my years as a private flute teacher, I have addressed a wide
variety of technical problems among my students. Unfortunately,
many of their issues are very common: poorly maintained instruments,
improper hand position, and incorrect fingerings. Through
experience, I have learned that the best remedy for many
of these bad habits is to correct them as early as possible
since they often become so ingrained after a period of a
couple of years that they are nearly impossible to correct.
It is my hope that I can help prevent the frustration of
the flute student and their music instructors by providing
some hints for teaching the beginner.
Flute Repair & Maintenance
Beginner flutists often have new or used flutes, which are
in desperate need of repairs. They can be quickly discouraged
when unable to produce a sound on such instruments. In a
section full of other young flute players, it is hard for
a director to distinguish a student who is simply having
embouchure difficulty from one who may have a flute with
leaking pads or keys. I urge band directors to take time
at the beginning of the school year to “test
play” their students’ flutes to find any obvious problems. Be sure
to try the lowest notes of the instrument, which lie just below the staff,
since these will be most susceptible to leaks. Many newer flutes have plastic
or rubber “corks” which have trouble adhering to metal flutes.
Keep some epoxy-type glue handy for re-attaching these to flutes.
Band directors can show students how to check the position of the large corks
inside the headjoint using the cleaning rod. Students may need help moving
the cork, if necessary. If the cork is too small to fit securely in the correct
spot, it should be replaced. An improper fit of the cork can cause the tone
to sound fuzzy.
Many students unknowingly cause damage to their flutes during assembly, so
it can be helpful to teach students the proper way to put their instruments
together. The most important point for students to remember is to avoid twisting
the mechanism. When joining the headjoint to the body of the flute, hold both
parts of the instrument above or below the keys and lip plate. Beginner flutes
are often difficult to assemble because the joints do not fit properly. Be
sure that students keep the tenons clean and free of tarnish if the fit is
too tight. Any residue on the tenons can usually be easily removed using a
cloth and rubbing alcohol. Applying oil or petroleum jelly is not recommended
since these can leave a residue on the tenons or the pads.
During flute assembly, it is also important that students align their headjoint
and footjoint properly. It is a common mistake of beginner flutists to push
the headjoint all the way into the body. Flutes are designed so that the headjoint
should be slightly pulled out in order to play in tune; ? inch is a good estimate
for a beginner. The center of the tone hole of the headjoint should generally
be aligned with the centers of the keys on the body. The primary rod of the
footjoint should be aligned with the centers of the body’s keys. This
alignment of the footjoint will be helpful to most young flutists who have
small hands and may otherwise have trouble reaching all of the footjoint keys.
Students should also be encouraged to maintain their instruments by always
swabbing the flute after playing, but warn against using key oil and polishing
cloths. Oil can easily leak onto pads when applied by a student. Keys only
need to be oiled about as frequently as a flute needs to be repaired, so it
is usually best to leave oiling to a professional. Polishing cloths are specially
treated to help remove tarnish, but these cloths can deposit a residue on pads
and in the mechanism. If the pads become dirty and start to stick, please never
recommend that students use a dollar bill to “clean” them. The
best solution for sticking pads is to place un-gummed cigarette paper under
the affected key and then firmly close the key over the paper to blot the pad.
In order to avoid tearing the skin of the pad, never pull the paper out from
under the key before releasing it. If simply blotting the pad does not relieve
the sticking, the cigarette paper may be coated with rubbing alcohol before
repeating the procedure.
The best prevention for sticking pads is for students to regularly swab their
flutes and to avoid candy and sodas before (and during!) playing. Beginner
flutes are usually built to stand up to some abuse, but teaching good habits
can also assure that students will not damage a new advanced model flute in
Proper Hand Position
The flute is perhaps rivaled only by the violin in terms of the awkwardness
involved in holding the instrument. Starting beginner flutists with correct
hand position and posture is crucial to their success. Beginners are often
at a disadvantage because of the small size of their hands, which makes correct
position even more important.
The thumb of the right hand serves a vital role by supporting the flute.
