Friday, February 19, 2010

Plugs in open-hole flutes

Dear Flutists,

There was a debate this week on one of the flute groups about whether plugging an open-hole flute, (especially with cylindrical acrylic plugs) adversely affects tone and tuning.
I recorded my tests and put some graphics with it on youtube.



The flute tone in the above has a compressed and distorted sound. So once you get the idea of how I ran the test from the video, do please switch to listening to this mp3 here instead.





Click on the gray recorder's PLAY button above.

you can stream or download the same mp3 soundtrack to the video here at the sharing-files site.

And may I state in complete honesty, that there was no sound editing done on this full, live living-room recording other than the last back-to-back comparisions at the very end. The whole thing was done in one take, with no pauses. Sorry for those who hate vibrato, I was trying to guage the pitch amplitude as well on the "resonant" E2s. Ethel Mermon move over. Ha ha! :>)

Details:
I'm using an Altus flute with Bennett scale.
The flute is A-442, and the headjoint is set to play at A-440.
The plugs I used are about 1/4 inch tall and wide, are cylindrical, and do not hang below the pad on the underside of the keys.
My A and G keys are permanently plugged as I have wooden extensions on those keys.

Please comment using the comment button below. Thanks.

Conclusions?

I am fully convinced that there is no harm in plugging an open-holed flute for ergonommic reasons, as long as the plugs are air-tight.

On my flute with its scale and key-height, the diffence in pitch is less than 1% on the most difficult-to-bend note, E2, played pianissimo. Also when played brightly for maximum resonance both plugged and unplugged, I hear no difference in resonance of tone.

If it is no more effort to sharpen a soft E2, and if I can play equally bright and ringingly with and without plugs on this dullest of notes, then why is it not a good idea to plug the open-holes for ergonomic needs of individual players?

Just last week I received a blog comment from a flute teacher who was concerned about an adult student whose bent or arthritic fingers could not reach the holes on the student's new open-hole flute. I suggested that plugging open-holes was absolutely the best way to go.

It made me think that there must be hundreds of teachers out there who are insisting that their students remove their hole plugs?
Why?
Based on what scientificly researched tests?

For me and my students, comfort and speed of technique are much more important than contorting your hands to a "one size does NOT fit all" flute keywork.

And for the past 18 years I have played with all the open-holes on my flutes plugged, except for the F-natural which I can reach easily and without effort.

After this week's further flute-group discussion I find that there seem to be numerous flute teachers who, for some un-tested reason, think it is less professional or less desireable to play a plugged open-hole flute, and I really can't see why.
Perhaps old scale flutes, or flutes with incorrect key rise perform worse than newer scaled flutes. I'd like to hear more about which brands plugs affect, and whether a good flute technician cannot double-check their key rise if plugs adversely affect the tone or tuning.

Additionally, I've written up all the historically available information I could find, about the development of the open-hole flute, and am surprised to find a lack of scientifically gathered measurements or experiments that have been done on the flute.
All the pertinent references I could find are now here, on my webpage.
So I hope that more pro-flutists and teachers will try the same tests, and come up with a more scientific approach to testing the effects of plugs on flute tone and tuning.


I hope this helps dispel myths that are not USEFUL myths. :>)

Open to comments, and sorry for the low excitement graphics.
Best,
Jen
Comments (23)
Anonymous Mark Middleton said...

Bravo Jen. I think those that state they hear a timbrel difference between plugged holes and non-plugged holes are actually experiencing a combination of what they hear as the performer and what they are feeling (more vibration when not plugged). Of course listeners do not hear what the performer hears and listeners certainly do not feel the vibrations under the performers fingers. I think that if a double blind test could be performed then the "plug nay-sayers" would be in for a shock. I could be wrong but I doubt it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010 8:57:00 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

im thinking of buying a haynes classic Q4 flute from fluteworld.com, its an open hole flute and i was worried about it but you have convinced me that plugging the keys will make no difference, it makes my life easier so thanks! :) and what are the best plugs around and where can i purchase them?? thanks x

Monday, August 09, 2010 4:42:00 PM

 
Blogger jen said...

