#FAFQs “What’s the difference between open and closed hole flutes?”

For this month’s edition of my frequently asked flutey questions, we’ll look at these two options and find out what is the right choice for you

“What’s the difference between open and closed hole flutes”

For this month’s edition of my frequently asked flutey questions, I’ve chosen a question that I not only get asked often, but is one that I’ve found myself thinking about a lot recently.

If you’ve recently shopped around for flutes, or even had a cheeky ‘window shop’ of some of our great flute stores out there (hands up, I do it all the time!), you’ll probably notice that flutes can come listed as ‘closed hole’ or ‘open hole’. In this blog I’ll talk about what these terms mean, offer some help on how to decide what’s best for you, and tell you a bit about my own journey as an example.

Open holes vs. closed holes

First things first, let’s clarify what the terms ‘open hole’ and ‘closed hole’ actually mean.

Closed hole flutes have solid keys, sometimes called plateau keys, which cover the instrument’s holes. Most student flutes will be closed hole.  

Open hole flutes have openings in the centre of the A, G, F, E, and D keys. These openings require a player to completely cover the hole with their fingers. Most intermediate to professional flutes are open hole.

close hole open hold flutes

The debate

There is plenty of debate about whether one or the other produces better sound quality. When the open hole flute was introduced in the 1840s, there was plenty of resistance against it; the great pedagogue Marcel Moyse resolutely stuck to a plateau model. Physicist and amateur flutist Dayton C  Miller went so far as to say that open holes were “the one acoustical crime that has been perpetrated against the Boehm flute” (in a 1925 letter to flute maker William S Haynes, as quoted in Nancy Toff’s The Flute Book.

Nonetheless, the popularity of open hole flutes grew and now most top-end flute makers offer open hole as default. Professional-level plateau models often have to be special ordered. This phenomenon does mean that open hole has become synonymous with ‘professional’ and some argue that open holes increases the flute’s resonance which is why professionals prefer them. But the reason is more because open holes allow for more extended techniques (more on that below), which are becoming more and more common in standard flute repertoire.

While the jury may still be out, one important factor to consider is that whether an open hole flute wil cause your grip to change. Depending on the shape of your fingers and hand, open holes are potentially less ergonomic as a player is forced to cover the entire opening with the pad of their fingers. If playing an open hole flute causes a player to grip the keys more tightly in an attempt to keep them closed, that added pressure will inadvertently dampen the flute’s resonance.

Factors to consider

Here are some of the factors you should consider when trying to decide between open or closed hole flutes.

Beginners should start with a closed hole flute: The flute is such a strange instrument ergonomically (we don’t hold a ‘flute’ position for ANYTHING else in life, do we??), so developing excellent, healthy posture very early on is crucial to avoid injury. Adding the extra challenge of completely closing open holes is likely to hinder finding good hand positions. Which is why I highly recommend beginners to start with a closed hole flute (or an open hole flute that has been plugged.

Small hands may struggle with open holes: Players with tiny hands—this includes petite adults as well as young children—may find it difficult to effectively cover open holes without tension or unnecessary stretching. This may not be on every key though, so plugs may be used to assist for trouble keys, while still allowing for other keys to be open.

Open holes allow for more extended techniques: There are several extended techniques that are not possible (or at least very difficult) with closed holes. These include unique half-closed-key fingerings for multiphonics and microtones, pitch bending made by sliding fingers on and off open holes, and finger vibrato. For those interested in playing contemporary repertoire with extended techniques, you may want to consider purchasing an open hole flute.

Open holes can help manipulate intonation: Open hole flutes do allow for subtle intonation adjustments that some players might find helpful (sliding a finger off a hole to go sharper, or closing just the ring of a key further down the flute to bring pitch down).

You can easily turn open hole flutes into closed hole flutes, but not the other way around: Open hole flutes can be plugged using small silicone plugs or Powell’s more aesthetic metal Plug-Os which mean that players have the flexibility to open or close keys as desired.