It should generally be placed on the underside of the flute somewhere either
underneath the index or middle finger or between the two. The right hand
fingers should be curved slightly so that the entire hand is shaped like
the letter “C.” Students
can begin to prepare for an open-holed flute by trying to place their fingertips
inside the round centers of the keys for good hand position. In the left hand,
the index finger is the most important finger for hand position. The finger
should be in contact with the side of the flute between the large knuckle of
the finger up to the next knuckle. The index finger should wrap around and
slightly underneath the flute in order to support the flute and bring it firmly
to the chin. The flute can rest between the two knuckles as if sitting on a
shelf. The index finger can then be free to wrap around the flute like a crook
(a candy cane is a useful analogy for students) so that the fingertip can reach
the C key. Students do not need to be concerned with getting their entire fingertip
on top of the key as long as they can close it comfortably.
Proper posture not only includes proper hand position, but also proper arm
position and sitting position. New flute students are often inclined to hold
their flutes too high in an effort to imitate what they perceive as good posture.
Ideally, the flute should be held with a comfortable tilt down to the right.
This posture can further be encouraged by trying to give flute students adequate
room in their rows within the band. If space is at a premium within a flute
section, students can be positioned so that each successive player to the right
sits slightly behind the player to their left. Additionally, flutists should
sit with the lower body aimed slightly diagonally to the right of the upper
half. This position can be encouraged by having flute students turn their chairs
on the diagonal with their music stands either directly in front of them or
slightly to the left. When two students are required to share a stand, be sure
that it is placed more in front of the player to the left.
students are able to navigate the pitfalls of posture, the next subject to
be broached is the use of correct fingerings. The most common mistakes include
using incorrect fingerings for the first and second octave D and Eb. The
index finger in the left hand must be down for these notes in the lowest
register of the instrument, but lifted an octave higher.
Additionally, F# in all registers should be fingered using the ring finger
of the right hand and not the middle finger. (Note that the middle finger can
be used for F# in the highest register among advanced flutists to lower the
pitch for better intonation.)
difficult note in terms of fingering is Bb/A#, in all registers.
The complication stems from the fact that there are three useful
ways to finger the note in the lower two registers. Most beginners
first learn the “one + one” fingering, and although
this is a useful fingering for beginners, it is probably the least
commonly used by professionals. Obviously, the other Bb fingerings
are very useful, so it is a good idea to teach these to students
as soon as they are capable of learning them. The Bb thumb key
fingering is especially useful in bands where students are usually
playing in keys with flats.
Bb Using Thumb Key
eliminates the need to use any right hand fingers (except the pinky), so
that an alternation between G and Bb, for example, becomes greatly simplified.
It is important for students learning this new fingering to understand
that they can leave their left thumb on the Bb thumb key on any note for
which the thumb is down. The only exception to this rule is the third octave
Gb/F#. The other possible Bb fingering uses the small lever key just to
the left of the F key.
Bb Using Lever Key
fingering for Bb/A# is especially useful when moving to and from B natural
(or Cb) such as in the keys of Gb or B major or in chromatic passages.
The third octave Bb has its own unique fingering.
note tends to be flat, especially in comparison to the surrounding
third octave notes, which are often sharp. This tendency can be
partially corrected by lifting the left index finger when fingering
the note. Unfortunately, some fingering charts indicate that the
index finger should be down, but many professional flutists recommend
Although all of this advice on flute maintenance, posture, and fingerings may
be useful, the best advice is to encourage students to take private lessons
from a professional if possible. Lessons are often recommended only for the
most advanced students, but the weaker students can benefit from them equally,
if not more so. Private lessons can sometimes turn the weakest player into
one of the strongest in a band.
Dr. Jennifer Rhyne is in her second year as flute instructor at Fort Hays
State University in Hays, Kansas. She also directs a flute choir and maintains
an active studio. Jennifer holds degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory of
Music, the University of Michigan, and the State University of New York at
Reprinted with permission of School Band and
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