Buying a Flute: My Experience

The topic of buying a flute is complex, which makes it difficult to contain in a single blog post. However, as someone who recently went through the flute-buying process, it is my goal to help you in your journey to finding the perfect flute. I hope you can learn from my experience and potentially save yourself some time and headaches! 

My search began at the National Flute Association’s Convention in Chicago this past August. I knew I had needed a new flute for a while, and my first plan of action was to go to the exhibition hall and try anything and everything. In theory, this was a great plan – all of the major flute retailers were together in one place and nearly every brand was represented. However, I found that I was super intimidated by hundreds of flutists playing all of our fast excerpts in a large exhibit hall. It was hard to hear myself (and therefore adequately judge the flutes I was trying). Some of the companies didn’t advertise the prices of the instruments, and the sales representatives were quite busy. Though I had come prepared with a budget, I didn’t have much else – I didn’t know what I was looking for or what I should be playing when testing out flutes. 

Eventually, I caught the attention of a sales rep and explained my situation. She led me to a few flutes to play and stood by my side as I played each one and (tried) to explain why I did or didn’t like them. When we narrowed it down a bit further, she brought me to a little room in the center of their exhibit to provide a space that was slightly quieter. After about an hour, we decided it would be best to test my favorites in the company’s hotel room that night, where my professor and a few of the reps could listen and we’d actually be able to hear the flutes. 

It was in this hotel room with my professor and three sales representatives that I learned to use the S.A.F.E. (Sound, Articulation, Flexibility, and Expression) method when testing out all of these flutes. First, in the Sound step, I played a two-octave F Major scale (slurred) and listened to the sound of the instrument – I listened for the instrument’s depth, brilliance, clarity in tone, how it projected, and for the fullness of the sound. 

In the Articulation step, I repeated the scale single tonguing followed by double tonguing to see how the instrument responded to different syllables. Throughout my experience testing numerous flutes, I learned that it is also important during this step to pay special attention to the right-hand pinky as it operates the keys on the foot joint. 

During the Flexibility part of this method, I tested out the technical facility of each flute by playing fast orchestral excerpts (like the excerpt from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer’s Night’s Dream) or parts from repertoire (such as the first or third movements of the Ibert Concerto).  

While in the Expression stage, I played slow and lyrical orchestral excerpts (like Carmen) or expressive parts from repertoire (such as anything from our French Book). I listened for the evenness of the tone throughout each register, sought to play smooth intervals, experimented with vibrato, and tested the limits of how much and how little air each flute could take. 

Here are a few more additional tips I learned throughout the process: 

  1. Write down all of your observations, noting differences and similarities between each instrument and how each feels in your hands. Professional flutes are handmade and individually crafted, and that is often reflected in how it physically feels.
  2. It is crucial that you play the same thing on each flute so you can accurately compare them to each other.  
  3. Try playing your favorite flutes in different acoustical spaces to get a better understanding of how each projects and how the sound carries through different rooms (especially regarding articulation.) 
  4. Work with one company at a time! I made the mistake of working with numerous companies at the same time and found it hard to communicate with each and keep the instruments straight! 
  5. Ask trusted friends and teachers to listen to you as you test out instruments. They can offer additional insight as to what they hear, and it’s often different than what you hear! 
  6. Remember this process might take a while! I was so discouraged by the fact that I wasn’t finding a flute within a few weeks. Then I was reminded that there is no rush – buying a flute is an investment, so you should take all the time you need to find the instrument that best suits you! 

From start to finish, the process of finding and purchasing a new flute took me six months. I worked with a total of four different companies and received eight different shipments, each containing 1-6 flutes, and some with additional headjoint options as well. My search ended with an in-person visit to a flute shop, where I spent three hours testing four different flutes and about sixteen headjoints. Amidst all the frustration with the process, I did learn quite a lot and wouldn’t change a thing – I am very happy with my new instrument and glad I took the time to carefully consider all of the options.

Best of luck to those of you who are about to embark on a similar search. I’d love to hear about how it is going or answer any additional questions you may have in the comments! 

P.S. It is definitely worth looking into instrument insurance to protect your instrument!

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Brenna Wiinanen

Brenna Wiinanen, flutist, is an active performer, teacher, and researcher whose experiences have led to numerous masterclasses, performances, and conferences around the world.

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