Just ask at any music store that deals in flutes for a set of Armstrong acrylic plugs.
They also have them at www.fluteworld.com and will send them out for $5 plus postage, I believe. J.

Monday, August 09, 2010 11:16:00 PM

 
Blogger Allison said...

Jen,I'm a flute student with an Amadeus AF900, which uses Plug-O's (the metal plugs). Although these appear like metal, they are extremely hard to remove without a flute technician. I just recently unplugged my flute again, and I was wondering if the same tests apply with a different material. As far as I know only a couple of flue manufacturers use this kind, mainly Powell and Haynes' Amadeus and Q series. Basically I'm just curious if there is a difference.

Saturday, December 18, 2010 5:48:00 PM

 
Blogger jen said...

Dear Allison,
Sorry to say I've never tried Plug-Os. Perhaps the tech. can show you an easier way of removing them yourself; then you can play an mp3 test and let US hear the difference.
Best of luck,
Jen

Saturday, December 18, 2010 6:52:00 PM

 
Blogger jen said...

P.S.
Alternately, easily removeable plugs (acrylic "Armstrong" hole plugs are $5 for a set of five) are readily available, if you get tired of the ones that are hard to remove.
Best, Jen

Saturday, December 18, 2010 6:53:00 PM

 
Blogger William said...

I am 63 and my fingersi suffer all kinds of aches and pains, including c sharp finger broken that will never be straight again. After my finger surgury, I plugged the right hand keys. I find the best way to cope with the aches and pains is regular practice. Relaxing my grup helps a great deal. But NEVER continue to play with pain. I keep my favorie OTC pain medication next to my music stand, I take 2 tables and a 2 hour nap, then play some more, I will keep playing until my fingers fall off.
William Morris

Friday, April 15, 2011 7:30:00 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you have any tips specific to sliding easily from the low D-flat key to the B roller? I've read your article on alignment etc. (very helpful) and now I may resort to using a a plug. I have a passage that requires this interval and I can't seem to get it consistently.
Thanks, Carol

Wednesday, October 10, 2012 12:17:00 PM

 
Blogger jen said...

Dear Carol,
That's an excellent question.
I would certainly use a plug if I had to (I already do plug the D key) but this particular slide is really worthy of a great deal of visual work. It is not easy for anyone (love to know what piece it's in; for me, it was in some trio arrangements for flute/clarinet/piano by Michael Webster and Leone Buyse).

Look, (using eyes, only, and not playing at all), at the RH pinky when it makes this slide by holding the flute in front of you in such a way that you can see exactly where the pinky tip starts and ends.
There is usually one specific place on the roller that the low B speaks well and consistently. And you want to visually slide the pinky tip right to this one point on the roller.
It takes lots of practice.

Best, Jen

Wednesday, October 10, 2012 3:05:00 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there! Do you have a suggestion on which keys that are probably most necessary to plug for intermediate players? Thank you!

Thursday, December 27, 2012 8:51:00 PM

 
Blogger jen said...

Flutists who have consistent difficulty with the ring fingers (G and F#) can certainly plug the ring finger holes.
Apart from that common problem, it's up to the individual.
Best, Jen

Thursday, December 27, 2012 9:59:00 PM

 
Anonymous Becky said...

I have a Gemeinhart 3SP open hole flute. I am trying to become more relaxed in how I hold the flute as I play. I am experimenting with changing my flute head position and hope to get a thumb roll to glue on. I am wondering if you would suggest plugging the holes as well. And if so, which plugs? I am an American living in the UK. I played the flute regularly in my 20's and am now trying to take it up again at age 50.

Monday, October 14, 2013 5:49:00 AM

 
Blogger jen said...

