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Of Beginner's, Intermediate, and Advanced Flutes

Just thought I'd introduce some thoughts on the differences between beginner's, intermediate, and advanced flutes.

The most obvious difference is the money.  Here are some approximate price ranges for new flutes.  These can vary greatly, but just to establish a ballpark:

  1. Beginner's Flutes are made of plated base metal and run from $150 to $700
     
  2. Intermediate (or "College") Flutes usually have a solid silver head and plated body and keys; they run (roughly) from $800 to $2500.
     
  3. Performance-Grade (or "Professional") Flutes are usually made of solid (not plated) precious metals or wood, are often handmade, with prices starting around $3000 and going up past $10,000.
     


First, there is a myth, and it's so common you will hear some teachers and band directors quote it when they should know better. The myth is "the more expensive the instrument, the easier it is to play."

What makes this myth so pervasive is there is some truth to it, but it leaves out a related and vital question: easier for who to play?

Big challenges for the beginning flutist are learning to make the instrument sound at the most basic level, learning to control the fingers, and making tongue, breath, and fingers work together. So, "easier to play" for a beginner means simply "easy to get a sound out of."

Challenges of the advanced player include playing with a wide range of dynamics and a wide tonal palette, using special techniques such as multiphonics, playing into the fourth octave, and playing with enough projection to carry a solo passage over a full orchestra without the use of a microphone. So "easy to play" to an orchestral flutist means easier to do all of that: a projective, flexible, responsive instrument which is going to respond like it's a part of their own body.

Do you get the idea that a flute like seems easy to play for little Sally Wilson, who's got two years of beginning band under her belt, won't necessarily be a flute that's particularly easy for Sir James Galway to play?

Conversely, and every bit as important--maybe more important, given the topic of the thread--is that a flute which Sir James finds to be a fine and capable instrument may barely seem to play at all in little Sally's hands.

Beginner flutes are made to be easy to get a sound out of. They are not made to handle extremely wide dynamics or a wide tonal palette, because no beginner can play with extreme dynamics or more than one kind of tone anyway.

Performance-grade flutes are made to project, to be responsive across a wide range of blowing techniques, to handle extreme volumes, to handle extremely rapid passages, to be in tune at extreme volumes...to do all the things that a beginners' flute doesn't do well.

But by the time you balance all of those characteristics: responsiveness, projection, intonation, pitch stability, flexibility...there's just not much room left to tweak for ease of play.

So the bottom line of all of this?

When you move to a higher-grade flute, often you'll find it harder to play, especially at first. You may have to "grow into it" a bit.

But it's time well spent, because at the end of the day, a high-end flute will do things that a beginner's flute will only do with great difficulty, if at all.

So which should you get?

For most children, starting with a beginner's flute makes sense, as long as you know you're going to be upgrading it in a few years.  Children often don't stick with playing, or wind up having talent but for a different instrument, and a beginner's flute represents a way to get a low-cost instrument into their hands that's good enough to get them to a certain starting level of playing.

For adults and for very committed children, starting with an intermediate flute may make more sense, particularly if the person has a level of responsibility equal to caring for (and keeping track of!) a very valuable instrument.  Also, intermediate and higher flutes often keep their value well, and can be sold later without taking much of a loss.

Finally, I don't think any beginning player of any age, level of determination, or income level would really be doing themselves a favor to start with a handmade, performance-grade flute.  You need to have a certain level of skill and experience to be able to pick effectively which high-end flute will respond well to you and match your own unique abilities.