Beginning flute lessons is an exciting time for the student, their parents, and the teacher. I love teaching beginner flutes and seeing the joy on their faces when they first make a sound. In over 35 years of flute and classroom teaching, I’ve worked with all different levels, and whilst I really enjoy working with advanced university/college students, I’ve found I can contribute most by focusing on the beginning stages.
Some people think teaching beginners is easy, as the music is simple, the teacher doesn’t need to demonstrate anything difficult, and the students are usually keen to learn. I think teaching beginners is actually very difficult – that is, it’s difficult to teach beginners WELL! In teaching an instrument it is important to build a strong foundation of basic skills, which takes time and patience. This can be at odds with the expectations of both students and their parents that it will be possible to play a lot of notes quite quickly!
So, what are some of the questions I am most frequently asked about beginner flute?
Is playing flute easy?
It’s not as easy as it looks! To start with, holding an instrument out to the side of your body is not a natural position for our arms. Students need to learn how to support the flute, so it is balanced as well as keeping their arms and hands relaxed to allow free movement of their fingers.
Then there’s the challenge of getting a sound from the flute. Some lucky students get a sound almost immediately, others find it very difficult. EVERYONE can play the flute, it does not matter about the student’s lip size or shape, however some students will need to work harder at this. If your student is having difficulty producing a sound, please persevere – keep the lessons fun, do lots of other music-based activities and keep working gently on their embouchure. Several years ago, I had a student in a group lesson who was much smaller than the other students in his class. He struggled to get any sound long after the other students were playing, but he was desperately keen to succeed. Eventually, to his great delight, the sound came and now he plays with an absolutely beautiful tone.
What age can a child start learning flute?
Traditionally, children have started flute lessons at about 8-11 years of age. However, with the rising popularity of “mini” flutes, it is now more common for children as young as 4 years (sometimes even 3 years) to start lessons. Much depends on how keen the child is, how long their attention span is, and the degree of parent participation.
If a child is starting flute lessons at 4-6 years, it really helps to find the right teacher for this age group. There are a number of methods developed specifically for teaching flute to young children, and there are groups such as the FlutePlay Community, which has a directory of teachers worldwide who specialize in teaching “little” flute players, together with many inspiring resources for this age group.
What is the best flute for a beginner?
If only I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked this question! The answer is … it depends. It depends on the budget available; it depends on the size of the student; and it depends on how much interest the student has shown in learning flute.
The following is a very general guide to suitable flutes for beginners (please note, I am not recommending specific brands, more the types of flutes available):
Age 4-6 years: a small flute. I use the Nuvo Toot with this age group as it is light (made from plastic), has a wide bore making it easier to hold, and has silicon keys to cover the holes (easier than little fingers covering holes on a recorder or fife). If you keep to the natural notes the fingering is the same as the flute, so it is easy to transition to flute later. However, by far the biggest advantage of this instrument is that it has interchangeable lip plates. The Firstnote lip plate is similar in shape to a recorder mouthpiece, so students can play notes on their mini flute from their very first lesson! Other options for this age group are the Yamaha fife, the Guo Shining Piper, or if the student is a little bigger, the Nuvo JFlute is a good choice.
Age 6-8 years: a modified flute. Curved head joints have been available for some time and have the convenience of swapping to a straight headjoint as the child grows. I find the more recently-developed Jupiter wave flute is easier for students to balance, and the two-piece model can be converted to standard head joint later. A good choice if the student needs something less expensive or lighter to hold, is the Nuvo student flute, (straight head), which is about half the weight of a silver flute.
Age 9+ years: a standard silver flute. The range of silver flutes available is enormous and I will not even attempt to outline the options. If the student is using a standard flute and it is a bit heavy for their first lessons, try taking off the foot joint and they can rest their little finger on the end of the body section. This often helps when they are still working out how to balance the flute and helps them avoid gripping the flute too tightly.
