Do you want to learn the flute, but not sure where to start? Here’s a handy guide to all the flute basics to get you tooting!
Welcome to the wonderful world of the flute! I’m so glad that you’ve decided to pick up the flute (it really is the best instrument!). To help get you started, I’ve put together this comprehensive guide with all the things you need to know.
In this guide, I will cover essential topics like how to make your first sounds, what makes proper posture, and how to play your first notes. I’ll also help point you in the right direction of resources for continued study, and answer a few frequently asked questions.
I will be constantly adding more to this blog including new links and further in-depth articles, so be sure to check back for updates!
So, grab your flute, take a deep breath, and get ready to fall in love with the flute!
What’s in this blog
- The parts of the flute
- Buying a flute
- How to clean and care for your flute
- Introduction to the embouchure
- Making your first sounds
- How to put the flute together
- Posture and how to hold the flute
- Your first notes
- Tonguing and articulation
The parts of the flute
First, let’s meet the flute. The instrument is made up of three pieces: the headjoint, the body and the foot joint.
The headjoint is the top section of the flute with no keys. It has an embouchure hole and lip plate.
The body is the long middle section and contains most of the flute’s keys and mechanisms.
The foot joint attaches to the end of the body joint and contains only a few keys.
If you’re just starting out on the flute, you’ll want to try making your first sounds using just the headjoint. Learning how to produce sound can be the hardest part of learning the flute, so focusing on just the headjoint can help eliminate extra distractions and help you master sound production much quicker.
Buying a flute
For beginners, finding the perfect flute can feel like a daunting task. With so many different options out there and various factors to consider, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, especially when you’re on a tight budget. But here are a few essential factors to help you choose best flute to suit your needs and set you on the path to success!
Types of Flutes While there are plenty of different types of flutes in the flute family – like the piccolo, alto flute, and bass flute (known as auxiliary flutes) – the Western concert C flute is the easiest to get started on.
Materials Flutes can be made from a huge variety of materials, which affect both price and sound. On the cheaper spectrum, most beginner student flutes are made from nickle or silver-plated nickel. But there’s also a super affordable Guo Tocco Flute made of a durable composite, which plays surprisingly well and is a fabulous option for beginners on a budget! But as you progress you may want to consider other materials that can give you greater sound capabilities: from woods like grenadilla and rosewood, to silver, gold and even platinum!
Budget Flutes come in a wide range of prices, catering to various budgets. As a beginner, you can find decent quality student flutes starting from around £180 to £600. Step up flutes can range between £600-£2,500, intermediate flutes from £1,500 to £7,000, while professional flutes can cost anywhere from £7,000 to well over £20,000 (a platinum flute can run you close to £65,000!). It’s essential to strike a balance between quality and affordability, especially as a beginner.
Brands When buying a flute, it’s recommended to opt for reputable brands known for their quality craftsmanship. While the respective price tags may make it tempting to buy a random flute on Wish or Amazon, the quality of these instruments will often not only mean they don’t last long, but that they can be super hard to play! Brands I’ve had really great experience with for beginners include Yahama, Trevor James and Pearl.
Extra Specs As you start shopping around you might notice that flutes come with lots of different specifications and it can be hard to decide which one is right for you. Here are a few of the main specs and what they mean:
- Closed or open hole: Some flutes have holes in the A, G, F, E & D keys, while others have flat “plateau” keys. It’s a good idea for beginners to start on a closed hole flute as this will be easier for them to develop excellent hand positions. Check out my blog here for more information on the difference between the two.
- Straight or curved head joints: For young players with tiny arms, it’s recommended to start with a curved head joint as that helps make the flute shorter and more manageable. Most adults can use a standard straight head joint for a flute, but if you are particularly short or have difficulty stretching your arms, you may wish to try a curved head joint. (Or you can try a vertical head joint to make the flute more ergonomic!).
How to clean and care for your flute
Taking proper care of your flute is essential to maintain its pristine condition and ensure that it produces a sweet and melodious tone for years to come. Regular cleaning and maintenance are the keys to keeping your instrument in top shape. Here are some simple tips to help you clean and care for your flute.
Clean after Each Use Swab the inside of your flute every time you play! This will help keep the pads in good condition.
Put it back in its case I see so many students leave their flute out between practice sessions, but this is a recipe for disaster (especially if you have young kids or pets!). But besides being more prone to damage from being knocked, this will also make the metal tarnish faster.
Never eat and drink (anything other than water) while playing Small particles of food or sugar from drinks can get into your flute and at best it makes your pads sticky, at worst I’ve seen some mould monstrosities that I wouldn’t even wish on my worst enemies.
