Friday, June 17, 2016

Beginner Questions - Bent C#, difficult high notes

Two questions from beginner/novices today. The first was about low notes not speaking on the footjoint (is crushing your pinky down to get low B normal?) and the second from a dad wondering about "off-key" and shrieky sounding high notes coming from his loved ones. See below for 1. & 2.

Bent C# on Footjoint
Yellow arrow points to C# key about to be bent by accident.
Click on picture to enlarge.

1. Question:
Dear Jen,
I can't find an answer to this issue on your website. (I'm sorry if you've already answered this and I just couldn't find it; you have a massive website.) I have a refurbished Gemeinhardt step up flute. I know it's not a good flute, but I think it should play and it should play all the notes, right?

I can play down to low C fine, but for the low B to come out at all I must flatted my finger uncomfortably against the keys. If I don't do this the low C# key opens as I close the low B and C key.

I took the flute in to check for leaks and it all checked out fine. The guy said there was a leak in a different key further up but that I was closing it fine. They had me play on another model flute they had on hand, and it was a bit better but I still have the problem even on a new flute, so the tech suggested I take lessons. I got into lessons, but the teacher is not a flute a player and he has no idea what the problem is.

It's as if the end of my pinky is too small, it can't hold down all the keys at the same time with sufficient pressure, the only way to do it is to make it come down flatter, to lay the finger down more against the key, longwise. I can't actually take my fingers flat and lay them on the keys that way because they're the wrong lengths. I have to bend them, and then I get this problem. 

The only position that closes all of the keys at once is with my pinky bent backward in the middle which is uncomfortable, not something I can get in and out of fast, and not something I want to do. When I do that I can play the low B very loudly.

What should I do? T.


Dear T.
During flute assembly, when the footjoint is put on to or taken off the flute's middle section, a lot of people unknowingly BEND the keys and rods, by clasping their fist around all the keys and rods, and twisting the footjoint onto the body. See photo at the start of this blog post. Even some "how to play the flute" websites unwittingly show gripping hands bending footjoints (!)

This is a common error, and thousands of band flutists in every school in the world do it. I bet you up to half of the band flutes of grade 8 world-wide have a gapping C# pad when you look closely at the footjoint.

As a result of bending the moving parts of the footjoint, the very first thing happens is the C# key is bent upward.  This makes it hard to close the C and the B without smushing your pinky finger down flat and forcing them all to close using flat fingerered downward pressure.
This of course sounds very familiar to what you're describing.

So the mystery questions are:

1. Why did the repair technician not notice the C# key was bent upward, and would not close all the way without extra flat-fingered pinky pressure? Is he/she not a very good flute technician? Or did they not test the flute with a light for leaks in the footjoint?

Answer I'm thinking: Take it to a different technician for a second opinion, preferably the TOP flute repair person; the one the flute teachers go to in your town.  Maybe the first person you took it to really only works on brass instruments and knows very little about flute footjoints and how to test for simple, common leaks.

2. Have you been clasping the footjoint by wrapping your hand around the moving parts during assembly and disassembly? If so, stop doing that and let someone show you how to put the flute together without bending the metal.

Answer that I'm thinking: Once it is repaired by a good flute technician, don't ever bend it again.

3. Is it normal to have to smush down keys to get low notes?

Answer: No. When you play low C, you should be able to touch only the tip of your curved pinky to the C-roller and NO OTHER KEY, and both C# and C should close, instantly, without downward pressure, and without touching the C# lever.

If you cannot play low C with just the C roller, then look closely at the footjoint with your eyes. Take it off the flute and watch the keys close.
Touch the C-roller and watch whether C and C# keys close identically and fully like Siamese twins; totally must close at the exact instant, with no gaps.

If you see the C# is bent upward slightly and gaps, then this is indeed what's happened here.

Maybe you've unknowingly bent it more since you saw the repair person who didn't notice it was a little bent even back then. Let me know what you find out.

See diagrams below for all the above pointers explained with graphics.

How should you line up your footjoint for reach, during assembly? Start with the silver ball in the center of the D key. You can rotate inward from there a few millimeters if necessary depending on finger-length.

