I recently had an email exchange with a reader who is starting the search for a new flute. Since I recently did a flute search of my own, we had a fun email exchange. Rather than summarize it, she allowed me to post the exchange here. I hope there are some ideas here that are useful for you, if you’re searching for a new flute…
I just came across your informative page on the internet today and I enjoyed your writings.
I live in [far northwestern Washington state] and I am in the market of finding another flute and what a process this appears to be when you live in a small town. I am doing all of my research online and listening to as many videos as possible. I am in contact with [a big flute store] and they have been so helpful. I have had a Yamaha YFL 88l with Straubinger pads for the past 20 years and I am eager to move on to a more colorful and richer instrument. I bought a Straubinger headjoint to add more depth and I’m happy with the improvement, but it’s time to find another flute. The adventure has begun in the ‘sea of flutes’ out there. I like the sound of the Brannen Cooper flutes and Altus, but have taken an interest in the Weissman-Mckenna flutes, I have heard such great things about Jeff Weissman and his flutes. Do you have any particular flute that you can recommend for me to try? After years on the Yamaha 881, I am seeking more color and depth/richness in my sound.
[a blog reader]
Hi [blog reader],
Thanks for your kind comments! I really don’t consider myself a good enough flute player to answer your question properly. I just haven’t had enough exposure to different high quality flutes to understand the finer points of how they differ. It is also very hard for me to talk about coloring the tone on the flute, because I feel that, at this stage of my learning, I am really just trying to get a solid, clear, centered tone on the flute. I don’t have the mastery to really manipulate the tone (except maybe in the middle register). I will never forget watching Ian Clarke playing a recital at my school, and I was listening to the bazillions of different tone qualities he produced – strikingly different from one moment to the next – and thinking to myself “I just want to get a good sound!” 😉
That said, it is my firm belief that *at least* 80 percent of the tone quality and flexibility of tone come from the headjoint. To me the body just needs to feel good to your own hands, so you can have a comfortable, confident, fast technique. It also needs to be well in tune, and durable (so it’s not in the shop all the time). All the makers you’ve mentioned make fantastic flutes. For my hands, the Altus has been the best fit so far. They feel very comfortable and quick to me, and I’m very happy that these flutes stay in adjustment, barring abuse by me. As I said, I don’t know if they are the most colorful or not – I just don’t have that much control to test that.
So to answer your question, no, I really can’t recommend any particular flute for you to try. Everyone’s hands are different, and what works for me might not work for you. I think all the brands you mentioned are great flutes. I played just about everything present at the NFA convention last August, and I was struck by the quality of the flutes. It seems to me that all the handmade flutes there were of amazing quality (and they should be, costing $4,000 and up). Brannen, Powell, Haynes, Miyazawa, everything was wonderfully made. So in the end it comes down to your preference.
Let me make these recommendations regarding your flute search. Keep your current flute and headjoint during the trial. Use your current headjoint on the trial flutes. Have it sized down if necessary. You know how your current headjoint plays. So putting it on other flute bodies will help you figure out how much the trial flute bodies are contributing to your sound. Buy a roll of teflon tape at the hardware store before you start ordering flutes on trial. It will help you in making headjoints fit. If you can, try the trial headjoints on your Yamaha body. They may surprise you! Try as many flutes as you can, and always try to isolate whether the results you’re getting are due to the body or the headjoint.
Good luck, and I hope these ideas help. Let me know how it goes.
Thank you for your quick reply. I’m very appreciative of your suggestions for trying the new flutes, it is a bit daunting with all of the choices out there. I’ve heard great things about the Altus flutes and once attended a class with William Bennett. I think I should go with an offset G key, presently I have an inline G and I have heard that it’s much better for your hands to go with the offset G. May I ask what model you have and does it have an offset G key?
[a blog reader]
Hi [blog reader],
Yes, I agree – it’s daunting. Don’t be in a hurry to find a new flute though. You’re pretty close to Seattle and Vancouver, so I would visit as many flute sellers as you can to try flutes. I wouldn’t be surprised to find either of those cities may have a flute club of some sort with regular meetings. If so, you can go talk to those people about flute brands and features. Many of those folks would probably let you try their flutes too.
Regarding offset G – I simply can’t imagine why anybody plays inline G any more. Maybe there is somebody in the world whose ring finger is an inch longer than the rest of their fingers – but for the rest of us with normal hands, the inline G forces our ring fingers to straighten out too much. As you know I play all the woodwinds, and I have spent a great deal of time working to find the best hand and finger position on those instruments – and in all cases, naturally curved fingers and relaxed hands are the ideal. The inline G forces your ring finger into a poor position. Yes, there are people who play great this way, but why make it harder or more painful than it has to be? All that said, you are used to inline G, so you really should try the offset before buying it just to make sure you can re-adapt.
In general my philosophy is that I want the instrument to be as ergonomic as possible. I try to work with instrument repair people to do that – we bend keys, build up hand rests on different parts of the horns, move thumb rests, etc. I do this because when I’m making music, I want to be concentrating on the *music* – not how my ring finger is hurting! 😉 This is why, especially on flute, I tell people that the first consideration is getting a flute body that feels comfortable under the fingers and has a fast, crisp-feeling action (assuming it plays well in tune, of course). The headjoint is going to be the vast vast majority of how the flute “sounds” and how you blow it. The body will be the vast majority of how it “feels” to you.
Speaking of William Bennett – as you may know, he’s done a LOT of research into flute design, specifically in how to place the tone holes for best tuning. This work has gone into the Altus flutes, and I think they are somewhat unique in their tuning. I really like it. You can learn to play any flute in tune, but for me, the Altus is easier to play in tune, so I just don’t have to think about it as much as I do on other brand flutes. I *love* Bennett’s playing, by the way, and as you may have read on my sight, I play a closed hole flute. I don’t have time to fool around with all the “special effects” people are doing with open holes these days, and so I chose the closed holes for comfort. I don’t regret that decision one bit. There are people who look down their noses at my closed hole C-foot flute, but I really don’t care. William Bennett also plays closed hole C-foot. He sounds fantastic. Nuff said!
A quick sidetrack: While we are talking about it, consider C-foot as well. It’s easier to balance the flute, and I feel they are generally more responsive, with quicker articulation. Some people say the tone is brighter, but I believe the player gradually adjusts embouchure over time to get the tone they “hear in their head” anyway. Since you are looking for greater flexibility of tone, a C-foot flute may very well give you that.
My Altus is a model 1007, which is no longer made, I believe. It’s a sterling silver body and headjoint, with plated keys. I believe Altus has quit making sterling flutes and now only use a slightly higher silver content called “Britannia” silver. (Sterling is 92.5% silver, but Britannia is 95.8%.) I owned my first Altus roughly 1997-2003, and it was a model 1207, Britannia silver, open hole B-foot. I had to sell that flute to raise some cash, and I hated to see it go, but in a way, I’m glad because I never would have bought my 1007, which I really enjoy more.
Sorry to ramble on. I hope this info helps you. Good luck in your search!