Brush your teeth Taking that last point a bit further, always try to brush your teeth before playing to remove any food or sugar that might get into the flute.
Wipe down once a week Give the outside of your flute a gentle swipe with a microfibre cloth to help avoid tarnishing and keep it nice and shiny. 🙂
Annual Check-ups Consider taking your flute for regular maintenance and check-ups by a qualified repair technician, ideally once a year. They can detect and fix any minor issues before they become significant problems.
Introduction to the embouchure
Embouchure is just the fancy word for the shape of our mouth when we play the flute, and developing the right embouchure shape is crucial. In this section, we’ll look at strategies for forming a successful embouchure.
Finding the right embouchure shape is one of the most important things you’ll need to practice to start off. The ideal embouchure should be as neutral a position as possible (the lips shouldn’t pull or stretch) and the aperture (the opening of the mouth) should be round.
To practice, hold your finger up towards your face, placing it horizontally under your lip as if it was the flute. Your lips should rest very naturally on your finger, with your bottom lip in a tiny bit of a pout. Try not to pull your lips back into a smile, curl your lips under your teeth or purse your lips too far away from your teeth.
Now try to say the word “poo” with that relaxed shape. How round can you make the aperture? Remember to avoid allowing the lips to stretch, pull or purse!
Try this exercise in front of a mirror to make sure you’ve got the right shape. Click here for more help on finding the right embouchure shape.
We spend our whole day breathing, and I bet you almost never even think about it! However, we have to constantly think about the breath when playing the flute – it is how we produce the sound. Because we rely completely on our air for our sound, learning to control our breath is one of the most important parts of flute playing. So here are some tips to get you started!
Strong air column One of the most common problems I see in beginners is that they don’t blow enough air into the instrument. One of my favourite facts about the flute is that it takes more air to play than any other instrument (even a tuba!). When we’re blowing into the flute, we need to support that air column to make it nice and strong.
Try imagining that you’re trying to blow out a persistent birthday candle. Think about how strong that air needs to move and try using that same stream of air while making a sound.
Breathe from the bottom of your lungs Our lungs are much bigger than we often think – they stretch down to the bottom of our rib cage! In our everyday lives, we are only breathing from the top half of our lungs, but while we’re playing the flute, we need to breath deep and play from the bottom of our lungs. This will help us send a stronger column of air into the flute for longer!
Consistent airflow To produce a clear sound on the flute, you will need to maintain a steady stream of air into the instrument. Imagine your air as a strong column originating from your stomach (or even your feet if that helps) that blows through the flute towards the ground.
Making your first sounds
Once you’ve worked on finding your correct embouchure shape it’s time to make your first sounds!
How to position the headjoint First you’ll need to know exactly how to place the headjoint. With the open end of the headjoint pointing towards your right, place the lip plate underneath your lip. The edge of the embouchure hole should just touch the place where your skin and lip meet. Only 1/3 of the flute’s embouchure should be covered, so make sure you don’t allow the headjoint to roll in too much! Click here for more help on finding the placement.
Embouchure alignment The centre of the flute’s embouchure hole should be placed at the centre of your aperture. You may have an embouchure that is off centre – either the opening is off-centre, or the air blows slightly to the left or right. That’s totally cool if so! Just make sure that the centre of your air stream lines up with the centre of the embouchure hole.
Your first sounds Placing just the headjoint in the right position and making an excellent embouchure shape, blow across the headjoint, aiming the air slightly downwards.
Did you get a sound? Awesome! Well done! If not, check your embouchure in the mirror and try again. You’ve got this! Just keep playing around with it to see if you can find what works. Click here for more help on making your first sounds. The key is to practice consistently and focus on developing a smooth tone.
Changing air direction Learning how to change the air direction while maintaining the correct embouchure is important as it allows us to change the pitch of our sound. When combined with faster or slower air, we can change registers (low vs high) or by using subtle changes we can help our intonation.
We want to be able to change the air direction without moving our head up and down – this is key! (If you struggle with this, try placing a book on your head and don’t let it fall off.) It’s our bottom lip that drives this movement. Allowing it to come out further than our top lip drives the air upwards, and pulling it back and dropping the jaw drives the air further down. Click here for more exercises on how to practice moving your air direction.
How to put the flute together
The flute is made up of three pieces – the headjoint, the body joint and the footjoint (it’s like a shiny little person!).
