Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

Hello All:

What are the consequences of learning to play on an inferior instrument? I’m asking specifically about flutes and wondering maybe about tone, embouchure, fingering? What other problems might a beginner face?

I’ve been reading and re-reading threads here and at C&F responding to requests for recommendations for instruments for beginners. I’m two years into my flute journey, playing a (mass-produced?) Delrin keyless D. I’ve been really happy with the flute, although it’s plasticy, thick-walled, and heavy. I’ve found a couple of people recommending the flute; several posts disparaging it. I’m planning to switch to a Delrin flute from a well-respected maker. What benefits do you think I’ll see—noticeable of otherwise.

Thanks!
AndyB

Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

If it’s from a ‘well-respected maker’ one benefit will be that fewer people will disparage it online (if you tell them who the maker is). Another will be that you can work through a difficulty with more confidence that the challenge could be about you rather than the flute.

Later you may be able to come to a more informed view about whether or not your current flute is OK for you after all.

Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

If you’re “really happy” with the flute, why on earth would you care about posts “disparaging” it?

Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

… and why would you want to change it ? Are you sure that going to the expense of purchasing another flute will make you “happier” ?
“What benefits do you think I’ll see—noticeable of otherwise ?” Only you can answer that yourself, especially if you don’t provide details of the flutes involved. Anything anybody here says has to be pure speculation.

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Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

I have a few not very expensive flutes and I learned to make my own - customized to my needs and anatomy (rather large holes and finger spacing). I made a very sharp undercut embouchure. The flute basically plays itself and with the lightest air stream develops a strong sound. It took 6 years of making instruments (mainly quenas and whistles) however to achieve it. I’m not getting any of that sound from any flute I bought. Or at least it requires a lot more effort.
But I guess you will get it from a flute by a good flute maker.
So I think there is quite a big difference in response, sound, ease of playing, etc. between different flutes but as long as you cannot compare them directly (in a store for instance) it’s guesswork if you will like the new flute better.
An experienced player can make a mediocre flute sound great, a beginner or intermediate player can’t.
But as long as the flute you’re playing now has no real flaws (like leaks), once you upgrade, you’ll surprise yourself with the quality of your playing I’d think.

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Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

It’s impossible to respond to how will your flute experience change without at the very least knowing the brand of your ‘mass-produced’ Delrin flute. Short of that anything I might add would be speculative.

Posted by .

Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

Seems the board has done an about face: after a long habit of speculative posting, we’ve suddenly decided against it. 😉

Will the OP’s original flute actually prove to be inferior to the new one? Sure, we can’t know, and that’s a personal determination anyway. But there may still be some helpful ideas to ponder. Namely:

Each flute is different from the next one, even among flutes by the same respected maker. It’s worth paying attention to those differences and trying to sort out what works (for the OP) and what doesn’t.

Every flute player plays to her or his own strengths and weaknesses. And every flute player evolves over time…embouchure, breath support, finger efficiency, etc. Is the new flute a significant stepping stone forward, or does the old one fit the bill?

The new flute will likely feel fairly different from the old one and have its pluses and minuses. If the OP is lucky, it will be a bit lighter, but more importantly feel more balanced in the hands. Embouchure needs will likely be different, so the OP would be wise to give it a good chance, for weeks or months, before deciding whether to keep it or pass it along. Either way, with eyes and ears open, the OP has an opportunity to learn something about flutes and her/his fluting journey. Perhaps the experienced fluters here can offer some specific things to watch/listen/feel for when test driving the two flutes, e.g., responsiveness, air demands, back pressure, ease of breaking between the octaves, intonation, intonation of cross-fingerings, bottom D strength, weak-note strength, etc.

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Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

Thanks very much for all of the replies. I appreciate your input. I apologize for a poorly worded question.

I bought a Lon Dubh keyless Delrin from McNeela Music in 2020. Aside from a student Boehm flute ~30 years ago, this is the only flute I’ve ever played. I have been happy with it—but I’m a complete beginner, with no basis for comparison, and I have no idea if I’m missing something, if I’m developing bad habits, if I would improve or improve more rapidly or more easily with a better instrument.

As I mentioned, it’s heavy, plasticy, and thick-walled. It’s been great for my purposes to date and Delrin suits me well. I had planned to upgrade to wood but have considered instead to switch to a Copley keyless Delrin as people seem almost universally united in praise of his flutes. So I guess I’m wondering what people fear could go wrong for beginners if they choose their first flute unwisely. Had I done it with more research, I would have bought a Copley to begin with.

Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

You do have variations in the quality or suitability with different flutes. Some of these are just luck or bad luck, but some could be real problems:

If the tuning of the notes is wonky, then you will struggle and/or build up bad habits to fix the flaws.
If the embouchure is bad, same story, unnecessary struggle and possibly bad habits.