Dear Becky,
The best thumb "shelf" is "The Thumbport" which does not need to be glued; it stays on until you take it off. It's $20. They have them in flute shops, or you can order online. The first two holes to plug are usually the ring fingers (G and D keys).
I use standard "Armstrong" plugs (tiny acrylic cylinders with no platform tops)which are $5 a pack of five.
I have all keys plugged except F, myself.
I'm in my 50s too. I would go to a flute teacher for help with your set-up, at least for a few lessons.
Best, Jen

Monday, October 14, 2013 10:09:00 AM

 
Anonymous leslie knight said...

I am purchasing a flute for my 11-year old granddaughter. I am wanting a flute that can grow with her, but don't want her overloaded or discouraged as a beginner. What about open holes with plugs, and a b footjoint? Top of my list is the Yamaha 200 series. She is in a good school program, but not in private lessons. If a C footjoint and plateau, is there a point for upgrading?

Monday, May 19, 2014 10:34:00 AM

 
Blogger jen said...

Hi Leslie,
These are good questions.
Firstly, an 11 year old beginner does not require a brand new intermediate flute that will still be suitable when they're 14 or 15. You can start small: A well-repaired (or fairly new) RENTED Yamaha, closed-hole with a C-foot from a good quality music store, is a good deal for many reasons.
- it may turn out that your grandchild does not stick with the flute, so renting at first is a safer thing to do ($25 a month.)
- rented flutes are fully covered for repairs and semi-annual maintenance
- closed-hole C-foot flutes are easier for beginners to handle.

Secondly, about open-hole B-foot flutes. Until the flute student is finished growing, you will not know whether they can handle the weight and length of a B-foot flute, or more importantly, whether you need an offset G or an in-line G. So stick with closed hole C-foot until the private flute teacher recommends a change. You can actually play a closed hole Yamaha 200 model up to the age of 18 and still be a fabulous flute player, so why rush the model upgrade?

Thirdly, having no flute teacher is a HUGE mistake. Almost no flute student progresses well without starting flute lessons when they first begin. Yes, there's an occasional self-taught flutist who can bash along in band fairly well, but if you're willing to invest in buying an intermediate flute (realistically costing up to $2000; lesser priced ones aren't usually worth the money) it's a far better investment to spend $125 per month on renting a beginner flute and taking a half-hour lesson per week.
If the student shows no vigourous interest after six months, you'll only have spent around $700.)

Continued....

Monday, May 19, 2014 12:42:00 PM

 
Blogger jen said...

Lastly, if money is no object, and you have an avid/inspired 11 year old beginner, and you're willing to invest in flute lessons, then take the flute teacher's first-hand advice at the lessons. They will recommend which flutes are best to try out, and will play-test them for you.
In my blog articles I recommend Yamaha 200 because it's far far more reliable than any number of beginner "junky" flutes that are available. However, each student has different needs. If the private flute teacher can see that after several weeks, that the student can handle a plugged-open-hole intermediate instrument, then go ahead and purchase one with the flute teacher's help.
The main thing is to HEAR the quality of each individual flute as it is play-tested. There are no two flutes alike, even with same brand and series of serial numbers on identical models. They are not identical. With a flute teacher play-testing, they will choose the best of a bunch of flutes. Then you'll have paid the same list price but received a much better headjoint, a much better mechanism, and a much better sound quality and ease-of-play.
That's the best way to shop; with an expert on hand.
Sorry that it's not easier than that.
I realize that you're a grandmother looking to help by buying a new flute which is great (!) but as a flute teacher, the main thing is to get the youngster enthusiastically playing away everyday, with support from a well-trained coach. The coach (the qualified private flute teacher) will look after knowing when the flute needs repair, when it needs upgrading, and how to help choose a new instrument.
Typically, students will go through two more upgrades by the time they enter University. There is no rush.
Best, Jen

Monday, May 19, 2014 12:49:00 PM

 
Blogger jen said...

P.S.
It strikes me that many readers might wonder where my strong opinions about buying flutes come from. Here is some more background on my opinions and how I came to have them.