How should you finger the footjoint keys, and what position should the RH pinky be in?

Click on above jpg to enlarge.
Once your flute is all fixed up, here are articles about right pinky and footjoint information:
Jen's pdf showing footjoint alignment choices with photos:

Right hand pinky problems on footjoint?

Right pinky is reliant on right thumb:
Good luck and let me know what you find out.
High Notes Fairly Shrieky
2. Question:
Dear Jen
My daughter has trouble with a 40 year old Armstrong model 90 given to her by a family friend, and I`ve been reading your website for clues as to why she has trouble at times with high notes going astray(off key and noisy), any advice? M.
 Dear M,
High notes being off-key and noisy (shrieky, loud, ear-splitting, uncontrolled) is normal in a novice or beginner flutist. Especially at first, and especially without lessons to help learn the embouchure.

High register notes are difficult to control without forming a special forward embouchure where the lips are pursed, forward slightly off the teeth. (see articles links below.)
Here are the most useful articles from my website about getting good tone in the flute's high register. It is a skill that comes in the third year of private lessons, usually. It takes about a year to fully develop and there are exercises and tricks and hints. A lot of self-taught students first have to "un-do" problems they've created (blowing too hard, too shallowly, without moving the lips into a new position, etc.).
That's why it's best to get good advice in one-to-one lessons; saves time and frustration.
See articles:
Good Tone in the High Register:
Another flute teacher's overview: (if you're self-teaching/without lessons)
High Register Fingerings:
Are you using the correct high register fingerings? They differ from middle register:
Jen's high register Articles:
Mouth shape:

Using the longest parts of the lip centers:

Trouble with your high register? (for intermediates):

Best Advice:

Warm up first, in order to relax into high register: (just blowing harder may cause shrieking).

Problems you may not have noticed:
Is it the flute or is it me?

Flute lined up right? If not stable on your chin, it could make every note more difficult.

Jaw jutting too much? Jaw open and back is best:

Flute moving on your chin? Didn't notice?

Mirror used to see embouchure? Are you hitting the right spot with your lips?

Sudden loss of tone? (you sounded GREAT, and then boom, it sounded awful; repair problem? Perception of greatness dimmed by better listening? Which?)

So, be sure to have the flute checked out by a flutist/teacher:

If the flute functions well when a professional flutist plays it, then it's the skill of "how to get great high notes" (takes several years, but quick progress made with focused practice) that needs to be shared in lessons that's likely needed.
If it were leaking pads (see below) or other repair problems  it would greatly affect the low notes. So it's best to check the low notes first with the help of a good embouchure/good player to find out whether there are any repair problems.
Basic Repair Problems in Older Flutes
Old flutes may have many problems:
1. Cork in the headjoint has shrunk from wet-dry cycle and needs to be replaced: $10 at repair shop. Takes five minutes; well worth doing first as can improve overall response.

2. Pads (under the keys) may be ripped, dirty, shrunken, and have multiple tiny leaks as they've aged and hardened. Each new pad is about $30 work/parts.

3. Mechanical wear and tear, or bending of moving parts may cause pads to not fully close.
The flute should be disassembled and oiled every year. If this has rarely or never been done, the moving parts wear dry-metal to dry-metal over the years, and can score or damage the inside of the long rods, so that the metal parts shift and shimmy instead of staying in place.
A "Clean Oil and Adjust" is anywhere from $50 to $150 depending on the repair shop.
If there are any pad problems "COA" plus "pad replacement and shimming" can be anywhere from $75 to $250 depending on how bad the leak problems are.
Prices given here are approximate; if flute is badly out-of-repair, the prices would be higher.

4. Damage around the blowing area: If there are dents or depressions from mishandling in and around the blowing edge, the sound can suffer. Sometimes the solder can be deteriorating where it seals the lip plate to the tube. Although many times more rare than a simple $10 cork problem, if you can see light seeping in where the solder should be around the chimney in the headjoint, then re-soldering can cost up to $100.

