Buying your very first student flute is an exciting but rather daunting experience! For beginners (or their parents), the list of brands, features and online reviews can get you completely confused. Where do you begin and what should you be looking for in a quality student flute? I’ll explain the anatomy of the flute, the features you’ll need as a beginner and the characteristics a good student flute should possess. Come shopping time, you’ll feel confident in asking questions, understanding your budget and ultimately come away with a flute that is your best match. Regardless of the brand or model you choose, your aim should be to get a flute that allows you to grow into its capabilities.
Parts of the flute and the optional extras
The flute comes in three parts – the head joint, the body and the foot. There’s also a curved version of the head joint for small players used as a preliminary step before upgrading to a full sized flute. There are variations for each of these parts as you begin to step up in player ability and price range.
The head joint
The head joint is made up of the tube, riser and lip plate and is responsible for the sound quality of the flute. A student flute will typically have a machine cut head joint which is perfectly acceptable for the early years of playing. They’re generally of good quality due to advances in technology and manufacturing. And they’re designed to make a good sound quickly. However for a student to advance and become far more expressive in their playing, an upgrade in the head joint is often necessary. The difference is due to the materials used as well as the cut of the embouchure hole. A hand cut rather than machine cut embouchure hole gives a richer tone and is more responsive to the player. This means you can achieve greater depth and control of dynamics, more powerful sound projection, smoother transitions between octaves and greater clarity of articulation.
The body of the flute houses most of the keys. There are typically two forms of the body available – the inline G versus the offset G. Both of these versions sound ‘the same’. Traditionally the inline G version was preferred by professional players whereas the offset G was a student adaptation. But there is now a popular trend towards the offset G for players of all levels, as it’s more comfortable to play.
Open vs closed holes
Another option is the use of open (also called ring) or closed (also called plateau) hole keys. Open holed flutes have a hole in the middle of the keys that require your fingers to cover them. They can be turned back into closed keys using silicon key plugs whenever you like, and they’ve become standard for intermediate and professional flutes. Closed hole flutes have keys that are totally solid, and are standard for student flutes. Having an open holed flute means you have to develop accurate finger placement so that the entire hole is covered and you can used advanced techniques to create sound effects. Closed holes allow beginners to work on other aspects of playing and are best for young players who can’t reach the centre of the keys yet.
The split E mechanism (which gives greater clarity when playing a high E) and C sharp trill key (greater versatility with trills) are two other options that you may encounter. Both are useful features to the advancing player (i.e. greater than 2 years playing experience) but are not essential for beginners. The split E mechanism is now increasingly included on a student flute as standard. You may also come across pointed key arms (also known as French style) which attach the keys to the rods of the flute. Previously used on intermediate and professional flutes, they’re becoming more common in student models mostly for style.
The foot joint
The foot joint is the smallest part of the flute used only by the pinkie finger. There are no open or closed holed versions of this piece, however there are some options available that can extend the note range of the flute. The C foot joint is standard for a student flute, and has two round keys which allows the player to reach a low C note. The B foot is slightly longer having three round keys, allowing the player to reach a low B note. As very few pieces have this (rather difficult) low B, a B foot is considered only by advanced players.
Levels of flutes
So I’ve been referring to three levels of flutes – student flute, intermediate flute and professional flute. In reality there are no standard features that each level should have. This means there really is a whole spectrum of flutes that range from the most basic to the finest hand crafted instrument. It’s easy to upgrade parts of the flute to bridge the gaps between levels. To add confusion, not all flute manufacturers were made equal! An intermediate model for one brand may only be equivalent to a student model in another. So don’t place too much emphasis on these categories!
Materials flutes are made of
Flutes are made from a variety of metals and metal alloys. Common ones include gold, silver, nickel and platinum. Some flute makers even have their own exclusive alloys, such as Miyazawa’s Gold-Silver (GS) alloy or Altus’ .946 Altus Silver™. The hardness and thickness of the material has a direct effect on a flute’s tonal colour, player response time and the overall ease of playing. Subtle differences in the tone of the flute can be drawn out as well as other benefits such as resistance to tarnish.
