Flutes and Fashions

Flute: Inline and Offset G KeysWhen I was younger, I played the flute as seriously as I did anything else. I gave up when my flute teacher began pressuring me to (a) buy a $2,000 flute, and (b) start running every day. It was the second of these that was probably the deal breaker. I was very keen on having a better flute. I had been struggling with a student model for years. In particular, my flute did not play very well in tune. It required constant adjustments in my embouchure. I was certain that a better flute would help. At this point, I have no idea if I was right.

As I recall it, there were really two primary differences between a student and a professional flute. The first is that the student flute has an offset G key and the professional has an inline G key. That must mean that the inline G key is better, right? Well, I did a little research recently, and people no longer think this. The offset G key has a couple of advantages. First, it hangs off a separate rod, so the mechanism is stronger. Second, it is in a more normal position for the left third finger. So it is less likely to cause carpal tunnel syndrome.

Flute: Open and Closed HolesThe situation now is that most professional flutes come with offset G keys. So why did every professional flutist have an inline G key when I was playing? Fashion. I’m not sure what the history was. It could have been a very famous flutist liked them. Or it could be that the offset G innovation was first developed by someone making cheap flutes. Regardless, it wasn’t based on anything objective. It was just another example of humans following the herd.

The second difference between a student and a professional flute was that the latter had open holes. Surely the open hole flute was far superior, right? Well… I’ve always considered the open hole flute a kind of villainy of musical pedagogy. If a flute needs to have open holes, why have students learn on flutes with closed holes so they can develop lots of bad habits that they will have to break later? I suppose an argument can be made, but only if open hole flutes really are a whole lot better.

So are they? No. Jennifer Cluff, a flute instructor up in Canada, put together an excellent article on the subject, Open-Hole Flute Versus Closded Hole flute. She explained that open hole flutes don’t sound any better. It isn’t clear that they play any better in tune. And they may encourage carpal tunnel syndrome the same way that the inline G flutes do. But there is one way that open hole flutes are better:

[I]n modern times because open-holes allow more use of extended techniques and special fingerings for specific uses (tuning, harmonics, special effects.) professionals want to be ready, willing, and able to play this music.

So now open hole flutes are necessary because composers have written especially for them. Before, flutists had open hole flutes. Because it was the fashion. Now flutists must have open hole flutes because of this history. Cluff plays an open hole flute, but for normal performance, she plugs all the holes except for the F key. The F key is controlled by the right first finger, and so would be the least taxing open hole to manage.

I’m just fascinated that these aspects of flute design that were just taken to be scientific fact were just fashion all the time. It goes right along with what I talk about a lot: we are not nearly as rational as we think we are.

Afterword

Jennifer Cluff is a great flutist. And she introduced me to a great Canadian composer, Srul Irving Glick. He studied with Darius Milhaud — a composer I have admired for a long time. Glick is not as charming as Milhaud, but still beautiful. Here is a rehearsal for the first movement of Glick’s “Sonata.” It is lovely. It reminds me in some ways of Poulenc but with more of a Ravel kind of harmonic sense. Give it a listen:

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