Checking out a New Flute
You have in your hands the ultimate flute.
You picked it up off the rack at the flute gathering and have formed an
It plays beautifully!
Three new songs have sprung up in the half hour you have been playing it!
Mazeltov! That's the way to find the right flute.
However … before you reach for the credit card,
here are some things to check out.
Each one of these items is a “been there, done that” for me.
I have vowed before giving my heart (and cash) to a flute,
that I will check these things first …
Ask the maker what finish they use on the outside and on the inside of the flute. This is important for how to maintain the appearance of the flute.
Also, the finish (or “sealer”) used for the inside of the slow air chamber (SAC) is important to the protection of the instrument. Because of the high moisture that builds up in the SAC, flutes where the SAC is not sealed have a greater tendency to crack and split along the glue line.
Examine the flute very carefully for cracks.
Use a magnifying glass, if you have to. Here is a picture of a crack in a bamboo flute near the sound hole:
Crack in a bamboo flute near the sound hole
If it is a wood flute, scrutinize all seams.
There is typically one along the length of the flute on each side where the
halves were glued together.
There may be other seams were endcaps or side-bars were applied to the flute.
If it is a bamboo or cane flute, check the entire flute for cracks.
These will typically form lengthwise along the body of the flute.
A crack is not deadly and many good flutes have been wrapped to repair
or prevent cracks, but you should know about any defects.
Sight down the length of the flute to check for a warped flute body. If the flute is warped, it could be a sign of problems.
A warped flute - not a problem on this bamboo flute
If the flute is made of bamboo, like the Paul Thompson flute shown above, it is likely not to be a problem. If the flute is a branch flutes - made from an unmilled branch of a tree - then it is also likely not a problem.
However, if the flute is made of wood constructed with the commonly used split/glue method, then you should check the length of the flute very carefully for cracks, listen carefully to the voicing of the flute, and also check for a leaky nest …
Does the block sit flat on the nest?
There should be no space between the nest and the bottom of the block.
If there is, air will leak out of the flue and create havoc with the sound of the flute.
If possible, hold the flute up to the light or a white surface and look sideways across the nest.
You're looking for any separation between the top of the nest and the
bottom of the block.
Having a strong light on the other side will help you see any separation.
Warped block causing a separation from the nest area
If there is a separation, then the block is not sitting flat on the nest.
This can usually be fixed by the flutemaker.
Often, both the top of the nest and the bottom of the block can be re-flattened.
Sanding both using fine sandpaper affixed to a very flat surface
(a piece of glass) is one method.
On some flutes, it is not possible to site across the nest at the bottom of the block, because of the shape of the nest (such as raised rails on the sides of the nest) or even because of the shape of the block.
Inside the Sound Chamber
Take a look inside the sound chamber from the end of the flute. It helps to shine a light in there, either through the finger holes or even with one of those LED laser lights that are used in presentations.
How is the bore constructed? Are there any shreds of wood hanging down from the finger holes? This can give you a general ideal about the overall quality and attention to detail used on the flute. Also, shreds of wood near the finger holes can affect the sound of the flute.
Under the Block
While you've got the maker close at hand, it's a good time to untie the block and look at the flue and sound hole. The SAC exit hole, flue, and sound hole are key areas that create the sound of the flute, and looking at them can give you another indication of the craftsmanship. Most makers agree that this area is the most critical part of the flute - these areas should be smooth and free of shards of wood or substantial roughness.
You can also get practice tieing the block back on the flute!
How much breath pressure is needed to sound a note? The amount of breath pressure you need to play is called the back-pressure of the flute.
Beginning players are often not aware of the amount of breath pressure they apply to a flute. It's a nice exercise if a maker has different flutes with different amounts of back-pressure (or if you're at a festival with a lot of makers) to experiment with back-pressure.
It's a matter of personal taste how much back-pressure each player likes. Personally, I think that a flute with more back-pressure tends to play more smoothly, but is more tiresome to play and does not give you as fine a degree of control on the attack and endings of notes.
Two main issues here:
1. Is the flute in tune with itself?
This you can determined by playing.
Careful listening across the full range of notes is important.
If you like the sound of the flute,
then it is probably in tune with itself for your playing.
Sometimes notes are slightly flat or sharp,
but in your style of playing you might blow harder
or softer on these notes and bring them in pitch.
Remember that an electronic tuner does not tell the whole story here,
because some songs actually sound better with some of the notes
out of pitch (according to the tuner).
Many Middle Eastern and Indian instruments are intentionally tuned with
“quarter tones”, and these are characteristic sounds in that realm.
