Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Old flute dying, need new flute?

Do I need a new flute? My old one is a bit dying.

And why does my old flute sound better
when I compare it to my friend's flutes?

Hello Jen, I'm a big fan of your web pages! I know that you receive too many questions, so I understand if you're unable to answer mine.
I'm a re-beginner. I played a lot in high school: bands, all-city orchestra, solo and ensembles. Since then I've played for short bursts then stopped again. A couple years ago I joined a community band to get back into shape. I haven't been satisfied with my progress. I anticipate retiring in 6 months and having more time to focus on the flute and regular practicing. 
To that end, I'm thinking of:
1) taking lessons (I just started creating my own lessons of breathing, long tones, scales, etudes and solos, starting with easy stuff)
2) buying a new flute. I can afford to spend $1500-$2500.

My question is about choosing a flute. My 50-year-old flute is an open-hole silver Artley of the vintage now considered a poor choice, and it's true, it's hard to stay in tune. A friend loaned me her 13-year old Jupiter, and her brand new Azumi AZ2. I spent a couple hours playing all 3 flutes, playing the same tones, scales, etudes, and solos. 

My old flute sounded best! Is that just because I've gotten used to its idiosyncrasies? Or my ear isn't good enough? I preferred the ringing tone of my Artley, and I even noticed in one piece where I slurred from middle D to the B above that my fingers moved smoothly on my flute, but with the Azumi, I could consistently hear a sloppy miss with the right hand.**

Now I'm questioning whether I'll be able to make a decision at a big flute shop. Do you have any suggestions for me? Thank you,  S.
Jen's reply:

Dear S,
Your question is asked perfectly!
You are describing EXACTLY what happens over and over again to every new re-starter!
You have hit the nail on the head totally. And for sure, this is a question that haunts us all;

How can I tell if it's me or if it's the flute?
I could write a BOOK on this.

The absolute way to answer this question is fairly easy though: Have a professional flute teacher play test your old flute (see no. 4 and 5 below) . You don't need a whole lesson for this, just ten or so minutes of that teacher's time.
You'll want to first find that teacher or professional flutist, book them for fifteen minutes, and ask them to tell you exactly what's wrong with your flute. Or go to their recommended repair technician and ask them what is wrong with your flute. You will find out almost immediately, and be able to make an informed step forward.

Failing that, there are a series of intelligent steps you can take. So let me just speedtype my way through the basics.
This is called the "Buying a Flute Flowchart" - here is an excerpt:
How to buy a flute - the flow chart

Buying a new flute flow chart to see how most folk buy a flute and what goes right and wrong.

The sensible way to shop for a flute:

1. Get your current flute repaired to top notch quality. Why?
a) Improves re-sale value of your old flute and allows you assess its actual abilities.
b) allows you to compare your old flute in prime condition to prime condition new flute(s) and
c) if you are selling your old flute to pay for your new one, you will likely get the repair money back in the price you sell the old flute for, and even sell it much faster with less fuss.

2. Now With your old flute in top condition you can afford to play-test new flutes at your leisure without rushing the process.

a) your old flute may have had leaks that made you think it was far worse a flute than it actually is and
b) if new flutes are in poor state of repair from sitting in the store too long or getting bumped in transit, you'll be able to sense it because your current flute plays very well by comparison.

3. Once you've found a brand of flute you think is better than your old flute, ask the salesperson to bring in multiple identical models so you can choose the best one.

a) no two flutes are alike even when "identical". One or more may have a slightly better or different headjoint or key work speed and lightness than the next.
b) not all flutes that are sitting in the shop have been recently repaired to fix minor leaks or other problems that have occured over time in the shop. You want them all to be in perfect repair for play-testing.
c) sometimes large shipments of identical flutes have been quickly sold off, best ones sold quickest, as the batch of "identical" flutes  moves from city center to city center, leaving only one lemon that no one wants, and that is possibly the one that is in the shop when you arrive.