5. Lack of maintenance in general; all flutes need to go to repair every 6-12 months if they are being played two hours a day.
The pads are not robust; they shrink and dry through daily use, regardless of how careful the player is, and leaks appear every few months. Repair visits for minor "tweaks" to leaking pads are normal. Flutes are not like trumpets. They are not self-repairable nor simple. Every new flute student is surprised by the repair frequency of flutes. Perhaps the general public assumes that repairs are only if the flute is dropped or hit; but no, they are ongoing due to the wet-dry cycle of the cotton, leather, cork, paper and glue that actually work to make the flute fleet and accurate.
All materials used in padding and keys are subject to humidity and shifts over time.

A: Has your daughter been playing long?
B: Has your daughter's flute been checked over by a teacher for playability?
C: Have you taken the flute for regular repairs at a quality flute repair shop?

If your daughter is playing in band, with no private teacher, and the flute has never gone for proper repair, then it's best to find the highest quality flute repair person in your area, and have them repair the flute to full functionality prior to the student suffering from the malfunctioning that is so common in older flutes.
M. writes:
Thanks, Jen, yes.
The Flute teacher, who is a flautist, played the flute and it`s fine ,still more practice needed, and progress is being achieved!
Jen respond: Good oh. Glad to help.
Comments welcome.

Comments (8)
Blogger MATTHEW TAYLOR said...

Excellent advice for all flute players. Not just students.

Friday, June 17, 2016 9:08:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Thanks Matt; all hard won. :>)

Friday, June 17, 2016 10:50:00 PM

Anonymous Marc said...

I'm German and hopefully my English is good enough.

I really got mad about my technique exercises because I had a good tone exept at my low C. I tried really hard to get it equal to the other low notes. So I changed my embouchure, tried to change my use of the abdominal muscles (I don't know the English word for 'Stütze').
Then I read this article and found out, that the C#-Pad doesn't fully close when using the C-roller.
I already emailed my teacher and he will fix it for me. I'm very thankfull for your hint!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016 5:04:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Marc,
I'm absolutely thrilled that you discovered the problem from reading my blog.
So glad you wrote! Best, Jen

Wednesday, June 22, 2016 9:30:00 AM

Blogger David Sherr said...

Apparently Paul Edmund-Davies thinks it is also important to bend your knees so that your height fluctuates by about six inches from measure to measure. I don't get why?

Thursday, January 05, 2017 8:40:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Hi David,
I'm sure it's unconscious, right?
A lot of flute players bend their knees to engage their best breathing.
The Psoas muscle connects the top of the leg bones, diagonally to the underside of the diaphragm. Bending the knees (although it looks odd, when the player is unaware they are doing it repeatedly) is one way to try and trigger this combo of muscles.

Thursday, January 05, 2017 1:25:00 PM

Blogger Allan said...

Hi Jen,

I'm a clarinet player who doubles on flute, and I've found many of your articles helpful in developing my flute skills.

I'm teaching an 8-year-old beginner flute student, and he can get the second octave but not the first. I've tried searching for suggestions on how to help him find the first octave, but everything I can find addresses the opposite problem.

Do you have any suggestions?

Sunday, February 19, 2017 8:42:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Hi Clarinet player with student with low note problems.

If the student cannot make low notes sound there are several things to check:

1. How high is the flute's lip plate on the lower lip? If it is too high, the student can lower it a millimeter at a time and pull the upper lip down instead. Sometimes it can be lowered a full quarter inch or more, but must be done in tiny tiny increments so the student can adjust their own lips.

2. How much of the blow hole is being covered by the lower lip? If there is only 1/4 of the blow hole un-covered, and the lower lip crowds the rest of the blow hole, or the flute is rolled too far inward, then the low octave will not sound.
Uncover the blow hole a tiny tiny amount at a time (hair's-breadth or "millimeter at a time") until the lower lip only covers 1/4 to 1/3rd of the blow hole.

3. How tense are the lips? Is there a lot of tension going into forming the embouchure? It's possible the student is really blowing hard and at the same time really tensing the lip-corners, mouth muscles and lips to hold the air back again; this happens in teenagers though, not in youngsters.

4. Have YOU tried the flute? If there's a leak in the thumbkey, A key or G key, or even in the headjoint cork, sometimes low notes will not sound easily. Can YOU play low notes on it?


Sunday, February 19, 2017 10:49:00 AM


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