Erin Spencer - flute expert

How to Shop for an Alto Flute

If you are looking to buy an alto flute, this video is for you.

In this video, Erin guides you in purchasing an alto flute.

Released on December 1, 2021

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, it is Erin back for another video here on Virtual Sheet Music, and today we're going to talk about, how to buy an Alto flute.

This video is for Diana, who specifically asked about buying an Alto flute, what to change about her playing, to sound good on Alto flute. So thanks Diana.

Now, why would you even want to get an Alto flute? In what situations do we use an Alto? It does come up in musicals. Sometimes if you play in pits, I know Little Mermaid and Les Mis both have Alto flute. Some orchestral rep, some band rep will have Alto flute in it, but usually when we want an Alto flute, is for flute choir playing. So if you play in your community flute choir, you will probably eventually want to get an Alto. Flute quartets, flute trios, all those kind of chamber music of flutes, we want to have a broader range of notes that we can play, and that's what Alto flute lets you do.

Alto is in the key of G. That means when you play a C on Alto, it sounds like a G on our normal C-flute. So you can read solo flute rep on Alto flute, and it will work totally fine, but if you're trying to play with piano or another instrument, you would have to transpose your music.

The fingerings for Alto flute are all pretty much the same through a few little tricks that you will learn over time of playing Alto, for just a random example, E in the middle of the staff is really unstable on Alto, but if you add the second third key, it really drastically improves the tone quality and response and consistency of that note. There are a few things like that. In general, on Alto flute, you're not going to play super-duper high. It's usually going to be more in the middle and low registers, if it's a well written Alto part. If the composer's going for a specific effect, then they may write in high Alto flute. But its intonation in the high register is much more unstable than the C flute.

When you're shopping for an Alto, it's definitely a little overwhelming. Yes, there are tons of different brands and options for flutes, but there are also tons of different options for Altos, and it is a little bit different than shopping for a normal flute. The first thing I want to point out, is to not buy a model online just because you have heard good things about it, because it may not be the best fit for you. Your best, best, best option when you're shopping for any instrument, is going to be to get a bunch on trial, try several different ones, see which one feels the best for your hands and which one you can make the best sound on.

The two places I would recommend trialing Alto flutes from, would be Flute Center of New York and Flutistry Boston. They both have a wide selection and a good trial period. They will ship them to you completely for free. You can try them, ship back whichever ones you don't want, and it's just a really great option. Both locations also carry used instruments. So you may be able to find a used Alto at a discount. It's definitely worth looking on their used section.

The next thing you want to consider, is what kind of head joint you want. My Alto came with both a curved and a straight head joint. I really love having both options. The tone quality on a straight head joint is just always going to be better than the tone quality on a curved head joint. It just changes the acoustics, but I really like having the option of both, because the reach for a straight head joint is way out here for your right hand, and that's just kind of uncomfortable. So I like having a curved head joint for situations where I'm playing a ton of Alto flute, and I know that my arm is going to get tired and potentially painful if I use my straight head joint, but I really love having my straight head joint for if I'm recording audio of Alto flute, or if I'm only playing it on a couple songs in a concert, then I can prioritize tone quality.

If you are generally a smaller person, you're probably just going to want to get a curved head joint, and if you're generally a taller person, you might be able to just go for a straight head joint. Here's a sound comparison on my Alto between the curved and the straight head joint.

I find that flexibility is much easier on the straight head joint and response time, so quick articulated stuff tends to be easier on the straight head joint. Also low notes tend to respond better on my straight head joint, whereas sometimes on my curved head joint, the response is a little bit more inconsistent.

Next thing you're going to consider, is material of the flute. So mine is completely nickel plated with silver. You can get solid silver Altos. You can get black nickel Altos. You can get gold-brass alloy Altos. There's like a lot of different materials that you can get. The main thing to consider, is the weight of these materials. So the more precious, heavier metals, are going to make your Alto flute heavier, and especially if you have a straight head joint, that's going to put more strain on your right arm if it's heavier. So personally, I would recommend going with nickel plated with silver, if this is your first Alto flute purchase and you're not even really sure if you're going to like playing Alto, if it's going to work out well for you, I would go for nickel plated with silver. That's going to be the most affordable option.

The next thing I would upgrade would be to have the head joint be solid silver. Black nickel is a wonderful option. There are some really, really great Altos made out of black nickel. It looks really cool and it sounds great. The gold-brass alloys for Alto flute is going to be a more advanced version. I have played my friend Christina's Yamaha that is a gold-brass alloy Yamaha, and it is really, really, really nice. Love that Alto. So yeah, you can check out all the different materials, but in general, just make sure you're considering the weight that you are adding if you're upgrading the material.

Now, one of the things with Alto, that is why I really, really, really recommend trying a bunch of different ones before you buy one, is the placement of the keys. Every brand has different key placement. Gemeinhardt has improved theirs somewhat, but I've played some of their older Altos and the hand placement is incredibly uncomfortable. It's like your fingers are even closer together than they are on normal flute for the left hand, and then really spread out for the right hand, and it's just very uncomfortable. The keys down here, also brands will do these keys down here in all sorts of different ways. Some of them really make this key small to try and push these closer to you, because it can be a bit of a stretch to get down to that low C key. I don't love the right hand placement on mine. You can see that the first finger is further forward than these, which is a strange choice to me. That's just not really how I hold my hand, but there were enough other things I liked about this Alto that that was not a deal-breaker.