4. Have the new flute(s) tested by a professional flutist or private flute teacher while you listen from a distance of several yards or in a performance hall. Why?
a) flutes that sound LOUD or SOFT up close may sound the opposite at a distance
b) you can witness the acutal ability of flutes that have a professional range of sound quality and agility if played by a pro. (qualities you may not be able to yet get out of a given flute)
c) the pro. will sense far more quickly the limitations of a flute (too thin, too muffled, too slow mechanism, leaks in pads etc.) and within minutes can pick the best flute of a batch.

5. Keep your old flute as a backup for when your new flute goes into repair after first 3-6 months, and thereafer once a year. Why?
a) You don't want to be left flute-less if a repair problem crops up just before a concert
b) You can eventually sell the old flute and your new flute may become your backup flute when you buy a new one (every 10-20 years.) and c) if your old flute is in perfect repair, you can tell when your new flute starts to leak or have other problems by playing your old flute to compare.

________________________________article continues here.

How to shop for a flute while repairing your old one:

Now to reiterate and fill in with details pertaining to you:

1. Your old flute is perhaps perfectly fine and just needs a few tweaks or pad leaks repaired; in fact, perhaps there's no rush to buy a new flute....it's just that you're kind of lost in what you're doing musically, not quite sure whether you need new equipment, or a fresh start, and you think maybe your one hard-to-press key is leaking, and your flute is kind of squeaking and shrieking....... and maybe this old flute has never been to repair, and the low notes no longer come out....it happens. It's like an old bicycle that rusted away in a wintery garage.....how do you know what's wrong here?
What should you really do?

 Go straight to the the best flute repair shop with that flute.

Some flutes need tweaking at the repair shop twice a year!
Most need an annual maintenance schedule (very affordable).

If the pads on our old flute are starting to fail (harden/warp/leak), you could just need a $60 repair visit  to fix one truly bad pad. Or if you haven't taken your flute in for over two years, there could be multiple mechanical and pad problems, and this could be a $230 repair visit.. The fact is that flutes need annual maintenance. If that's been missed, yes, the flute could be "not worth repairing" (cue vincent-price music: duhn duhn dunn DUNN!)

Pads actually leak on $20,000 flutes too. You are not alone.
 Flutes need to be oiled once a year whether they are cheap or expensive.

Leaks in the pads are common due to humidity/drying, finger-pressure.
** In your letter above you say your friend's flute is also behaving as if it has pad leaks.** Perhaps they need their flutes playtested as well.

Shimming and sealing tweaks are the most common repair in the real world of flute playing. It's part of maintenance that most regular people forget about.

Take your flute in to the best recommended repair shop, and while it's away, rent a good quality, leak-free flute for a couple of weeks if yours is delayed, or in the waiting list for repairs at the best flute repair person's shop for ten days.....

And here's what will be happening, while your old flute is at the shop.

Get a brand new rental/replacement and compare:

You will compare a brand new rental flute for two weeks with your own flute when it comes back from the shop. You will feel the difference.
This whole exercise doesn't cost that much, and if you do sell your Artley one day, or ever play it again, you'll notice that having it leak-free is key to it working and selling it in the future.

On the other hand, if the repair technician says "UNrepairable" or "Not worth the cost of the repairs", or "Are you playing this flute again, or donating it to a junior band?" then you'll know that from an expert right off the bat.

So: repairs at the repair shop first.

 Your flute needs them.

(and if the repairs are ridiculously costly and time-consuming, or if the technician suggests that the flute is too mechanically damaged to be worth repairing, you will know right away. They can call you before they begin working on it.)

It's also good to have found the best quality repair person for your flute, because when your new flute comes home, it will also need to have repairs and adjustments after the first 3-6 months, and every 12 months thereafter.

So meet your new repair person.
You will come to know them. :>)

2. During the week(s) your old flute is being repaired.

 During the time your old flute is in the shop, you have rented or taken out on trial from a quality music instrument shop, and have now been playing on a Yamaha 461 (with plugs in the open-holes as needed, and offset G for those who want that) for two weeks or so, and it's brand new, and you have experienced the "new flute feel".

This is a great way of playing a leak-free flute: lightest possible fingers, no need to press hard to get notes to come out, all playing is fluid.