Also, the amount of breath pressure needed on a particular flute as you move up the scale is a critical design decision built into the flute by the person who crafted the flute. Some flute makers will assume that the player uses a steady breath pressure, and the and notes will both match the drone with the same breath pressure. Some flute makers assume that the player will reduce their breath pressure as they go up the scale, and some will assume an increase in breath pressure. It's likely that if you have flutes of several makers, that they will behave differently when you try this exercise.
2. Is the flute concert-tuned?
This is an entirely different issue than the first question.
If you intend to play with other pitched instruments
(pianos, guitars, etc as opposed to unpitched drums, shakers, etc)
then a concert-tuned flute is rather important.
An electronic tuner might help here, but before you dive into the world of electronic tuners, see the Flutopedia page (especially the caveats) on Electronic Tuners for the Native American flute.
For another approach to testing tuning based on playing a flute against a drone, see Reference Drones.
For a more general discussion of tuning issues, see Right in Tune.
If you like to play the “notes in the cracks” or “blue notes” …
the notes between the standard notes of the pentatonic scale …
then check out how those notes are fingered.
You might have to hunt around for the correct cross-fingering for these notes.
Ask the maker if they have a finger chart, but realize that there is often
variation among cross-fingerings, even for the same maker.
On some flutes, especially ones with large finger holes,
there may be no cross-fingering for certain blue notes.
Best to know that up front.
Timbre [tahm-ber] is the quality of sound that allows us to distinguish, for example, between a saxophone and an oboe, or a silver flute and a Native American flute.
How would you describe the overall timbre of the flute? The more you listen to flutes, and the more flutes you listen to, the more words you're likely to come up with to describe the huge array of timbres you hear.
I believe that it's a valuable listening exercise to try to describe the timbres of the flutes we hear. Putting it in words (or trying to) calls forth imagry and feelings of touch that can add a new dimension to our sound.
However, unlike wine tasting and coffee cupping where the community attempts to use a standardized set of terms for particular tastes and aromas, there's not consensus about the terms we use to describe the timbres of Native American flutes. I've found that a few words tend to have similar meanings among players:
- Breathy. A “windy” or “airy” sound. This can be somewhat subject to the position of the block: moving it back can make it more breathy.
- Soft. A term that usually mean “quiet” … a low-volume flute.
- Reedy. Hard to describe, but you know it when you hear it! Reedy flutes have a nasal quality to their tone, and are sometimes associated with Plains Style flutes.
Other terms such as “warm”, “dark”, “muddy”, “clean”, “bright”, “complex”, “cool”, “dry”, and I've even heard “foofey” (but I think Clif was pullin' my leg on that one). The point is not to nail down the meaning of these words, but to listen as deeply as possible and come up with as many descriminating words and images as possible to help us get a handle on tone.
None of these characteristics are necessarily good or bad … it's all what you like in the sound of the flute. Also, our listening tastes tend to change over time. The flute you thought had the most perfect timbre last year might sound too breathy/reedy/thin today.
Note that some folks use the terms “Plains sound” and “Woodlands sound” to describe the timbres of flutes. See Plains Style and Woodlands Style Native American Flutes for a discussion of these terms.
Perhaps the most important issue is playability. I've already mentioned some issues such as back-pressure, but there are a lot of other issues to how the flute plays. Here are some:
Can you “honk” on the flute … play it with high breath pressure without it jumping into the upper register? A flute that easily jumps into the second octave is sometimes said to be “sensitive” or “twitchy”.
What is the “dynamic range” of each note? Dynamics refers to volume — loud versus soft. Try playing each note, from the lowest to the highest, and explore the quiet and the loud end of the dynamic range on that note. How does it sound when it's really, really soft? How does the sound distort when you get really loud? How far can you push the note whithout jumping into the upper register? (Thanks to Brent Haines of Woodsounds Flutes for pointing this out).
How does the flute respond to articulation? Try playing legato (all notes connected) and then articulating each note with an attack (such as saying “Ta” or “Ka” at the start of the note). How toes the flute sound? Is there a small “chiff” at the start of the note that can be used expressively?
Does the flute sing notes above the octave note? Some do, some don't.
If they can be played, ask the maker to show you the
fingerings or technique to achieve them.
Sometimes you have to crack the top hole very slightly to make them sing.
Sometimes you have to open the top hole or two holes.
Finally, ask the maker about maintenance.
What is the finish, and what is recommended to keep the flute in top condition.
- How do you clean the outside of the flute?
- Does the bore need to be oiled?
- How do you clean the slow air chamber?