Here is the left hand key placement on my Alto. This is a pretty standard placement, but you will find some Altos that have your fingers sometimes on these keys. Because these keys are way up here, off of these, it does have to have more rods and more moving parts than a traditional flute.

As far as brands of Alto flutes go, some of the traditional, really good standbys are Jupiter, makes a great Altos, Pearl, Trevor James, Amadeus, and Di Zhao is a kind of a newer one in the Alto flute world. They came out in the last 10 years or so, and I have not personally tried any of their Altos, but I have tried their base flutes and I was really happy with their base flutes and their normal flutes, and I've heard great things about their Alto flutes. So that's definitely one brand to look into.

Some of the things to look out for when you are shopping for Alto flutes, is the flexibility. Try some harmonics, see how easy it is to switch octaves. Do that going down and up, for sure, both ways. See how low you can comfortably go on the Alto. You're going to feel like the flute is lower on your face than your normal flute, because this is bigger. If you put it up too high, your low notes may not even come out, if you're putting it up too high on your face.

If you've narrowed it down to a couple Altos that you like, you should definitely also be checking out the intonation. Get the flute mostly in tune with the tuner. F is a good note to tune Altos to. A is a little bit more inconsistent on Alto than on C flute, so I would probably go with F, get your F in tune. And then from there, go up the scale, see how high you can get, see how crazy out of tune it gets, and compare that on the different Altos. That could be a different selling point.

However, if you're between two Altos and the low register is the main difference between the two of them, I would absolutely prioritize tone quality in the low register, versus intonation in the high register, because the high register is going to be much more situational for Alto flute, and you're just going to have to learn and make adjustments. No matter what Alto you get, I would prioritize tone quality and ease of response in the low register.

I really love playing Alto. It has such a ethereal, woody tone quality that's really special, and there are a lot of pieces that I think sound really spectacular on Alto flute. So I hope you have fun in your Alto adventures.

Let me know if you have any questions and I will see you next time. Bye.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

JJ on February 23, 2023 @9:38 am PST
Thank you both! I truly appreciate your quick responses! And I am in the beginning stage of pursuing a purchase of an Alto Flute & your video was very informative - I had not thot about all the aspects - especially the spacing of keys, curved head, effecting the tone, lower hold of mouthpiece & weight! Excellent presentation! Thank you again!
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on February 23, 2023 @12:17 pm PST
Dear JJ you are most welcome! Happy to help at any time Winky Face

Enjoy your time here and keep playing great music!

All the best,
JJ on February 22, 2023 @12:07 pm PST
Hi there, thank you for your videos and help. When playing alto with a piano - Can one pre-purchase sheet music that automatically transposes the key? I have not done that before but it sounds complicated. Thank you. JJ
Erin Spencer - host, on February 23, 2023 @5:34 am PST
Hi JJ,

Yes! If you find any pieces listed for alto flute and piano, the alto part will be transposed for you. Otherwise if there's a piece you want to do that's not published for alto and piano, you could reach out to a local piano accompanist and they may be able to transpose either their part or the alto part for you.

Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on February 23, 2023 @7:57 am PST
JJ most of the music here on VSM is transposable. Just look for "interactive" sheet music, and you'll be able to transpose it.

If you are looking for a specific piece of music to be transposed for alto flute please, let us know. We'll be happy to help!

All the best,
Diana Irving * VSM MEMBER * on March 31, 2022 @11:46 am PST
Hi, Erin...I did successfully purchase an alto flute that I am very excited and happy about, even have played it for a few pieces with my wind trio when we performed on 3/17/22. I'm quite pleased that pretty much all notes are coming out pretty clearly and in tune, but I am really struggling with hitting that low C and C# on the alto. Do you have any tips for me? Thanks. Diana
Erin Spencer - host, on April 4, 2022 @10:09 am PST
That's great Diana! First thing I would check is to have a tech look over it for leaks - new instruments often have a "settling in" time and can develop leaks quickly during the first few months you have it.

Next thing I'd try is making sure you place the flute low enough on your chin, it needs to feel a little lower than C flute because the lip plate is bigger. Then work on really keeping your throat open - think "woah" when you breathe in and when you play. A singing and playing exercise can also bring a lot more power and accuracy to the low register.

Last thing I'd say is to make sure you're not compressing your embouchure vertically and spreading it horizontally - sometimes when we're trying hard to get out the low notes our corners pull back but that's actually the opposite of helpful! Look in a mirror and see if thinking a little more forward while still aiming the air down helps. Good luck!
Diana Irving * VSM MEMBER * on April 4, 2022 @9:46 pm PST
Thanks for these tips on how to trouble shoot and trouble prevent with a new alto flute to assure best tone quality. I was experimenting on ways to what I call "huff and puff" (no tonguing) those low notes out, am gradually getting better, but hadn't thought of the air leak aspect. Thanks again for sharing you experience and wisdom, Erin! Diana
Diana Irving * VSM MEMBER * on December 3, 2021 @2:10 pm PST
Thank you so much, Erin! Definitely well-timed presentation to help me develop some strategies on being aware of what to look for, also thanks for mentioning some of the specific brands, materials, intonation tips, etc. I am in process of planning trips and/or having alto flutes sent to me for trial. It was tempting to go ahead and purchase what I believe is likely a good brand for Alto flute on used one on Ebay, but I'm going to play some of these before I commit to one. I play mostly in a small flute and other woodwind ensemble and got interested in adding Alto flute to my repertoire, so now I have some good feedback from you and at least one other flutist who has played Alto. Thanks again!
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