Therefore, the best flute for a beginner is the one that best fits their size and the parents’ budget. It’s important with smaller students that the instrument not be too big or heavy for them – this is one of the main reasons children hold the flute incorrectly. I suggest parents go to a reputable shop, let them know your budget and ask them to advise on what would be suitable within that price range. Renting an instrument is also a possibility, especially if the student is not sure about learning flute, or if a good flute is out of your budget. A warning to parents: please don’t be tempted by cheap “silver” flutes – these are often difficult to play, nearly impossible to repair, and don’t tend to last very long.
What accessories does a flute beginner need?
There are only a few essential accessories for a student starting the flute; the most important are a cleaning rod and two cloths (one for the inside of the flute and a separate one for the outside). Children need to be shown how to clean their flute and to understand the importance of doing this regularly. In the first lesson, also remember to also show them how to put the flute back in its case correctly, so it won’t be damaged when the lid is shut. In my method books, I use photo guides for both cleaning the flute and assembling/packing away the flute, so it is easy for children to follow.
The other important accessory for learning flute is a music stand. Some students will put their music on a table, or play sitting on the floor, but to establish correct posture for playing the flute, a music stand is essential. The stand needs to be adjusted so the student is looking AT the music, not craning their neck down to read it.
What do you teach in the first lesson?
The first flute lesson is something I will cover in more depth in another blog. Overall, the most important objective is that the student has fun and learns some music/flute related skills. I prefer to start with the headjoint only unless teaching the Toot, in which case I start with the Firstnote lip plate. The headjoint is easy to hold, so you can just work with the student on getting a sound. There are so many sounds possible with the headjoint and it’s fun to let your student explore these.
Depending on the age and music background of your student, you might also do some rhythm reading with the headjoint. Blowing games are a great way to develop control of the air stream, for example using drinking straws and foam packing peanuts. My students particularly enjoy the games Straw Strength and At the Races. Most students are very keen to hold the whole flute, so I show them how to carefully put it together. At the end of the first lesson, I teach how to clean the headjoint, as well as the correct way to position the flute back into the case, not something we should assume they know!
How can you keep young children’s attention in flute lessons?
To keep young children focused and enjoying the lesson, divide the time into lots of small activities - some playing, listening, rhythm games, note reading games, movement – don’t stay on one activity for too long and don’t talk too much!! Have them play the flute at least three times in the lesson but do other activities in between so they don’t find playing tiring. Over the years I have developed many games, both for technical skills and theory as this is an excellent way to revise and repeat material, and children are always enthusiastic about games!
Why is posture so important for flute beginners?
Good posture and hand positions are crucial for beginner flutists to ensure success in the long term. There is a strong correlation between good posture and good tone – two of the main posture pitfalls to avoid are the student looking down while playing, or resting the flute on their shoulder, with their head tilted. Check the left wrist is relaxed and remind them to take the flute up to their mouth, not their mouth down to the flute. Keeping weight evenly on both feet helps a lot; I’ve seen some very unusual foot positions over the years!
What is the best music to learn flute?
I wonder how many of you remember the old-fashioned saying “Horses for courses”? It means we all have different needs and skills, so we are suited to different things. As teachers we need to be familiar with different resources and match them to the varied interests and abilities of our students. I wrote my series of books “The Young Flute Player” to fill the needs of my own students at the time and have used them as the mainstay of my teaching over many years. However, I wrote Book 1 with a 7+ year old student in mind, so if I’m teaching a 5 year old, I use different resources. If your students are in a band, they will have different music books from those learning flute outside the band environment. Explore different resources available and use what works for you and your students.
What about adult flute beginners?
Another aspect of teaching beginners is working with adult students. They have their own special needs and interests, and it is important to respect the difference between teaching adults and children. It’s never too late to start learning the flute, and if you would like to know more about this topic, please refer to my previous blog, “Teaching Adult Music Beginners: the Key to Success”.
How much practice should a flute beginner do?
“Little and often” is the passport to progress! One long session each week will not yield the same results as 10 minute sessions daily. I ask my beginner students to start with 10 -15 minutes a day, for 5 or 6 days each week, gradually building this to 20 - 30 minute sessions by the end of their first year. Again, the amount of practice needs to be tailored to the individual student, but we need to help our students and their parents understand that the amount of consistent playing directly correlates to progress.
What age do you start beginner flute? What do you teach in the first lesson?