What's going on in this picture? Do some of those flutes look a bit... big? What are those giant silver drainpipes doing in the corner?
This was the view at our Low Flutes Day in Sheffield a couple of weeks ago - a day of playing all those flutes that are bigger than normal! Although the alto flute was invented in the mid-19th century, and all the 'big' flutes are increasing in popularity in the flute world, they're still not particularly mainstream instruments. My first encounter with an alto was, I think, at university, where I played in a flute quartet - despite being the smallest player, I somehow ended up with the biggest flute (I loved it though)! Fast-forward to now, and at Sheffield Flute Choir we have a growing number of altos and a couple of basses between us (including mine that nobody ever wants to borrow because it's a chunky heavy old thing!). I'd become increasingly aware, though, that few of us had really got to grips with the differences between these low flutes and the normal ones - everyone's automatic reaction is to pick them up and try to play them like a 'C' flute. And then to get a bit frustrated that it's hard to get certain notes out, hard to get much volume, the tone sounds thin in places, it seems to react slowly to tonguing, and "oh my goodness my arms really ache after five minutes playing this thing". Some people didn't want to try it at all, because these giant instruments were a mystery.
To the rescue - low flutes expert Carla Rees. I invited Carla to Sheffield to run a day de-mystifying the low flutes, helping flute players understand what was different about these flutes. To simplify a lot, the answer is... lots! A great mix of people came along, some having never played a low flute before, whilst others owned their own altos and basses. We started off playing group pieces, all sitting up nicely, trying our best to hold altos and basses up straight, trying to get a nice sound out. Very quickly we discovered that we needed to forget pretty much everything we knew (or thought we knew) about 'good' posture. Carla guided us through ways to hold the flutes, the different embouchures, air speeds... we experimented with leaning back at different angles, putting the flutes in different places on our chins. I won't go into every detail, but I will highly recommend Carla's blog for starting to learn about these techniques (or even better, her teaching in person - described by one of our participants as "a great teacher and motivator", and I couldn't agree more!). We had a fantastic Q&A session around all sorts of aspects of low flutes - including which makes of instrument to try as a beginner, and to think about progressing to if you find yourself advancing with them (I was pleased to find out that my chunky heavy beast - a Monnig alto - is not a bad place to start, and will definitely help build stamina!). We heard about Carla's training regime before her first alto recital - practice, running and weightlifting! Various players tried out bits of repertoire (including some brave sightreading on the spot) - it was lovely to see really good flute players relax into trying out techniques that sometimes felt quite alien!
We also had the chance to try out a wonderful selection of instruments, thanks to Just Flutes who brought a stand packed with exciting things - lots of low flutes, and a few rather nice 'normal' flutes too, plus a great selection of sheet music. Huge thanks to Jonathan for bringing - and unloading, a lengthy task - a van full!
This also meant that we were able to have a go on a couple of those giant drainpipe creatures - the fairly unflattering picture to the left is me playing a contrabass flute. These are BIG, heavy, and take some serious 'huffing' down, but they make an incredible sound (two octaves below the normal flute). They're also quite expensive, which is the only reason one didn't come home with me on the day - it's now a long-term savings project though.
The day finished with a chance to try out all our newly-learned techniques on one of Carla's arrangements of Bach for low flutes. The sound and the feeling of 23 people all playing alto and lower was utterly incredible - the room resonated with deep harmonies. We definitely still had achy arms by the end, but we all left full of enthusiasm for low flutes and feeling equipped to make a start on learning to play them as instruments in their own right. Thank you Carla for that inspiration and the tools to go and do something about it!
Future flute days in Sheffield are in the planning - go here to find out more and sign up to the mailing list for updates!
Flute player and teacher blogging about playing, learning, teaching and researching music.