If you're renting a Yamaha, hopefully a brand new one, ( and your local shop may instead have Pearl, or Armstrong, or Gemeinhardt or whatever brands they normally sell) you need to get the newest, freshest model they have in stock.
You tell them you're flute shopping for the future, and you put a credit card down.
(I recommend Yamaha flutes because they tend to be identical in their sturdiness. They aren't "soft" and bendable, so they take and hold their pad repairs very well, and they tend to play well in a standard way that will get you where you're going without too much trouble.)

You can rent any new flute they'll rent you. If they have a brand new Azumi, or a Miyazawa, Muramatsu or Altus, with the right money down, you can take it "on trial" to see if you would buy it after ten days.
Try Japanese flutes, try out the best in the shop.
Sometimes they will let you have a flute on trial because they see you're a serious, buying customer.
Sometimes this level of service will extend to allowing you to take two flutes on trial one after another.
Meet your instrument salespeople; get their help in trialing instruments.

But what is most important, and what you are actually going to do with that brand new flute when you first play it, is to go slowly, and carefully and

 do not compress the pads barely at all when you play it.

You want to retrain your hands to have the "butterfly touch".

Don't press down on the keys at all.

Let your hands go from clenching at 10 on the tension scale, to being 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, more and more relaxed until they are at a 2 on the tension scale.

Learn to play again with perfectly relaxed and poised hands so that you are exerting NO downward pressure on the perfectly seated pads.

This is the key to testing out any new flute.

It's going to have the perfect padding of (hopefully) the universe on it, and you need to change YOURSELF to play it without the pressing downward that you do on your old Artley.

Yes, the headjoint will be different.
I'll cover headjoints below.

But check out what you learn about good padding!


Pads must seal with no uneven pressure from the fingers.

This is the whole learning experience of the intermediate player right here.
Padding awareness. Finger effortlessness.

3. How long does it actually take to really get used to a new flute?

It can take from 2 to 6 months (or even more) to truly adapt to a new flute for an advanced or intermediate player. Usually it is the headjoint they are adapting to. There are hundreds of variations in headjoints.

I have two semi identical flutes (both Altus) which can be fitted with the same headjoint.
That is the way I can send one to the repair shop as needed.
The headjoint is the same, so I barely have to adapt when one of the two goes to the shop.
That's how I solve the problem as a professional who must play gigs, despite pad wear and tear from playing for so many hours a day.

But throughout my performance life, I've changed headjoints and flutes several times so I know that yes, it can take up to six months to get used to a flute's new headjoint.

No two headjoints are alike.

Some are deeper, shallower, broader, more triangular, require broader oval in the lips, require deeper blowing angle...

No two are alike. Seriously.

If you are trying to get an identical sound quality as your old Artley headjoint, it could take two months to adjust. This is why when testing, it's better to have a teacher/professional also play-test the headjoints.

As you're adjusting to a new headjoint:
Sometimes it's because the lip-plate feels different, and you need to frown the chin-skin into place better to feel the lip plate curve.

Sometimes it's because the angles you can blow at are much smaller, and as you get a better and better sound you're finding the "sweet spot" to aim at for each new headjoint.

Sometimes it's because you're actually blowing off-center and don't know that until you look in a mirror.

But it takes time, and it's much easier with a teacher coaching you who can demonstrate the sound quality.

So, why not wait until you have a teacher so you can actually try out headjoints and new flutes with someone who can test-play them for you?

4. Test playing by TWO people; one of whom adapts quickly.

Here's the key point; if you have a flute teacher, you can record their test-playing of any and all flutes you bring them, by bringing a recording machine to your flute lesson, and having any two flutes played side by side by a professional.

This is the easiest possible way to hear what a new flute is capable of.

To me this is the key to the whole thing.

The teacher will:

- use a light touch on the new flute's pads and notice any inherent pad leaks
- will use a light touch on your Artley's pads and notice leaks and tell you to take it to the best repair person in town, and give you dude's phone number. :>)

The teacher will:

- test the headjoint(s) to make all different tone colours. This sound-testing can be recorded on any recording device and listened to at home, afterwards as well as live!