Transitioning from closed to open hole

If you decide to transition from a closed hole flute to an open hole model, it is important that you transition in a healthy way to make sure you retain excellent hand position and avoid injury.

Step one: Congratulations on your new flute! But avoid the temptation to jump straight in the deep end and try playing with all the open holes. Start first by plugging all the holes with silicone plugs. As you play, try to feel where those plugs rest under your fingers. If there is a finger that can’t feel the centre of the plug, you may wish to adjust your hand position, but I would highly recommend working with an experienced teacher when changing hand positions to avoid injury.

Step two: Once you’ve gotten used to feeling the plugs under your fingers and think your hand position looks good, remove the easiest plug. Often this will be the A or the F keys, but this is a highly individual thing, so trust your gut!

Step three: Now that you can comfortably play with the first plug removed, remove the remaining plugs one at a time in order of difficulty. This again will be different for everyone, but generally the order of difficulty is A, F, E, D, then G. As you remove a new plug, make sure you spend time ensuring that your fingers comfortably close the newly opened hole before removing the next one. This is usually about a week, but some students may find they need more time to get used it and that’s fine too!

Disclaimer!! It’s super important to remember that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to plugs. If removing a plug feels uncomfortable or causes tension, don’t hesitate to leave it in place. The ergonomics of your hand should take priority.  Perhaps your hands/fingers need more time to adjust, or maybe you just need to permanently plug one or two keys. Everybody is shaped differently, so you have complete permission to find what works best for you!

What do I personally play?

As a spin-off FAFQ, I often get asked what I personally play on. So I thought I’d give you a bit of background and show you how I’ve adapted all the above advice to my own playing.

I transitioned to an open hole flute quite early—I was probably 14 years old or so. Because I’m an intense person (and certainly was more so as a teenager), I went all-in, playing without any plugs and suffering through the bad tone until I could make my fingers do what they needed to do to close the holes.

However, I struggled with tight, tense hand positions throughout my university days. This affected my technique and tone (for example, my low notes were often tetchy and I felt like I had to force them). I used to chalk the clunky fingers and tense hands/wrists to the fact that my flute was an inline G (which caused my left ring finger to stretch uncomfortably far to reach the G key). Eventually I was so frustrated by my technique and in enough pain that I completely lost my enjoyment for playing and took a break for several years.   

Coming back from that break with renewed joy and a new mindset, I managed to work thoughtfully and diligently on my hand position and posture, massively improving it. I did what I could with the inline G until I finally saved up enough to treat myself to a shiny new off-set G flute last year.

While my hand positions were faaaar more relaxed and balanced than they ever were in my uni days, I still found myself struggling with some clunky fingers and tetchy low notes. Worried that my exciting new flute might be too heavy for me (it weighs at least twice as much as my old flute if not more), I’ve done lots of experimenting particularly with my right hand position, and just hadn’t found a good solution that seemed to help.

It was then suggested that maybe my issue was that I was pressing the F, E & D keys too hard in an attempt to close the holes. I placed plugs in those keys and voila! I am able to play right hand notes with ease and minimal pressure.  

This epiphany was extremely recently (I’m talking, like, yesterday…) so for the time being I’m going to continue using those three plugs while I help my fingers learn that they don’t need to press so hard. Once I feel that has become second nature, I will likely start experimenting by removing one plug at a time, but I won’t permanently remove a plug until I’m 100% sure that I can continue to play with as much ease and freedom as I am able to with the plugs.

That said, my first gut reaction to adding the plugs back in was shame. There was a tiny voice in my head that was telling me I was a failure and that I should be able to play without the plugs. How ridiculous! So I laughed that voice back into the hole it crawled out of and reminded myself that there are plenty of professional flute players who use one or more plugs in their flutes to improve their posture. And if closed holes was good enough for Marcel Moyse, well…

I hope that this not only gives you permission to find what works best for you, but also to experiment. No decision is ever final and what you need may change over the years.

What are your flutey questions?

Have any other burning questions about the flute you’d like me to answer? Let me know what they are and I may feature in my next edition of #FAFQs.

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