Bass flute

Bass Flute Primer

Almost every flute player is intrigued by flutes other than the standard concert flute and piccolo, especially the big flutes! I have seen quite a few people in my own flute choir cross over to the dark side and give the low flutes a try only to find it quite fun and enjoyable. Before too long, they are shopping for an instrument and show up to rehearsal with their very own alto or bass. I am hoping this article gives our readers some pointers and some things to think about when considering expanding their flute horizons to the low end of the spectrum.

One thing to consider is that the low flutes are the same, but different. Yes, you can use the same fingerings to make them work, but they are completely different instruments. The low flutes have not been developed and fine tuned as thoroughly as concert flutes, so they do vary, sometimes greatly, from brand to brand. You will find that the low flutes require time to learn and get to know, just like any instrument. Approach these instruments with the curiosity of a child and give yourself time to explore how they respond and the discrepancies in intonation. Use this exploration to figure out what challenges you might have, how your big flute responds in the different octaves, and what fingerings may or may not work well. I have found, on my own instruments, that I have to use some different fingerings to get the best sound for some notes as well as to find the best pitch.

On the physical side, alto and bass flutes are much heavier than the concert flute. This might be an important consideration, especially if you have physical limitation or challenge. I have had rotator cuff surgery, so the weight of these instruments is a factor and I need to be mindful of how I am holding them and for how long to avoid days of pain following a concert set. Luckily, we are starting to see new support systems for bass flute as well as instruments being designed to be played vertically.

If you have decided to delve into the low flutes, especially bass flute, you need to establish a budget and figure out what your needs are verses your wants. Bass flutes are not as customizable and don’t have as many options available across the brands as concert flutes do. Options on bass flutes include: split-e, soldered tone holes, vertical configurations, crutch or post style supports, silver lip plate and riser or silver headjoint, c or b foot, and possibly some additional options. Not all of these options are available on all basses or from all manufacturers. For example, if you want the split-e option, you may only be able to get it on an instrument with a b foot which substantially increases the weight of the instrument. You may want soldered tone holes and a silver head, but this may only be an option on a flute that is out of your budget. Bass flutes range in price from $3500 to $17,000, which means there is a wide range of budget options.

One thing that seems odd to consider is that, on the entry level bass flutes, trill keys don’t always come standard. Weird, right? Due to the long, additional mechanism and two additional tone holes on such a large instrument, these become “upgrades.” You don’t think about trill keys on a bass…until you need them. The trill keys give you options for additional fingerings but also, oddly, the ability to trill. Trill keys are vital if you plan to play solo literature outside of flute choir. Personally, I want to use an instrument as much as possible to make sure I don’t suffer from buyers remorse. So, solo literature is a must for me, therefore so are trill keys!

I have never found a b foot or split-e a must have for me personally, but if I fell in love with a bass flute that had these options, great! I have played a lot of bass flutes over the years and I do have my favorites at all the price points. I also know that flute shopping is very personal so what works for me isn’t what works for everyone else. Establish your budget, identify the brands that fall into this budget, try that range of instruments (remember they don’t play like concert flutes), and take notes about what you like. I highly recommend trying the pro level flutes too, just for comparison. If you try a bass flute that is $16k, you get an idea of how the top of the line instruments play and it will help focus your expectations for bass flutes in general as well as for the lower level, budget friendly models.

Once you decide on your budget and brand, go for it! Bass flutes are fun to play. They have a very different timbre and we get to play very different parts in the flute ensemble. The tonal colors are different and there are response challenges (bigger instrument + more air = delayed response and tired player). I also have a better understanding of why low brass players get in trouble so much, but that is a story for a different article!

Getting started on bass flute is just like any other flute. Start with what you know. This is a great time to review scales and arpeggios as these fundamentals never go out of style. This review will help you get to know the instrument and figure out the intonation challenges. It is also nice to pull out some of those easy etudes from years ago to apply new fingerings and really get used to the new flute. We are also so lucky now to have method books specifically for the bass flute. This shows a huge change in mentality about these low flutes. In the past, they were known as “harmony flutes,” but players have challenged composers and demanded these instruments be treated as legitimate solo instruments in their own right.

Working on these basic scales and easy etudes also gives you time to explore playing position and posture as well as how you set up your instrument. This early exploration is important for avoiding injury and discomfort in the long term. Finding a comfortable playing position on a bass flute takes time. Be sure to take regular breaks and keep practice sessions shorter in the beginning. If something feels uncomfortable or causes pain, then reassess how you are holding the instrument and how your footjoint and headjoint are set. This is also a great time to take a few lessons with a teacher familiar with the challenges of low flutes. Sometimes they will have some pointers to share from their own discovery

There is so much information on the web now about the low flutes and we have quite a few amazing resources thanks to the work of people like Chris Potter, who has been a champion of the low flute community for years. Don’t hesitate to explore these sources, reach out to teachers, and ask for help and guidance. Remember to have fun and “go low!”

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