantage of the
complicated Boehm system is that there are alternative ways of
fingering many notes, so whatever the order of the notes you need to
play there is always an easy way of doing it.
To play the flute you need to have arms long enough to reach the
holes, and strong enough to support the instrument out to one side
while you play. It is common for children of 10 or 11 to start on the
flute. We would think twice about starting before that. All ordinary
flutes are the same size - there is something called a "short-reach"
flute for young people with little arms, but we are told by some flute
teachers we know that it is not so mechanically reliable as the
ordinary straight one. We are also told that a curved head joint can
be fitted to an ordinary flute to enable smaller people to play. We've
never actually seen one ourselves, but think that this is worth
considering with the advice of an expert flute teacher (our thanks to
Nancy Tietje for this advice).
As instruments go, the flute is not particularly difficult at the
start. By the time you get to Grade 4 or 5 there is little difference
between the flute and other woodwind instruments, though. There are
instruments called the Bass flute and the Alto flute, of different
sizes, but these are very specialised and rare instruments, definitely
not for the beginner. The flute comes apart into three pieces, and
packs into a very small case indeed - light and easy to carry, and the
cases offer excellent protection. They're easy to lose, though. Put
your name inside!
The flute can be used to play in orchestras, wind bands and jazz
bands (for some reason it is quite common for jazz flautists to play
the saxophone as well. This is known as "doubling on sax").
Therefore the flute ought to offer good opportunities for
group music-making. However, there is a very real problem which is
that it is a very popular instrument (it sounds nice, it's not too
difficult to play, it's very easy to carry and it doesn't cost the
earth to buy). Because so many young people play the flute,
orchestras and bands can't fit them all in and the competition for
places is really fierce. It can be extremely disheartening to work
hard for years and years, reach Grade 8 and be a really good player -
and still nobody wants you! You need to think about this very hard
before choosing the flute.
Flutes are quite robust in normal use and the fact that there is no
reed to damage is a bonus. They do not like being dropped or knocked,
though, and bent keys or a dented tube can make an expensive repair.
Every couple of years you will have to have the pads renewed (the soft
pads fixed to each key that close the holes off) which can cost as
much as £50 or £60. Apart from that, there is virtually no
maintenance to do. Cleanliness is important though - as it is with
anything you're going to put in or near your mouth. Because there is
no reed to get in the way, any particles you have in your mouth could
end up inside the flute. Some flute teachers even insist that their
pupils brush their teeth before playing!
The flute has a high-pitched "little brother", the piccolo.
This is used in some orchestral music, and flautists find it easy to
switch between the two instruments. It is not suitable for the
beginner, though - learn the ordinary flute first.
A good "student" flute costs £200 - £350.
Alternatively they can be rented from some music shops for less than £20
a month. There are not many really bad flutes on the market, though we would hesitate to buy those that are advertised on the internet for as little as £100 - we don't know how good they are. For the
beginner two reliable makes are Buffet and Trevor James.
Probably the most highly respected and popular tutor book for
beginners is "Learn as you play flute" by Peter Wastall. You
can buy it at a discounted price by clicking
Flute. While it's always best to have a teacher, many people do
try to learn the flute by themselves.
Tune a Day for Flute is fairly old and may no longer be the best
flute tutor book around, but we still think it's particularly suitable
for lone students.
To learn more about the flute and how it is played, try
Flute Book or
flute made simple or
Rough Guide to Flute & Piccolo. We searched for a CD that
would show you the tremendous range of styles in which the flute can
be played, and we think one of the best examples is by Irish flautist
A website we discovered recently is FLUTES.TK
which is an excellent "portal" for those who play the flute
or are interested in learning. It lists a multitude of websites about
the flute, divided sensibly into categories like Discussion Groups,
Books, Sheet Music, Education & Training, Shops, History and so
is another good portal to many sources of interest and instruction,
Shepard's Flute Page also has lots of links to places useful
to flautists, especially those who are teaching themselves to play.
Fairly cheap as instruments go
Fairly easy to start
Easy to find a teacher
Poor opportunities for group music-making because of the great
popularity of the instrument
Not particularly prone to damage, though expensive to repair
Very easy to carry