Do you want to play a fun, beautiful woodwind without having to worry about reeds? The flute is just what you’re looking for! The flute has a completely unique playing style from any other instrument. Instead of blowing through a reed or buzzing your lips, flutes are played by blowing air over an open hole, which produces the vibrations that lead to sound.
And what a light, clear sound! The only instrument that can play higher than a flute is the oboe. Let’s take a closer look at the flute, it’s history, and some tips to help you improve as a flautist.
History of the Flute
Flutes are actually the oldest known instruments in the world. In southwestern Germany, archaeologists discovered a series of bone and ivory flutes that are dated to be up to 43,000 years old. These prehistoric flutes only had two to four holes for the fingers.
Flutes maintained a fairly simple design, comprising a long tube of wood with finger holes. The transverse flute—the horizontal flute that is most commonly played today—was rare in Medieval Europe. Instead, most early flutes resembled recorders and were used in court and secular music.
The transverse flute made its way to Germany and France from Asia. These flutes were known as German flutes to differentiate them from the recorder-style flutes, and they saw a growth in popularity in the beginning of the Renaissance. You can thank the Swiss army for the dissemination of the flute throughout Europe as the instrument was commonly used for signaling during military procedures.
By the late 16th century, flutes were used in court and theater music, and eventually landed in chamber ensembles. In the Baroque era, flutes expanded to ballets and opera.
The Innovator: Theobald Boehm
It’s hard to say who first invented the flute, but Theobald Boehm was the great innovator who turned a simple wooden tube into the modern metallic instrument we know today. Boehm, a Bavarian goldsmith and musician, toured Europe for concerts from 1821 to 1831, during which time he built and played eight-keyed flutes.
In 1831, Boehm met fellow flutists in London, each of whom was interested in creating new mechanisms to diversify the flute’s keys and fingerings. Boehm constructed an experimental flute that allowed flute players to control holes that were too far from their reach.
With more tinkering, Theobald Boehm replaced the flute’s cone-shaped bore for one more evenly cylindrical. Although many flute players thought this new cylindrical bore offered a tone that was less “flute-like,” the Boehm flute gained popularity in the early 20th century and eventually became the standard for all flautists today.
Tips for Playing
Now that you’re convinced that the flute is a great instrument, what are some things you can do to improve your flute-playing abilities?
- Develop good posture. The key to good tone in any instrument is air, and you can’t provide ample air if you’re slouching or hunched over. Sit up straight with your neck in line with your back. If you’re reading sheet music, angle your entire body instead of bending or craning your neck to see the music stand.
- Balance your flute. When holding your flute, you should have three points of balance: your right thumb, your left thumb, and your chin. The embouchure plate should rest between your chin and lips. The rest of the instrument should balance on your left index finger—right where the finger meets the rest of your hand—and the tip of your right thumb. The flute should float on these three balance points without you even needing to grip it.
- Don’t hold your flute low. Get into the habit of holding your flute about 20 degrees above parallel. This will prevent posture problems and allow for better air support. However, unless you’re in marching band, don’t raise your flute too high over your head.
- Keep a loose, relaxed embouchure. Keeping your lips and facial muscles too tight usually leads to a strained, pinched sound. While a too-loose embouchure can also lead to a more hollow sound, it’s easier to alter an embouchure that is too loose than too tense.
- Use plenty of air. Think of air as your instrument’s fuel. Without it, your flute can’t function, so support your playing with plenty of air. Breathe from your diaphragm. You should feel your stomach expand with each breath. When exhaling, try to produce an air stream that will go directly over the tone hole.
- Use your lips. Your lips play just as important a role as air. Instead of blowing harder or softer, adjust your lips to improve tone and dynamics.
- Don’t forget to practice. Practice not only gets you working on what you’ve learned in class or in lessons, but also gives you more time with the instrument. The more time you spend with your flute, the more familiar you’ll get with its tone, notes, and idiosyncrasies.
The flute is a brilliant instrument that is fun to play, easy to learn, and perfect for all ages. If you’re ready to take the plunge, visit your local music shop and pick up a beginner flute.
Contact California Music Studios to learn about private flute lessons with highly trained professionals—all ages and skill levels welcome!