Most student flutes are made of nickel silver (a copper, nickel and zinc alloy) which is plated with silver. Nickel silver is a cheap and durable material that still produces a reliable sound, and is great for student use. With a step up in price you will find sterling silver (92.5% pure silver) used for the lip plate or head joint that will add brilliance and depth to tone for the advancing player.
Beware of cheap metal flutes advertised on EBay (new flutes less than $300). These are often made of cupronickel, an alloy of copper and nickel also known as white copper. This is then plated with nickel silver or nickel and can often be coloured. The tone of these flutes will never be as good as a student flute made from a genuine manufacturer from quality materials. In my opinion these shouldn’t be advertised as instruments, but as toys. Plastic flutes are also appearing and are being marketed as an alternative for beginners, being durable and lightweight. I’ve even seen them marketed as washable! Whilst they ‘play tunes,’ reviews say they sound wispy, keys can be sticky and certain high/ low notes can be difficult to play. Again, I would not recommend these for a serious beginner and certainly not if playing in a group or band where tuning is important.
Brands of flutes
A quick Google of “brands of flutes” lists over 80 flute makers from around the world! How can you judge a ‘good quality’ brand from a ‘bad’ brand? Are different brands renowned for excellence for particular attributes and weaknesses in others?
Brands to look for…
There are endless opinions online! But nothing beats the playing experience of a professional player or teacher. They’ve had a career of playing and observing students, so they’ve become very familiar with many brands. I’ve found recommendations from several professional players to get you started according to price…
$ (<$500) – used Japanese-made Yamaha 200 series (the Yamaha YFL-211 or 221 were very popular but have been discontinued and replaced with the new models below)
$$ ($500 – $1000) – Yamaha YFL-212, Yamaha YFL-222, Pearl PF 505, Trevor James 10X, Jupiter JF-511S/E
$$$ ($1000 – $1500) – Miyazawa MJ-101E, Yamaha, Trevor James Privilege, Pearl 525E Quantz, Jupiter 611 models
$$$$ ($1500 – $2000) – Miyazawa MJ-101-SRE, Azumi 2000 series, Trevor James Cantabile, Yamaha YFL-371, Jupiter diMedici 1211 Series (some of these are really considered intermediate models)
Brands to avoid…
On EBay, many flutes for sale are in an ‘unbranded’ category, and are sent from Hong Kong or China. These may be counterfeits of reputable brands. Watch out for advertisments like ‘a generic model of the Yamaha YFL-211.’ They’re known to have keys that are clunky and slow, pads that don’t seal well, soft metal which damages easily, aren’t repairable and have roughly cut embouchure holes. Whilst it might seem like a good deal for a student flute (particularly if parents aren’t sure how committed your student will be), it won’t be in the long term. The unresponsiveness of the instrument will almost guarantee students to become quickly frustrated.
So in summary….
What are the characteristics of a good quality student flute?
- Playability – not too heavy, keys move lightly when pressed and pads seal well
- Tone – rich and clear, not rough or breathy. Can be played loudly or softly and remain in tune
- Reparability – the materials used are of high enough quality that repair shops can guarantee repairs will hold
- Good resale value – the types of materials used, mechanical accuracy, and quality of the embouchure hole and head joint mean you should get up to two thirds of the original cost of the flute back, after 5 years or more
- Upgradable – the body is of sufficient quality that an upgraded head joint could extend its lifetime by at least 2 years
- In your price range – there will always be ‘better’ flutes… stick to your budget and select from within it.
- Low ongoing maintenance costs – flute does not need servicing more than once a year if well maintained.
- Durability – keys and rods are not easily bent, the surface does not dint, scratch or tarnish easily
- Player satisfaction – playing remains ‘pleasurable and easy’ not increasingly frustrating
- Ask the opinion of a flute teacher or more advanced player. Ask them to come along to an appointment to trial some flutes with you.
- Try several instruments of the same model if possible as no two flutes sound exactly the same.
- Record yourself (or the demonstrator) playing the same notes on each flute and compare them. Try playing fast and slow, high and low notes, loudly and softly, slurring and tonguing and letting long notes ring.
Your likely configuration of a student flute will be…
- Nickel silver with silver plating (not nickel plating). No colours!
- Offset G configuration
- Closed hole
- C foot
- Split E mechanism (optional not essential)
- Solid silver head joint (if budget permits)
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