1. There is no shortage of band-flutists who have expensive flutes (over $2000) who neither take lessons nor remember to get their flutes repaired. They just bash away twice a week in band, and mostly forget about the flute's repair schedule.
The drawback is that for those handful who decide to finally become serious and go for lessons at the last minute because of some great big audition, competition or concert solo, there's a three or four month period where they suddenly need to get rid of all their bad habits, relearn an embouchure, learn real breathing and tonguing techniques, speed up their fingers, AND have their flute sent out for repair all at the same time. This makes their brand new flute teachers go crazy too.

2. There is no shortage of band-flutists who quit the flute *right after* a loving relative finally buys them a decent one (in the $3000 to $4000 range). This is a common phenomenon. They don't really need a better flute, they needed lessons and bi-annual repair visits with their beginner-flute.
Something about having an expensive flute that you don't really use much, and not really being that interested in spending hours a day on it is too much for the student to bear. Who knows why?
It's one of the conundrums we flute teachers witness often

3. A lot of loving relatives try to save money at the last minute by buying a flute that doesn't keep its repairs well. Cheaper flutes tend to break down with use. Tough-built clunky flutes tend to give the player no musical satisfaction.
If an avid and enthusiastic youngster does play for two hours a day on a shoddily made instrument, or a "clunker" they become tired and frustrated. For this reason, it's much better to let the private teacher help you choose an instrument.

Hope this helps.
Best, Jen

Monday, May 19, 2014 1:09:00 PM

 
Blogger jen said...

PPS:

I stand corrected by my own self.
Fluteworld has Yamaha 200s on sale for just over $600.

Go ahead and order one if this is in your price range; you can always resell it for $400 if the student loses interest or upgrades later:

http://www.fluteworld.com/Yamaha-Flutes.html

Just remember the flute lessons and the regular repair schedule.
Best, Jen

Monday, May 19, 2014 1:16:00 PM

 
Blogger Jeff said...

Sorry I know this thread's been around awhile.

I purchased an open hole gemeinhardt, and being a bassoonist and bagpiper (yes. I like the odder instruments) felt that having open holes would force me to be more precise in my fingering technique.

But given limited time to practice, I'm happy to hear that you found little to no tonal or pitch affect. Gonna grab myself a set. Are they specific to maker or model?

Thursday, October 16, 2014 11:04:00 AM

 
Blogger jen said...

Hi there,
A set of plugs is about $5. I find that the cylindrical plugs made by Armstrong fit the smaller open-holes best, and cannot be felt by the finger tips.
If your Gemeinhardt has large open holes, you'll have to try other kinds of plugs.
The least comfortable plugs that I know of look like mushrooms, with a cylinder plus a "mushroom cap" on top. These are raised, and annoy the fingers. So get Armstrong plugs and try them first.
Jen

Thursday, October 16, 2014 11:08:00 AM

 
Blogger jen said...

P.S. Here is a picture of the plugs I recommend. JL Smith co. says they fit Gemeinhardt: ($2.50)
See:
http://www.jlsmithco.com/ACCESSORIES/FRENCH-OPEN-HOLE-FLUTE-PLUG-LG-5

Best, Jen

Thursday, October 16, 2014 11:11:00 AM

 
Anonymous Karla said...

I have a Jupiter Flute purchased some 25 years ago with open holes and want to install plugs. The Yamaha ones I purchased do not fit. Would Armstrong be a better fit, Or is there a special technique to use to install the plugs?

Wednesday, November 05, 2014 11:42:00 AM

 
Blogger jen said...

Dear Karla,
Just take the flute with you to a music store in your area that sells plugs. Or phone them. Some flutes have bigger open-holes, some smaller.
You don't say which, but I imagine that if the plugs you have are too big, that a smaller set (Armstrong acrylic plugs) might fit better.
There's no trick to installing them.
Push them into the holes. If you need to remove them by pushing all the way through, use the eraser on the end of a pencil, and be ready to catch them out the end.
Jen

Wednesday, November 05, 2014 12:12:00 PM

 

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