Pay the Piper

So you want to play a musical instrument?

You think you'd like to learn the flute? We tell you the advantages and pitfalls, where to buy one, how to get lessons, what it will cost - everything you need to know

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What instrument to play
How to buy an instrument
Other costs
Where to get lessons
How much progress will I make?
Doing your practice
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The Flute

Family: Woodwind
Cost: from £220 (the lowest price we could find, VAT included)
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 £250 - £350. Alternatively they can be rented from some music shops for less than £20 a month. There are not many bad flutes on the market, but for the beginner two good 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 here. Another is Abracadabra Flute. While it's always best to have a teacher, many people do try to learn the flute by themselves. A 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 The Flute Book or The flute made simple or The 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 James Galway.
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 on. is another good portal to many sources of interest and instruction, and Mark 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


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Copyright © David Bramhall 2005