That doesn’t mean that a “difficult” embouchure is bad or that an easy embouchure is good. It takes some training before your embouchure works well. It has never been clear to me whether struggling at the beginning helps or whether taking it too easy hurts.

It is true that as a beginner you don’t have the knowledge or discernment to know the answers

Ultimately you want an expressive and controllable instrument, not just a loud or easy, or reedy or sweet or whatever criteria seem important at first.

Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

Tone is most important on flute. Part of finding the best tone is playing more than one flute. For myself I’ve found my best tone playing Colin Hamilton’s flutes; one wooden & his practice flute which has a Delrin headpiece. The wooden is miles better than the practice flute. However the Delrin head on the practice flute is brilliant.

My first all Delrin flute was by Rob Forbes. I was playing the Forbes & the practice flute for a few months only to find my tone & my ability to get either flute to respond had reached a plateau. Then my friend offered to loan me his wooden Hammy.

This flute was immediately more responsive & potentially the tone was richer. However the extra weight of the lower foot toneholes took awhile to adjust for playing an entire session. I’d switch to the Forbes or whistle to save some energy.

Eventually I returned the wooden flute. I tend to think playing it helped my playing on Rob’s Delrin. Then, last year, I purchased a Somers’ Rudall Delrin. It’s not as loud as Pratten’s but aside from that the tone & responsiveness seems much better than my Forbes.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it! Haven’t played a Lon Dubh so I cannot comment there. Haven’t played the Copley either though everything I’ve heard seems to be positive.

Best to you with your fluting. 😉

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Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

“I’m a complete beginner, with no basis for comparison, and I have no idea if I’m missing something, if I’m developing bad habits, if I would improve or improve more rapidly or more easily with a better instrument.”

Okay, the complete and correct and non-snarky answer is, you need a teacher.

You need to talk to someone who plays ITM on the flute, who is demonstrably good at doing that (preferably very good, but not so good that they can’t remember their early trials), and who can communicate the existence of nuanced differences that you, as a complete beginner with no basis for comparison, are not aware of between a beginner flute and a perhaps better (meaning in this case a more expensive?) one.

You’re not going to get a real, useful answer to your question by asking a group of strangers on the internet. I’m not being a “Luddite” (as the kidz say these days), just stating a fact. You need to talk face to face with a real human being about this.

Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

To answer your question, personally* I think the biggest risk for a beginner in any instrument is simply losing passion and giving up, rather than developing incorrect technique.

Incorrect technique is bad, but can be corrected, but if you give up, you’re stuffed.

If you start to worry an instrument is holding you back (and can afford it), just get a new one and enjoy it (or sell it).
If covid taught us anything it’s that life is short and music is wonderful.

* am not an expert

Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

I’ll second your comment, belayatron, “the biggest risk for a beginner in any instrument is simply losing passion and giving up”. I’ve always felt the cruelest joke is, about a third-rate flute, “good enough for a beginner”. The beginner faces many hurdles in dealing with stretch, embouchure, tone, breath, breath control etc, etc. They don’t need any more hurdles.

Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

Echoing previous comments - try out other flutes in your price range and see if they provide you with a more enjoyable experience than your current Delrin one. I keep my Delrin one (a very beginner Tony Dixon that works surprisingly well) for carrying around in extreme weather situations, or places that I don’t want to risk my more expensive Millyard. I recently bought an alto flute (not related to trad music, but related to this topic). I rented the only one that the store had available until some other models could be brought in for me to try. I was very discouraged during those couple of weeks and was reconsidering even purchasing an alto flute. The notes at various parts of the registers on the rental flute were wildly flat or sharp. The experience was very good for me though, as it was crystal clear when the other models came in that the rental flute was out of tune. I had never experienced that and assumed it was my technique! It also helped me realize what I wanted, in terms of tone, flute head/embouchure, weight, aesthetics, etc. If you can try several, that will give you an idea if it is worth moving on from your Delrin. Having said that, there is a pleasure in playing a wooden flute, and a warmness of tone, that is not usually comparable with a Delrin flute (but maybe that’s psychological!). Usually an “intermediate” instrument, if within your price range, can be a more satisfying learning experience than those marketed to beginners. Good luck with your flute shopping.

Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

Thanks, everyone. I really appreciate the input. Weight is one of the criteria I’m most interested in. My current flute is 433g. The Copley is about 283g. Dave is about 90 minutes down the road from me so he and I are trying to work out a time for me to visit his shop and try some instruments. I’ll post if and when I have a new flute!

Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

Many “student” grade instruments add an extra layer of difficulty. Beginners actually need reasonably good instruments. There’s enough challenges on the learning journey without fighting a bad instrument.

Having stuck with the flute journey for two years and being enthusiastic to continue and improve, be patient now and buy the best you can afford. Try some wooden keyless before committing to delrin again.

