Checking your Flute's Physical Condition

 I find that many flutists play flutes which, with a little work, could play much better.  Here are a few steps  you can take to check your flute’s physical condition.

The headcork in your headjoint should make an airtight seal.  To test it, cover the end of the headjoint opposite the cork (the end that goes into the body—it’s called the tenon) with the palm of your right hand.  Now, put your mouth completely over the embouchure hole and suck the air out of the headjoint until your lips are kind of “stuck” on the embouchure hole by suction.  Count to ten slowly.  Your mouth should continue to be held onto the embouchure hole by suction, and when you pull away, make a little Pop!  If, during the count to ten, your mouth comes unsealed from the embouchure hole, it means the headjoint cork is leaking and needs to be replaced.  A professional flute technician is the person to do this.

Next, check the pads on the body.  Don’t try to take your flute apart!  Just turn your flute over and visually check the pads.  They may be dirty because they have picked up tarnish from the silver on the flute—this doesn’t matter too much.  Look for  fraying, holes, and tears in the skin of the pads.  I have seen pads that were chewed up by little mites!  Use a magnifying glass.  Any tears or fraying will cause the flute to leak, and the pad will need to be replaced by a professional flute technician. (Let’s say “PFT” from now on.)  You can only check the front of your pads with this visual inspection, but the PFT will disassemble your flute and check the backs, too.

Next, play down the scale from third space C down the octave to low C.  Press the keys lightly, just enough to overcome the springs and seat the pads on the tone holes.  Blow hard, but use a light touch.  Your flute should play with a steady, clear sound all the way down to low C.  If the sound starts to get fuzzy, or wobbles, or gets worse as you go down, you flute probably has leaks or is not correctly adjusted and you should have it repaired by a PFT.  Once your flute is put in peak condition, it will  play much better.  It’s easy to get in the habit of pressing keys harder to force pads to close and seat properly, but it will slow down your technique, tire your hands, and generally discourage you from playing. 

If you have some cigarette paper (which of course you shouldn’t, because you shouldn’t be smoking!!) you can test for leaks, although this is more difficult to do.  Cut a section of cigarette paper (not the part with the glue on it)—about two inches long, but only 1/8 inch wide.  Insert about 1/2 inch of the paper (let’s call it a “feeler gauge”) into the space between the pad and the tone hole.  Pressing the key LIGHTLY, and pulling the paper out, you should be able to feel that the pad is touching the tone hole by the friction on the paper.  If there is no friction on the feeler gauge, then the pad is not seating properly and should be shimmed by a PFT. 

Here’s how a PFT shims a flute:  The flute is disassembled and the pads are taken out of the pad cup.  Little paper washers (shims) of a very particular thickness and size are glued in the pad cup, trying to match what the PFT thinks is the size and placement of the leak.  Then the pad is put back into the key, the flute reassembled, and the PFT checks with a feeler gauge whether the little shim was the right size so that there is no longer a leak.  This is a time consuming and meticulous process that you shouldn’t try to do yourself, it will make you nuts!  Careful shimming is what makes the difference between a poorly padded flute, and a professionally padded flute.  Commercial flutes do not have a professional pad job, but if you get your commercially made flute padded by a PFT, it will play much, much better.

Detecting leaks between pads and tone holes is harder to do than most people think.  It takes a PFT a considerable amount of time to learn the technique, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t “feel” anything when you try using the gauge of cigarette paper.  

Your flute can also play poorly is if the adjustments are off.  Everybody has heard about adjustments, but what the heck are they anyway?  

When you press the “F” key on your flute, you will notice that two other keys go down at the same time:  the key above F ( this is the F# key) and the key above A (the A# or Bb key).  Notice that these two keys, the F# and the Bb key, are NEVER pressed directly by your fingers—they only close when you press another key.  Notice that when you press the E key, and the D key, that same F# key closes at the same time.  Notice that when you press the G key, the key below it (called the “lower G key”) closes at the same time.  What must happen, in order for your flute to play correctly, is that when you press the F key (for example), the F# and the Bb keys must close exactly and precisely when the F closes, so that all those pads seat and seal at the exactly the same time.  If the F key closes first, it will keep the F# and the Bb keys from closing properly.  The term “adjustments” refers to adjusting these keys so that they in fact DO close at exactly the same time.  You’ll notice that when you press the A key on your flute, the A# (or Bb) key closes, so they must be adjusted to close at exactly the same time, and shimmed properly to do so. The same is true of the two G keys (upper G, which is the one you press, and lower G, the key directly below it). 

