Melissa Stone (aka the admin and primary author of this blog) has been studying music since she was 5-years-old, but aspired to a musical life at the young age of 3. She began with piano, studying on and off for 9 years. When she entered junior high she began to pursue her true love, the flute. After a difficult high school band experience she decided to study music in college to help spread her love of music and help provide good music instruction. She studied flute with Dr. Virginia Stitt at Southern Utah University, Pat George, and Angela McCabe, at Brigham Young University– Idaho, and Lisa Byrnes of the Utah Symphony. Upon leaving BYU-Idaho Melissa taught at American Prepartory Academy charter school in Utah for one year before becoming a stay at home mom. Melissa currently teaches private music lessons, chases her two boys, and assists local band directors as a specialist. Of all the woodwind instruments flute seems to be the lowest maintenance. Flutes don’t require reeds, cork grease, or humidity. Really all a flute requires for basic care is a little tender love, regular swabbing, and an occasional polish. But don’t let it fool you, the flute can be a temper-mental beast with all its tiny moving parts, tuning cork, small pads, and easily upset springs. So let’s talk the proper care and feeding of flutes (we’ll get to piccolos in a bit).
Cases: The first thing you need to know about flute care is that the flute is loaded with delicate bars and springs that, if bent even the tiniest bit, can really wreak havoc on way the instrument works. Flutes should be kept in their original case whenever possible, an “after market” case may not hold your particular flute properly– either too loosely or too tightly– and can cause damage to those delicate rods that make the keys of the flute work or cause dents, scratches, and other damage to the instrument. Flute cases are designed with the particular make and model they accompany, if a case is damaged try to find one that is made for your particular flute, the best chance for doing this is to contact the manufacturer. Flute cases, and really any instrument cases, are designed to protect the instrument from general bumps and jostling, they are not made to withstand large amounts of weight such as might be applied by being stepped or sat on. Placing excess amounts of weight on any instrument case will cause the case to bend thus also bending the instrument and/or its mechanical parts– DO NOT SIT, STAND, OR OTHERWISE PLACE LARGE AMOUNTS OF WEIGHT ON YOUR INSTRUMENT CASE. Another thing to note about cases is that they are only designed to hold the instrument itself, not cleaning tools, music, wallets, chapstick, etc.– DO NOT STORE ANYTHING IN YOUR CASE THAT DOESN’T BELONG— the only exception to this is if your case has a special compartment for storage of such items as reeds and supplies (flute cases don’t have these compartments). Cleaning rods, cloths, and other supplies should be kept outside the case, many flute cases have an inner hard case and an outer soft case that has pockets or enough space to store these supplies. Also, try to avoid leaving the instrument and its case in extreme temperatures such as outdoors or in a hot car.
Assembly: Flute assembly is pretty straight-forward. The flute is made up of three parts, the head joint, middle joint, and foot joint. The head joint is the top piece with one closed end and the lip plate and tone hole, the middle joint is the longest piece with most of the keys, the foot joint is the smallest piece. To assemble the flute carefully remove the middle joint from the case by the barrel– this is the top end of the joint with no keys on it, generally about two inches with thicker bands of metal on either end– and remove the head joint from the case. Insert the open end of the head joint into the barrel with a gentle twisting motion until it won’t go in any further. Remember, don’t force anything into a place it doesn’t want to go or you will cause damage, if the pieces should go together but won’t gently clean both joints then rub the outside of the joint end or tenon of the head joint and the inside of the barrel with your fingers to apply oil from your hands, this will lubricate the tenons and should help them go together easier. Once the head joint is in place hold the flute by the barrel and remove the foot joint from the case by the end that has no keys, insert the tenon end of the middle joint into the keyed (tenon) end of the foot joint with a gentle twisting motion until it won’t go in any further, if you need a closer grip to the foot joint you can hold the middle joint below the barrel, careful not to grip the keys and rods tightly as you twist. Now you need to line up you flute. Holding the flute horizontally with the keys on the middle joint pointing straight up, look down the length of the flute from the end of the foot joint there should be a beam of light that shines down the center of the keys, this beam of light should also shine down the center of the tone hole on the head joint, in other words, the tone hole should point straight up. The foot has a bar that holds the keys, in general this bar should line up near the center of the keys on the middle joint, however, if the player’s right hand pinky is shorter or longer the foot joint can be rotated to accommodate a comfortable playing position for the pinky finger.
Disassemble: I recommend taking the instrument apart vertically. The tenons are metal and thin and taking them apart vertically prevents bending and misshaping of the tenons from natural arm motion. When taking the instrument apart horizontally the arms have a natural tendency to move in an arc that, when repeated over time, bends and reshapes the delicate tenons on the head joint and middle joint to oval-like shapes rather than perfect circles this making them not fit together properly and resulting in costly repairs. To remove the head and foot joints hold the flute with the joint at the top and with a gentle twisting motion pull the joint from the middle joint in an upward motion and replace the removed joint in its place in the case. Once the instrument is taken apart swab out any moisture.
