How to Begin to Play the Flute--assembly, Familiarity with the Instrument, and Beginning Play
The flute is a very popular band-instrument choice for young girls and a few young boys. There are relatively few things to consider whether this is the best choice of instrument for a student. The flute is vital to the band's performance, both in concerts and on the marching field. It is an instrument that can be played and enjoyed long into adulthood.
The first thing to consider is whether the child can produce a tone. Most prospective flute students have no trouble with this. However, some students will have a small protrusion on the bottom their top lip. If it is too large, it can block the center of the mouth hole when the student is trying to play. The result is that the air stream the student produces is split to the left and to the right and never goes directly into the flute as it should. Some students have this protrusion but when they pull their top lip back to form the correct flute embouchere, it disappears. If that is the case, then there’s no problem with them playing the flute. If the protrusion does not disappear when forming the flute embouchere, then another instrument should be chosen for the student. Best alternate choices would be clarinet, oboe, saxophone, or percussion. Brass instruments would not be a good alternative choice. This situation only occurs in 1 out of 300 or so students and of those, it only affects perhaps 1 of 400 seriously enough that they should choose another instrument.
As with other instruments, the student should begin with just the head joint, not the entire flute. This lets the student concentrate on learning the correct way to produce a tone rather than also thinking about holding the instrument properly.
The correct flute embouchere is achieved as follows: the lower lip is placed on the embouchere plate and covers about ¼ of the mouth hole. After placing the bottom lip, the student then pulls back the lips by tightening and drawing back the corners of the mouth. The student then blows across the top of the mouth hole to produce the tone. An excessive push of air is not necessary and in fact, the tone is easier to produce with a more gentle push of air. It is not uncommon for beginning students to use more air than necessary and cause themselves to feel light-headed. If this happens, they should stop until the feeling passes and then try again with less force of air or better direction of the air stream.
It is up to the student’s teacher to determine how long the student should spend working with only the head joint. Generally, a week to two weeks will be adequate. During this time, the student will learn the right amount of air to push to obtain the best sound as well as learning time values of notes and some rhythm skills.
The flute is easily assembled. There are three parts: the head joint, the body, and the foot joint. The head joint should be inserted into the top end of the body (where there are no keys) with a gentle back and forth twisting motion. The embouchere plate (or lip plate) has the mouth hole in it and the mouth hole should be lined up with the top rod on the body of the flute. The foot joint is the smallest part of the flute and only has a few keys. This should be attached to the end of the flute body, again with a gentle back and forth twisting motion. The rod from which the keys extend on the foot joint should be lined up with the center of the bottom key on the flute body.
The flute should be held parallel to the floor and perpendicular to the body, not dipped down. The student’s head should be straight and looking forward, not turned and bent down. The best way to describe this is the student should stand (or sit) straight looking straight ahead and bring the flute up to their mouth while maintaining that position.
There is a thumb key for the left hand but not for the right. The left thumb should be placed on the thumb key. Then the wrist should be held as closely as possible at a 90 degree angle to the hand and the three fingers and little finger will fit over the keys perfectly. The index finger goes on the second key from the left, the next key is skipped, the fourth key from the left is played by the middle finger, the fifth key from the left is played by the ring finger, and the little finger operates the side key below the fifth key.
To position the right hand, hold the flute in the left hand. The right hand little finger should be resting on the first keys on the foot joint. The fingered keys are obvious for the right hand. The right hand thumb will rest directly below the index finger key, forming an “O”.
Holding the flute correctly is very important to the finger dexterity required of flute players. Supplying the beginning student with a music stand is vitally important. Without a music stand, students tend to practice on a bed or couch with the book laying down beside them, heads down. Practicing in this position can develop very bad habits of breathing, posture, and fingering that will be hard to break later in the playing career. Using a music stand right from the beginning for home practice will help prevent developing a bad embouchere, hand position, or posture from ever developing.
Lastly, the flute should never be left lying across a bed or couch and should definitely never be placed on the rack portion of a music stand. Damage to flutes from someone sitting on them is very common but costly to repair. Flutes also tumble from music stands frequently when the stand is accidentally bumped.