As a teacher of flute beginners, we have a unique opportunity to shape the future of music by nurturing young flute players. It's natural for beginners to experience some difficulties and obstacles along the way. However, with a little patience and the right guidance, these challenges can be overcome. Here I share some tips and fixes for common problems faced by flute beginners, which I hope will help support your students on their musical journey. So, let's get started!
1. The right flute: When I first started teaching, children started flute lessons at about 9-11 years of age. However, with the rising popularity of “mini” flutes, I now have children as young as 4 years wanting to start lessons.
It’s really important that beginners start with the right instrument, and the best flute is one that best fits their size and the parents’ budget. It’s important with smaller students that the instrument is not too big or heavy for them – this is one of the main reasons children hold the flute incorrectly.
For 4-6 year olds I generally use the Nuvo Toot or Nuvo JFlute; other options are the Yamaha fife and Guo Shining Piper. The Nuvo instruments are light, have a wide bore (easier to hold) and have an interchangeable Firstnote lip plate, which allows even the tiniest students to play notes from their very first lesson. (And I don’t have any association with the Nuvo company!)
At approximately 6-8 years old, I prefer a wave flute or a curved head joint, which can be swapped to a straight head joint as the child grows. I’ve found students generally find the Jupiter wave flute easier to balance than a curved head (again, no association with this company). Once students are about 9 years old, most can manage a standard silver flute, for which there is an enormous range available.
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 a tight grip.
2. Balance of the flute: holding an instrument out to the side of our 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. The three main balance points are the chin, the lower part of the left index finger, and the right thumb. Often the right thumb is too far forward, where it can’t help balance and where it also restricts finger movement. Some students benefit from using a thumb port, but I find that frequent reminders about the position of the thumb in the early lessons is usually enough to establish a good position.
Part of the reason I teach thumb B flat first (yes, I know, a Pandora’s box! See more details on this in “To B or not to B?”) is that students need to understand early on that their left thumb is not a balance point and has to move. Sometimes it will press the B natural key, sometimes the B flat key and sometimes it will just rest on these, not depressing either key. As the left thumb is not one of the three main balance points, it’s good to have this thumb moving from the beginning.
3. Posture and Hand positions: 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.
If the flute is properly balanced (see 2. above), there should not be any tension in the body or hands. Check the left wrist is relaxed and remind them to take the flute up to their mouth, not their mouth down to the flute. Check their neck and shoulders are relaxed, and that their elbows are not stuck out like wings or gripping their body. If the end of their flute is drooping down too much, try hanging a little plastic monkey on the end (from the game “Barrel of Monkeys”), or place a pencil in the end of their flute and see if they can keep it there while they play.
4. Music stand: to establish correct posture for playing the flute, a music stand is very helpful. The stand needs to be adjusted so the student is looking AT the music, not craning their neck down to read it. During lessons, this shouldn’t be a problem, but we need to check our students’ home practice set-up as well. One advantage of teaching online during the pandemic was that we could see how our students played at home. Some put their music on a table, or played sitting on the floor, so it’s good to check with parents that a stand at the correct height is available. Substitutes are also possible; I saw a photo of a very creative stand which a student had made from LEGO bricks!
5. Fingering: learning the correct fingerings from the start is so important. This needs regular checking, as incorrect fingerings can creep in at any time! As an adjudicator, examiner and teacher over many years, probably the most common fingering problem I see in beginner flute players is “flying pinky”, that is, the right-hand little finger up in the air when it should be on its key. This happens especially after students lift this finger to play middle D and then forget to put it back down for the next note.
A quick and fun fix for this is to play a simple “FREEZE” game, while the student plays a piece or a scale. When you call out “FREEZE” they need to stop immediately, then keeping their fingers in place, look at their fingers and check if this is correct for the note they are playing. For my first-year students, I have written a few short exercises with lots of “D” notes in the music, to help reinforce that their pinky needs to go back on the key after they have played D.
Whether you are a seasoned teacher or just starting out, I hope this article helps you and your students achieve their musical goals and reach their full potential. You are welcome to add further suggestions in the comments below.
Karen North has been teaching flute and class music for 40 years. She is the author of the popular method books "The Young Flute Player" and has commissioned many new works for intermediate flute repertoire in "Lyrical Flute Legends" and "Inspiring Flute Solos." Karen has written a book "Fun & Games for Music Lessons", and has recently worked with specialist consultants on repertoire books for Violin, Clarinet and Saxophone.
Karen also organizes an international FLUTE CHAMPIONSHIP each year, to give students of all ages and abilities an opportunity to submit a video performance to an outstanding panel of judges. Her workshops for teachers are enthusiastically received and she also offers one-to-one mentoring or consultation sessions.