Swabbing: The best thing you can to do keep your flute in good, clean, working order is to remove as much moisture as possible after every use. This is done by threading the corner of an absorbent cloth (silk, cotton, flannel, etc.) through the eye of the cleaning rod and sliding it through each joint. The foot joint and middle joint can each be swabbed by pushing the cleaning rod through the joints two to or more times. To swab the head joint wrap the cloth over the end of the cleaning rod and gently push it into the head joint until it touches the tuning cork in the top of the head joint, DO NOT push hard or you will upset the tuning of the instrument, slide it gently in and out a few times to remove moisture. The swab cloth should be washed at least monthly without fabric softener or dryer sheets to maintain absorbancy. Music stores may try to sell you caterpillar looking swab sticks– these swabs may be cute and fuzzy, but they will leave fibers in your instrument. These fibers collect and hold moisture inside the instrument causing bacteria build up and damage. P
Polishing: Many flute players like their instrument to be shiny, and this is all well and good, but polishing should not be done too often as it can ruin the finish that makes the instrument shiny. Once a week an untreated cloth, such as a swab, can be used to wipe off finger prints and oil to prevent tarnish. Once a month, at most, a treated polishing cloth can be used to restore a brilliant luster. NEVER use liquid polish or take keys or rods off your flute to polish it. Liquid polish can get into the mechanism of the flute and cause it to malfunction and unless you are a trained repairman you should never try to loosen or tighten screws that attach anything to the instrument.
Tuning: Tuning of the flute is simple, if the instrument is playing sharp simply pull the head joint out from the foot joint a little to elongate the instrument, if it is flat push the head joint in (unless it won’t go in any further). If a flute is perpetually flat to the point that the head joint cannot be pushed in any further or perpetually very sharp the tuning cork may be out of place. Using the cleaning rod that belongs to the instrument you can adjust the tuning cork to the proper placement. Inset the non-eye end of the cleaning rod into the head joint, there will be a line marked on the cleaning rod, this line should line up in the center of the tone hole. If it does not line up properly tighten the crown screw to move the cork up or loosen and push on the crown to move the cork down. Remember that this only works correctly with the cleaning rod that originally came with the instrument, “after-market” cleaning rods will have the tuning line, but will not be marked for the specific manufacturer or flute so they may not be marked correctly. Young students should not be shown how to do this as the often abuse it and can cause the cork to come loose.
Springs: These tiny metal rods on the flute help keep tension in the rods so that keys function properly and together. Springs can be knocked loose while polishing and sometimes come out of place during playing especially if they have come loose from their fittings and have lost their tension. Springs can be easily put back in their place with the tip of a pencil or fingernail. If a spring seems to have lost its tension the instrument needs to be taken for repairs.
Rods and screws: NEVER LOOSEN OR TIGHTEN A SCREW ON YOUR INSTRUMENT. I also don’t care how handy your dad or neighbor, or uncle, or grandfather is with a toolbox, they are not trained to fix you instrument, don’t let them try to fix it either. The rods that hold the keys on your instrument are held on by miniscule screws that are calibrated to proper tensions so as to allow the rods to turn as needed, tightening or loosening these screws will cause your flute to malfunction and require repairs. The only exception to this rule is the screw on the thumb key on the back of the flute. Because the thumb key is used often this screw has a tendency to come loose and if it comes too loose the rod and key may come off the flute, when the screw looks loose use a small flat head screwdriver or your fingernail to tighten it until it is flush with the end of the rod post.
Pads and keys: The best way to care for the pads on the underside of the keys is to keep them dry by removing as much moisture from the flute as possible and by not playing outdoors in wet conditions such as rain or snow. Also, avoid touching the pads as oils from your hands can cause them to break down. If you find that a pad isn’t sealing properly, or is leaking, the pad needs replaced and should be taken for repairs. If a key isn’t moving the way it is supposed to check for loose or displaced springs, if all springs appear to be in place ask your teacher and/or take the instrument in for repairs.
Piccolo: Doesn’t differ much from flute except that there are only two pieces to assemble and it is significantly smaller. Full metal piccolos have the same care requirements as flutes, resin or plastic/part plastic piccolos also have the same basic care requirements except that the tenon between the head joint and body usually has a small cork that requires small amounts of cork grease occasionally. Wooden piccolos need to be kept in a temperature controlled environment and playing one outdoors should be avoided at all costs, it is especially important to never leave wooden instruments in extreme temperatures as this could crack the wood and ruin the instrument.
I hope that you were able to learn something about caring for flutes. They seem to on of the more simple instruments to care for, but proper care and feeding of your flute and/or piccolo will ensure that it will function properly and you will spend significantly less on repairs than if you do not take good care of it.