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! :>)

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.


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?
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.
Comments (13)
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, 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 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,

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

Blogger jen said...

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


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