The headjoint fits into the barrel of the body joint. Notice how the embouchure hole aligns with the line of keys on the body. The footjoint fits into the other end of the body joint, with the pink keys slightly offset from the body’s keys.
When putting the flute together, try not to grasp the keys; they’re very delicate and can bend easily.
Posture and how to hold the flute
Playing the flute requires standing and hold our arms in a very unnatural position – would you hold your hands like this for anything else?? This means finding correct posture is crucial to avoid injury. For a much more detailed description of posture, check out this blog post.
Body posture When we play we should stand tall with our head aligned on top of our spine. Our chin should be parallel to the ground and the elbows should be relaxed and as natural as possible. We should angle the end of the flute out away from our shoulders so that we end up with space between our chest and flute.
Left hand position Your left hand will control the keys closest to the headjoint. It will wrap under and around the flute so that the palm of the hand faces you. The thumb will control the two thumb keys at the back, so must be free to move.
Right hand position The right hand controls the keys closer to the footjoint and the grips the flute from behind (so the palm of the hand faces away from you). The thumb sit under the flute, under your index finger.
Finger positions Your fingers will be placed on the flute as follows:
Balance points There are three balances points that we use when we play. The first is the left hand first knuckle. This joint rests underneath the flute and holds the flute up. It should sit between the index finger and thumb. The second balance point is our right thumb and the third is our chin. We should be able to hold the flute up using only those three points.
Your first notes
Once you’ve managed to get a sound out on the headjoint, you can start to play your very first notes. There are three notes that are best to start with B, A and G.
Here are the fingerings for B, A and G:
For more tips on how to play and read these notes, check out this lesson. It even includes your first few songs!
As you continue practicing these fundamental notes, focus on making sure you’re using the proper embouchure and breath control so that each tone sounds clear and consistent. With dedication and practice, you’ll soon be ready to explore even more exciting musical possibilities.
And if you don’t have a quality flute fingering chart yet, check out this comprehensive one I’ve put together. It’s a FREE 17-page resource that includes fingerings for the flute’s full range, fourth octave notes, alternative fingerings, and trill fingerings!
Tonguing and articulation
Articulation is the fancy word for the shape of our notes – how they start, are sustained and end. Using a variety of types of articulation we can create a wealth of colour in our playing. Articulation should be thought of as our way of speaking the music – what consonants do we use in our mouth to start the notes? what vowels do we shape in our mouths for the notes? But at this stage, we need to only focus on two basic articulations: slurring and tonguing.
Slurring Is notated with a curved note that rests above or below a string of notes. These notes are played without separation, which for the flute means keeping the air stream flowing, while changing our fingers.
Tonguing This refers to using our tongue to start the note with a crisp beginning. Rather than allowing the note to start with a soft “hoo” or “ah” sound, we use the tongue to say “too”. Try saying these words out loud. Notice how the first are soft, gentle starts to the sound while the consonant of “too” creates a clear, crisp beginning to the sound. You can read a few exercises a tips for learning how to tongue on this blog.
Can you learn flute on your own?
Absolutely! There are plenty of resources out there, from books like Michel Debost’s comprehensive The Simple Flute to instructional YouTube videos that can all help you in your self-study. However, having a teacher or taking lessons can make sure you don’t develop any bad habits and help you progress much faster! Click here for more details about private lessons with me.
Is it easy to learn the flute?
Once you get your first sounds (this can be the most challenging part), the rest should feel much easier! But how fast we progress varies for each individual and is largely related to how much time you practice. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that even the best flute players in the world are constantly learning and perfecting their craft – they never ‘arrive’ in their learning. It’s life-long learning – and isn’t that wonderful!? It means there’s always new and exciting things to learn!
A few of my favourite facts about the flute
- Western concert flutes can be made out of a variety of materials, from silver, gold and platinum to various woods and even glass!
- The flute is one of the oldest known musical instruments with examples dating back over 60,000 years!
- Flutes come in all shapes and sizes and can be found in every culture in the world. Even in Western classical music you can have everything from a tiny little piccolo to a giant double contrabass flute.
- Flutes use more air to play than any other instrument! Even tubas don’t use as much air!!
The most important point of all: Have fun!
Whatever your flute learning journey looks like, the most important thing is to enjoy the process. Learning the flute takes patience and commitment, but without a sense of fun and enjoyment, it can be hard to stick with it!
I hope this post has helped you, but I do offer various regular workshops for further learning that might be of interest (visit my Flute Nerd Shop for the latest workshops). And please do get in touch if you’d like to chat a bit more, have any questions about the flute or would like discuss starting regular lessons to help!