This month’s spotlight instrument is particularly important to me; I played the flute for ten years as an adolescent and continue to have a soft spot for it. From long practices at high school band camp to dressy solo performances at the Colburn School in Los Angeles where I studied on weekends, the flute was a dear and constant companion. Here are a few reasons I’ll always prefer it.
- It has a global presence. Flutes of various types are found in nearly every part of the world.
- It has an inclusive name. The word “flute” is a generic term that covers a variety of instruments with hollow bodies and a tubular air column. If it produces what is called an “edge tone”, meaning the player breathes against the edge of an opening, not into it, it can theoretically be called a flute.
- For such a small instrument, it takes a lot of power to play. A firm core and powerful lungs are two of the most valuable assets to have as a flute player!
- It has a long history. Because there are so many different instruments and objects that can be called “flutes”, and they can be made of a plethora of materials, variations of the flute are found not only all over the world but all over history as well. In palaeolithic Europe, whistles made of bone were popular, although it is likely that cane and reed flutes existed as well.
- It works in a variety of genres. Robert Dick, who won the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Flute Association, taught developing flutists that the flute works not only in classical and jazz but in rock and roll and other “contemporary” genres.
- OUP has close, internal ties with the flute. Vice President and Executive Editor for history Nancy Toff, author of Monarch of the Flute: The Life of Georges Barrère and The Flute Book, regularly plays and writes about the flute. She also serves as the archivist/historian for the National Flute Association and the New York Flute Club.
- It can be full of surprises. According to Grove Music Online, “some open-ended flutes have no holes at all.” The player opens and closes the far end in varying degrees to produce melodies. These types of flutes are especially prevalent in Papua New Guinea.
- Sometimes you’ll even need to use your nose. Some flutes in Oceania and Southeast Asia are played by blowing with the nose, as it is considered to contain breath that is closer to the soul (rather than the mouth, which is used for eating and speaking).
- It comes in a variety of sizes and shapes. Flutes can be played horizontally or vertically. They can include a single tube, as with a concert flute or recorder, or multiple tubes, as with an aulos or panpipe. The fingers can press keys or cover open holes or even just the end of the bore. There is variety even within the relatively narrow collection of keyed instruments in a symphony orchestra. There is the concert flute in C major, the piccolo, which plays an octave higher, the alto flute, which plays in G, and the bass flute, an octave below the concert. The first is certainly the most compact, as opposed to the latter, which is much heavier than its cousins with a narrow bore and curved head.
- It’s the instrument of a king. Frederick the Great of Prussia loved the flute so much that he took his hand to composing music for it, and commissioned other composers (the likes of J.S. Bach, included) to write solo pieces for him to perform to friends and family.
The above are only ten facts from the extensive entries in Grove Music Online. What do you love about the flute?
Featured image: Bach – Flute concert in a minor. Photo by Zoltán Vörös. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.