Playing Low Flutes: Part 2 - Setting up the Instrument

In a series of blogs, alto and bass flute specialist Carla Rees talks about ways to get the best out of low flutes.
The bigger size of low flutes means that there are a number of considerations regarding how to set up the instruments to play. Use your preferred positions for the C flute as a starting point - but experiment from there to get the best out of the instrument.

1. The foot joint
It might seem an usual idea to begin with the footjoint alignment, but this can often be the cause of balance problems which often (erroneously) seem to be related to the headjoint, especially with the complications of a curved headjoint. Hold the flute roughly in playing position and find a comfortable position for the right hand. Align the foot joint as you would for a C flute, and then slightly turn the joint towards you. Make any adjustments to the foot joint BEFORE changing the headjoint set up - it is much easier to find a comfortable right hand position, and to use this as a guide for small adjustments of the headjoint than the other way round.

2. The curve
Curved head joints provide a number of possibilities (and confusions) regarding set up. I have seen players using all kinds of variations of alignment, and in many ways, anything goes, providing that the instrument is well balanced and the hands are free from tension. Start with the headjoint completely horizontal to the flute (i.e. so that the lip plate is at the same height as the rest of the instrument). The side of the flute nearest the player's body is heavier because of the key mechanism. Positioning the headjoint here adds to the unbalance of weight on this side of the instrument, and can make balancing difficult. Now move the headjoint so that it is directly above the keywork. In this position, depending on the size of the curve, it may be difficult to access the left hand keys comfortably. This position may also be uncomfortable for the arms and shoulders. Now turn the headjoint gradually towards the first, horizontal position. This requires a change of angle at the joint that connects with the body of the flute, as well as a rotation of the headjoint itself. Step by step, try different angles until the instrument comes into balance and the arms are reasonably relaxed. For me, this is at around 45 degrees to the body of the flute (ie almost exactly half way between each of the extreme positions), with the headjoint turned slightly in towards the player. At this stage, make a note of the positions and play for a while without changing anything. After 5 or 10 mins, when the position has settled, begin making tiny adjustments where necessary. I often find that a position that feels comfortable at the end of a practice session can feel horrible when I set up the same way the next day! Spend a few days with one position before making any major changes, as it can take some time for the muscles to get used to the changes in use between different sizes of instrument.

3. Straight Head
If you are playing a straight headjoint, you may still find that you need a slightly different set up to the one you use for the C flute. For example, if you are used to having the headjoint turned in quite a long way, it may place too much strain on the hands to support the extra weight of a larger instrument. Similarly, if you are used to having the headjoint in line, you may find the balance of the instrument means additional tension appears in one or both hands. Experiment with the balance and take your time to find a solution – and remember to keep listening to the tone quality and to adjust the airstream accordingly.

4. The lip plate
Sharpness of pitch is a frequent problem with inexperienced alto and bass flute players. A common cause of this is the incorrect positioning of the lip plate against the bottom lip. If we take as a general rule that around a quarter to a third of the flute's embouchure hole should be covered by the lower lip, it follows that low flutes should be positioned a little lower on the chin than the usual position for the C flute. Experiment, based on your individual preferences, but my experience is that the tone improves with the lip plate positioned slightly lower. I also find that it can be useful to turn the headjoint in slightly further on the bass flute - but not too far as it will limit the dynamic range.

With all of these set-up considerations, it is most important to remember that there are no fixed rules, and what you are looking for is a playing position that is free from tension, does not cause undue physical stress, and allows for the best possible sound quality and finger flexibility. Each player has a different body and will therefore require subtle adjustments to find the right positions for them. It takes time, so be patient and only change one thing at a time!

Carla's website
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