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I would echo gbyrne’s comment about getting the best you can afford. I bought a fiddle which was actually more than I really could afford at the time and have never regretted having done so.

Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

I was just about to pontificate here then I read what belayatron had to say. He’s right, really right. The number one reason anybody quits learning to play an instrument (other than that they never wanted to learn it anyway) is that they started on a poor one, couldn’t make it sound like music, learned bad habits, and threw it in the corner. For less than $500 you can buy any of several brands of shiny delrin flutes that you can play wonderfully for the rest of your life.

Of course you won’t. Unless you are remarkably unlike the rest of us you’ll soon forget about “good” and chase after “better”. You’ll join in on the endless arguments about materials, techniques, “holds”, embouchure, makers, keyed vs. keyless, all of which take a back seat to your ability to play. Soon enough, you’ll have an arsenal of flutes. Not a criticism really. Chasing an elusive “better” is what we humans do. I speak in good humor and from experience. Over the years I’ve spent more on flutes than I did on my wife’s baby grand piano. Maybe I shouldn’t have overthought the issue because I’m still not the rock star I hear in my head. Still it’s been quite a ride!

Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

I was just about to pontificate here then I read what belayatron had to say. He’s right, really right. The number one reason anybody quits learning to play an instrument (other than that they never wanted to learn it anyway) is that they started on a poor one, couldn’t make it sound like music, learned bad habits, and threw it in the corner. For less than $500 you can buy any of several brands of shiny delrin flutes that you can play wonderfully for the rest of your life.

Of course you won’t. Unless you are remarkably unlike the rest of us you’ll soon forget about “good” and chase after “better”. You’ll join in on the endless arguments about materials, techniques, “holds”, embouchure, makers, keyed vs. keyless, all of which take a back seat to your ability to play. Soon enough, you’ll have an arsenal of flutes. Not a criticism really. Chasing an elusive “better” is what we humans do. I speak in good humor and from experience. Over the years I’ve spent more on flutes than I did on my wife’s baby grand piano. Maybe I shouldn’t have overthought the issue because I’m still not the rock star I hear in my head. Still it’s been quite a ride!

Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

To add to the pontification….

As a guitar player for many, many years- I agree that the approach to learning by buying a “starter” instrument has unfortunately discouraged many a new musician. So many friends and family have stated, “I just want to buy something cheap to get started on”. And my response is usually, “make certain that it’s not so cheap that it’s hard to play” because typically, that’s what you will end up with for guitars. For flutes, I’m not sure how often that is since I’ve only ever played on about 4-5 different makes, but I would imagine that the best thing to do would be to buy one (especially in person if at all possible) and give it a go. I will *never* forget the time in a Washington D.C. pub where my wife and I were visiting for our honeymoon, and a girl at a session offered to let me hold her Olwell, freely telling me to wipe and have a go. This was before I had my first flute, but I know for a fact that the thing nearly played itself. My Ormiston is a nice little flute, but I’m having to relearn embouchure after a 18 year break. All I can think is, “If I had that Olwell I picked up in D.C…..” But, I don’t have it, and likely never will. I have what I have, and it’s working out. We must be hungry and passionate and do our best to buy what will get us the farthest. And one day, maybe even when you least expect it, you obtain the better instrument.

Re: Consequences of learning on an inferior instrument

When trying out flutes:
1. Try any flute you get a chance to - the more you have tried, the better you get at judging them. I don’t know how it will be post-corona, but most players used to be not entirely hostile to the idea of letting other people try their flutes. Intrument fairs, shops. et.c. all can often provide some opportunities.
2. Try long notes up and down the scale. Stand in front of a wall where you can hear your reflected sound and see how strong, loud, clear, dark, quiet - and anything else you like the sound of - you can make it…
3. Responsiveness means how easily the flute sounds - do you have to work hard to get good sounds out of it? Is there a delay when changing notes before the sound shifts to the new tone? Can you play sequences of notes quickly without the flute blurring them together? How crisp do ornaments sound?
4. How does holding the flute feel? Are your fingers relaxed or stressed? Is this going to get harder or easier the longer you hold the flute?
5. Be subjective. After all of the above, put the flute on a table and look at it? Then pick it up and fondle it a bit with your eyes shut. Then play a tune you both like and can play reasonably well. Then ask yourself if you deep in your guts want to make that flute yours? Can be problem if it is a friend’s flute and not available, but in spite of that it is worth asking yourself the question….
6. Consciously compare it to other flutes you have known and file the experience away so that you will be able to evaluate the next flute you look at even better.
7. Also, in the case of a flute in poor repair, ask yourself what it would be like if repaired - sometimes, particularly with antiques, you have to take a chance, but I would not recommend trying that until you are a very experienced flutist.