Instruments: Choosing an alto or bass flute

Buying an alto or bass flute for the first time can be a daunting experience. How do you know what makes a good instrument? Which of the many options do you need? The information presented here should serve as a guide, but feel free to contact us for friendly advice.

Budget is usually an important factor choosing a low flute. For many people, low flutes are secondary instruments and a limited budget might be available. The good news is that there are good instruments at all levels and entry level instruments can usually be sold second hand without too much trouble if you find you’re ready to upgrade (feel free to contact us if you’re interested in buying or selling second hand instruments – we might be able to help). No matter what your budget is, it’s important to find the right instrument for you.

Curved or Straight Head
For alto flutes, the type of headjoint is an important consideration. I have often seen advice that suggests a minimum height for playing on a straight head, but my experience is that these suggestions are not necessarily helpful, as body proportions can vary! I’ve taught short people who can handle straight heads easily, and tall people who need to play on a curved head. Curved heads can sometimes be more difficult to play in tune than straight ones, and the response can also be less good, but shop around as they can vary between makes. When choosing if you need a curved or straight head, remember that the alto flute needs more physical strength to play, and be careful not to confuse muscle weakness with an inability to reach the keys. You can expect some fatigue at first (I did 6 months of weight training before my first hour long alto flute recital) but be careful not to cause physical strain by overdoing it. Gently build up practice time as you become stronger, and remember to adapt your hand positions to playing a bigger instrument.

The positioning of the keys can be an important factor in comfortable playing positions, and different people will need slightly different key placement, so pick an instrument which suits your hands (taking into account the need to modify hand positions from C flute). Make sure the instrument is well balanced and that you can move relatively easily around the foot joint keys. There’s no sense in having a great sounding instrument that you can only play for a few minutes at a time because of key placements that don’t suit your hands.

Bass flute crutch
Many bass flutes come with a hand support crutch for the left hand. If this is not ideally suited to your hand, try playing without it, or use a lump of blu tack instead, moulded to suit your hands.

Bore size
Low flutes are made at different bore sizes, and it is important to know the differences between them in making your choice. In general, a big bore instrument will have a stronger low register and a weaker high register than a small bore instrument. Bigger bores also tend to have a slightly slower response and more difference in tone between registers. Big bores are ideal for playing in flute choirs (especially for the bass) but can be heavier and need more air. Small bores are ideal for solo repertoire, where the demands can require more agility and a stronger high register.

I am a firm believer that low flutes should sound like low flutes, and not just an extended range of the C flute. If it’s your first alto or bass, remember that you won’t have adapted your playing techniques to low flutes yet, so be wary of going for the instrument that feels the easiest to play straight away. You’ll find as you develop your low flute playing skills that you can get more out of an instrument, so look for the potential for a deep, rich tone in the low register.

Response can vary considerably according to the cut and style of the headjoint. Try different makes, and even different instruments of the same make, to find a headjoint that suits you

Materials make less of a difference on low flutes than on C flutes. If your budget allows it, a silver headjoint or lip plate will make a difference to the tone and response, but the rest of the instrument can be silver plated without making a difference to the sound. Lighter-weight materials, such as brass, can even be preferable to precious metals.

Other options
Bass flute - Vertical or horizontal?
Upright bass flutes are beginning to appear on the market. A good quality vertical instrument, such as those made by Eva Kingma, is ergonomically designed for comfortable hand positions. Upright instruments need careful key placement (ie not just a standard bass with a modified headjoint) and well-designed hand rests and supports. Remember you need to be able to play sitting and standing, and avoid anything that involves needing to support a bass flute with a neck strap.

Open holes?
Open holes can be extremely useful for playing contemporary repertoire. The holes can be positioned to suit your hands, and being able to operate the keys directly, rather than through additional levers, can make the mechanism lighter. Open holes can also improve the response of the instrument.

B foot
B footjoints are a useful addition to low flutes, and several makers offer them. Although they add a little extra weight, the additional key can stabile the balance of the instrument and give a richer low register.

For further advice, to hire before you buy or for information about buying second hand instruments, please contact us

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