Over time, the adjustments on a flute can become “off” and the flute will not play properly when this is the case.  You can try to check these adjustments visually.  Press the F key lightly and look carefully at the F, F# and A# keys.  They should all be closing completely.  If you see a little opening around any of these three pads you can say, “No wonder this isn’t playing right!” Visually check the E and F#, then the D and F#,  the A and A# and the upper and lower G keys in the same way.   More often, the adjustments need to be checked with another little piece of cigarette paper, because visually checking  isn’t enough.  When you press the F key, the F# key should close completely at the same time.  The fronts and backs of the pads being checked should all have about the same amount of pressure on the paper.  If not, the adjustments are off and you should then take the flute to a PFT to fix.  This is another process that is difficult to “feel” or see, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t tell if the adjustments are off.  Your PFT will do this during a yearly “COA” (clean, oil and adjust).

Here are some other things that can be wrong with your flute.  Pads can be sticking.  Springs can be too tight, causing the key to require too much pressure to close the key.  Springs can be too loose, causing the key to rise only sluggishly after the key is pressed.  If your flute is “noisy”—sounding “clacky”-- it probably needs to be oiled. 

Some action may be "lost."  Lost action means you are pressing one key that should cause another key to close (remember the F and F# keys) but there is some motion “lost” before the non-pressed key (F# in this case) begins to actually go down.  The two keys should start moving at the EXACT same time.  If there is a “step” in the feeling--in other words, the D or E or F key is going down even just a little bit WITHOUT the F# key going down too, that should be fixed by a PFT.   This is true for all of the keys talked about in the “adjustments” section.  

If much side-to-side motion is present in your keys, the pads will not seat properly.  To check this, carefully hold a key at its sides and try moving it left and right.  It should move minimally from side to side.

If any pins are not in tightly, the pads will not seat properly.  The pins are the little steel things that stick out of your flute—you may have scratched yourself on one or caught your sweater on it.

Ever wonder about the little rectangular thingie on the back side of your flute, to the right of the G# key?  This is called the “clutch,” or the “back connector.”  It is the point at which the right hand keys  connect with the left hand keys.  The back connector is what makes the A# key go down when you press the F key (another adjustment that needs to be perfect).

Ever wonder what those teensy weensy screws are?  Not the ones at the ends of the rods, but the ones in the middle, near the D, E, F and A# keys?  Those are adjustment screws.  Don’t touch them!  They are used to make the adjustments perfect.  When your PFT screws IN an adjustment screw, it makes the screw press more against a little plate, so that when you press the F, for example, the adjustment screw hits the plate sooner, and the F# key is pressed down further.  So the PFT uses the adjustment screws to make the adjustments perfect. Handmade flutes usually don’t have adjustment screws, instead,  little pieces of shims are used to make the adjustments.

As a young flutist I never  even looked at my flute to see how it worked, I just stuck it in my face and blew and blamed myself whenever I couldn’t play something.  Now I know to check my flute first, blame myself later!  You will be doing yourself and your flute playing a big favor if you have your flute cleaned, oiled, and adjusted every year, and pads replaced or shimmed as necessary.  A regular maintenance routine can make a world of difference in your playing and self-confidence. I have heard flutists say, "I've owned my instrument for ten years and it plays perfectly!  And I never have any work done on it!" Folks, what's happening here is the flutist has learned to (1) compensate for shortcomings of the instrument by pressing harder on the keys, and (2) accept the sound the instrument makes as its "best" without realizing it could almost certainly sound much better.  Have your instrument taken care of and it will serve you as it should.  Your flute will "feel" better in your hands, it will speak immediately when you blow air into it, and produce a fuller sound.

One more thing.  A band instrument technician (“BIT”) is different from a professional flute technician.  Your local music store has BITs  who repair a whole bunch of different instruments and so they are great for general instrument repair.  But they are not trained to do the precise, meticulous work that a PFT will do.  If you find an experienced PFT who is also a flute player, you will have found the person who can make your flute play at its absolute best.  

I'd be glad to help you make sure your instrument is in top condition.  Click here to see my 2007 Repair Prices and about how to contact me for an appointment.

Another article I've written:  How and where to buy a used flute.