Getting started on the lower flutes can be a daunting task at first. They are larger, heavier, and awkward to hold. They respond differently and have different sound qualities that can throw us for a loop. It’s best to know your enemy and what to expect before you take the first step. Then, jump in with both feet!
The first step is making sure you have a working instrument. Trust me when I say that while you might be able to get by on a C flute that is a bit out of adjustment and leaky, you absolutely won’t be able to on a low flute. If you thought low C was hard on a concert flute you will be in for frustration beyond belief, not to mention tendon strain from squeezing, on the low flutes.
Since these instruments are larger, the balance and weight will be a larger factor (no pun intended). A straight alto will line up very similar to a C flute. The curved alto and the bass headjoints do present a different issue. I highly recommend aligning the curved headjoint more centered over the body so as to place the the weight of the flute directly over the hands and arms for support (see photo A). Some people do prefer to set the headjoint lower, which puts the body and headjoint even and parallel with the flute (see photo B). I personally don’t like this position. It causes the flute to become more unstable and it’s difficult to keep the embouchure-to-lip plate relationship stable. I also feel more strain in my shoulders and my arms get tired. In the end, do what is comfortable for you. We are all different and what works for one person may not work for the other. Position A is my preference and where I suggest my students start for comfort and balance. Just make sure that the headjoint placement doesn’t interfere with the key mechanism or the fingers. Bass flutes do usually have a crutch or some type of support to help with balancing the weight evenly, whereas altos usually are more similar to the concert flute contact points.
It really is important to enjoy the process of working on the lower flutes. Understanding that these larger relatives of the concert flute respond and behave differently is important. Remember, the bore diameter and tube length are greater, which means you need to find just the right air speed so as not to over or under blow the octaves. If the air speed is too fast, you will get really amazing overtones on the low flutes. It is rarely too slow, so let’s not worry about that at all. More than anything else, learning to relax the embouchure while still keeping it controlled, open the aperture, and slow the air down will work wonders. Also, be prepared to use more air, a lot more air. You will notice quite a bit less resistance compared to a concert flute. So, take some time to get to know the instrument and play around. These are different beasts and have different personalities. Take the instrument for a test drive as you would a new C flute and see what it can do. Just test drive with slower air speed. Start in the staff, explore, and remember to have fun!
You may notice that the alto and bass flutes have differing intonation issues from the concert flute. One of the issues inherent in the bass flute and alto flutes is the curved headjoint. The headjoints on concert flutes and straight alto flutes have a continues taper from the crown to the body tube (also known as a parabolic headjoint). Curved headjoints can’t be made with this steady taper so they are stepped down at each connection point. This does cause some intonation issues that the tapered headjoints don’t experience. Remember to listen just as you would your concert flute. Aim for a good tone first and foremost. If you are producing a good sound, good intonation will follow and be easier. Working on scales and arpeggios with a tuner will help. I highly recommend the use of a drone when working on low flute intonation. Choose a drone that speaks in the lower octave of the instrument. Choosing a pitch for the bass flute is easy since it is also in C. Remember that the alto flute is a transposing instrument and is pitched in G which means it sounds a perfect fourth lower that the note being played. A first line G would actually sound the D below the staff when played.
It is also important to recognize that the timbre of the lower flutes in the second and third octaves will sound different. This is just part of the joy of playing them. We strive for a balance of color in all ranges of the concert flute. With the low flutes, take time to experience the different colors present in the full range of the instruments. I love that my alto and bass flutes have a more haunting and harmonically rich quality in the upper registers and I always demonstrate them with I am doing clinics. Alto and bass flutes will never sound like a concert flute in the upper ranges and it is important to acknowledge this, otherwise you may get really frustrated. Enjoy the variety of color in each of the octaves. Once you explore and are familiar with these instruments, you will begin to understand why composers have written for them the way that they do.
I do personally recommend the books written by Christine Potter to all of my students. She has one book for both the alto and bass flutes, and I think these are must-have sources for the beginner and more advanced player alike. They include alternate fingerings, great playing pointers, recommended repertoire, suggestions for buying instruments, and suggestions for repair shops that work with low flutes. I also recommend Taffanel and Gaubert for everything. It works well with minimal adjustments to accommodate range (to keep the low flutes out of the stratosphere). The Telemann Fantasies also work well for the low flutes because the limited range keeps things more comfortable.
Remember to have fun, explore color, pay attention to your body to avoid straining due to the instrument size and positioning, explore new repertoire, take deep breaths, and …..have fun!