- play-test the Artley headjoint to see if the cork is leaking or there are other repair needs

- play-test the Artley vs. the new headjoints and describe, verbally and demonstrate by playing what the adjustments would be to get the same sound on the Artley and the new headjoint (ie: "I have to widen my aperture, make a tall oval, and stick my upper lip out just a bit, to get a huge forte on the lower G.......etc.")

The teacher will:

- playtest back to back any and all flutes running scales and skips and leaps and hard repertoire.


You can record this play-test and hear which flute is better. You can keep this recording and listen to it a year later to hear what the flutes sounded like when playtested back at the start of the shopping process. You don't need to rely on memory if you have recorded the whole testing sequence (with teacher's permission.)

5. Why does the expert play-test beat the amateur play-test?

Here's the real reason why this is such a good question; it brings out a human issue:

Our ears are far in advance of our playing-skills when we first are testing instruments.

When you aren't yet skilled enough to make your embouchure and hands go through multiple positions on the flute, you can't fully test an instrument.

But your ears, your musical ears, are always miles ahead of your skill set.

So by recording an expert flute teacher playing any flutes for you, when you are flute shopping, your ears can pick out the flute that actually WILL be the best flute to your taste.

Your teacher will tell you of any mechanical flaws, but your ears will be able to pick out the flute it wants to hear.

Hope this helps,

Speedtyping at a zillion miles per hour with no spell check, and obviously hyper aware of repair needs for padding problems on old flutes (and new ones!)



More useful links:

Flute Care tips (with printable pdf):

How to test a flute that's on "trial":

Test your current flute for repair needs:

Advice on buying a flute:

Comments (8)
Anonymous terryb630 said...

Talking of old flutes here's an old (forgive me) flautist, did you see this
well worth a look.

Terry B

Monday, March 23, 2015 8:21:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Thanks Terry; this BBC player only works for IP addresses in the UK. If you find another version of this film that can be viewed in North American, send the link. Thanks. Jen

Monday, March 23, 2015 8:59:00 AM

Anonymous Terry B said...

Ok lets see how this goes...


Hopefully you can get youtube in the newly emergent nations!

Terry B

Friday, April 17, 2015 8:42:00 AM

Blogger jen said...


Friday, April 17, 2015 9:15:00 AM

Blogger Vicki Westergard said...

I have a similar situation to S. but with one added issue. I also have a 50-year-old open-hole Artley that I loved in high school and played off and on since. A friend of my son's played my flute one day when they were home on break from college and apparently when she put it away it was damp. I had decided to join the community band and I opened it to start practicing to find serious mold in the case. I took it to my local music store and they told me it would be over $400 once it was cleaned, the pads and corks replaced and the case replaced. However, they advised against it because of the flute's age and suggested that I get a new one instead. I have never played another flute that sounded as good to me with a rich tone, and I am not sure whether I will be committing to the community band for the long term. My flute is not playable at this point as I am allergic to mold. I don't want to spend that money if the flute is truly dying, and I also don't know what to do with it if I don't fix it. I can't bear to throw it away, but it seems crazy to keep a moldy, unplayable flute. Help!

Tuesday, March 08, 2016 1:48:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

If you are allergic to mold, then you have no choice. You deserve a new flute for sure. There is nothing so strangely melancholic as to detach yourself enough to realize that you're using "sentimental value" and your own current budget to talk yourself into continuing to try and save the Artley.
Believe me, flutes have really improved since that Artley was designed. Why should you suffer using it (and paying to have it cleaned and overhauled) if you have the moolah to buy one of the new super-duper fantastico'- never-been-easier-to-play-in-tune-and-with-great-tone flutes of today?
If you have the moolah, then join us in the new century of better flutes.
Give the Artley away to a company that refurbishes flutes for poor schools.
It will be the best thing you ever did.
Let your flute teacher help choose you a good new, affordable flute.
I suggest Azumi.
Best, Jen

Tuesday, March 08, 2016 2:26:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

The mold also occurs just from sitting in a cool closet where moisture collects. It isn't just from being played and then not swabbed; it's also the condensation in the cold closet that causes this. Jen

Tuesday, March 08, 2016 2:27:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Also, if you don't want to commit, just rent a Yamaha for $20 a month.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016 2:28:00 PM


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