Flute – Second in the Series, ‘Score Order Instruments’

ancient bone flutes

The flute is a very old instrument. According to Wikipedia, a flute discovered recently in Germany may be the oldest musical instrument ever found – perhaps as old as 43,000 years!


The Indian god Krishna is said to be an expert flute player, and is featured

playing one in carvings dating back 4,500 years.

Krishna with flute

There are a great number of kinds of flutes – Pan flutes, double flutes, flutes with no keys, flutes with lots of weird keys,

gold open-hole flute

flutes made of wood, bone, ivory, bamboo, clay, and iron, flutes lined with paper, flutes made with gold, silver, and platinum.


The kind we’ll be discussing on this page is the Western transverse flute – in other words, the kind we’re used to seeing in the Western hemisphere, the kind seen in today’s modern bands and symphony orchestras.

The ‘Score Order’ in the title refers to the musical score, a large document that lists all the instruments required for a piece to be played by a band or orchestra, and it lists them in pitch order, from highest pitch to lowest pitch.

In traditional pieces, the piccolo will be listed as the highest instrument, at the top of the score, and the tuba, or maybe the string bass, will be listed at the bottom, because it plays the lowest pitches.

The flute, our focus in this post, plays the second highest pitches, so it’s listed second.  In the case where a piccolo is not required, the flute will be listed first.

Let’s say you wanted a flute.  You have several options to acquire one. You could buy one – new or used.  You could rent one, also new or used. You could borrow one.


When you borrow one, it’s likely to be from a friend or relative. Think very carefully about this. When Aunt Edna’s flute comes back from it’s experience at your house, used, somewhat dinged up and needing repairs, how will that affect your relationship with Edna?

Maybe it’s better to buy or rent.

Buying one involves a number of choices. American maker or foreign? Open hole, or plateau system (closed hole)? Low B key, or not? Case cover, backpack style case, hard case?

My 35 years as an instrument repair technician has allowed me a view to information you might find useful.

Let’s look at the maker issue.  Clearly, your student needs a reliable instrument that’s also good-enough looking that he or she is not embarrassed to take it out of the case at band or orchestra.

Miyazawa flute factory

Information about the various makers would be valuable.

In general, the old-line American makers (Armstrong, Gemeinhardt, Emerson, and a few others) have been successfully building and selling flutes in the USA for generations.

Relative newcomers to the American market include Yamaha, Pearl, Altus, Prelude, and Jupiter. All these makers have very good reputations for making well-built and well-warranted instruments.

When buying or renting a new instrument, flutes from these makers are ones that can be counted on for quality and durability.

All acceptable new flutes will come with some kind of case, a tuning/cleaning rod, an perhaps some maintenance items. As with any complicated thing that’s also new to you, be sure to read and follow directions on assembly and maintenance.

Used instruments are a very different story. It is possible to rent used flutes from several reputable online companies, including RentMyInstrument.com

Other companies handling used (they’re often billed as ‘like new’) flutes include NEMC, Inc. nemc.com, and Music and Arts Centers link  These last two usually depend on a local affiliate music store to fulfill your contract wishes.

Buying a used flute will involve similar skills to buying a used car – locate a flute, research the brand and model, get an independent technician to look it over for repair and maintenance issues, get an experienced teacher to play test it, negotiate a price based on value and needed repairs, fix it, buy it and take it home.

As of this writing, there are 22,542 flutes listed for sale on Ebay, with prices ranging from $50 to $24,000. How to choose? Here’s a link to a decent beginner flute on Ebay. And, in case you have interest, here’s the link to the one for $24,000!

To begin, check out only those brands listed above. All others are very recent to the Western band instrument manufacturing business, and I guarantee they are not experienced makers, and they’re not using high quality materials.

child labor

How could they be, when you can buy a brand new one of their Pacific Rim instruments, shipped from China, for under $50? Their cost of production is down around $10. Even if it plays out of the box, I guarantee it will be a lamp kit in two years.

A very high quality student model flute made in the US, Japan, or Europe will retail at about $500 as of this writing. Those instruments are built of the best available parts, by craftsmen who have been building flutes for years, and their reputations have been made on quality products.


Further, let’s say that you already know something about flutes, and are so thrilled about the flute that you’re looking to start collecting them.

There’s several ways to go here.

One way is to collect the older Western transverse flutes.  This would get you into the realm of older European makers, including those who only made wooden flutes.

The truly great names in flutes must include that of Theobald Boehm (1794-1881), and Louis Lot (d. 1890).

Boehm was single-handedly responsible for the widespread use of metal tubes for flute making, a result of his extensive research and experimentation, searching for better tone and intonation than was possible in a wooden flute.

Louis Lot was a world class flutemaker, his company produced around 10,000 instruments before finally being sold to Strasser-Marigaux-LeMaire in about 1960.

The Rudall, Carte companies are also worthy of consideration.  There are several variants:

  • George Rudall, London
  • Rudall and Rose, Covent Garden
  • Rudall, Rose and Co., London
  • Rudall, Rose, Carte, and Co., The Strand
  • Rudall, Carte, and Co., London

There are literally thousands of historical flute makers. A good quality reference for the more notable makers is An Index of Musical Wind- Instrument Makers by Lyndsay G. Langwill, out of print, but still available.

Like all collections, you will need to narrow your interests in order to do a good job of collecting.

Miller flute collection

As an example, you should check out the Dayton C. Miller flute collection, currently at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.  There are about 1,600 flutes in that collection, and it is said to be the most comprehensive flute collection in the world.

Landell head joints


A further sub-specialty might be to start collecting just head joints. There may have been even more of these than makers of complete flutes.



Collecting flutes can be an exhilarating experience, so focus your desires, and give it a go!


– all images on this page, except those provided by Amazon, were gathered from duckduckgo.

– We welcome your comments!














Piccolo – from ‘Score Order Instruments’

‘Score Order Instruments’ is a series of in-depth pages covering all the instruments in a large orchestra, in score order.

A musical score is a large document that tells the conductor of any group exactly what’s supposed to happen at any given time, and it lists all the instruments for that piece being played, in order, from high pitch to low pitch. The piccolo is the highest pitch instrument, so if it has a part in the piece being played, it will be listed at the top.

So, we begin the series at the top of the score, with the piccolo!

A piccolo is a very small flute. The word ‘piccolo’ is Italian for, well, very small.

The reason that this musical word is Italian (and a great many other musical words, like allegro – fast, piano – soft, and col legno – a bowing term for violinists, meaning with the wood of the bow), is that when the Renaissance rolled around in Firenza – Florence, Italy in the 1400’s, music was just one of the arts that was heavily influenced, and the terms just stuck, moving with musicians all over the world.

So, back to piccolo, the instrument.  It’s a small and very similar version of the flute, which is familiar to most folks.  The normal flute is about as long as your arm, the piccolo is about 11″ (66cm) long.

The piccolo plays notes that are very high, with the top of its range just about one octave below the top range of the piano (whose most immediate ancestor was an instrument named the piano-forte, which is Italian for  soft-loud).

While almost all modern flutes are made from metal, the piccolo can be made from metal or wood or plastic. The plastic ones have black color mixed in with the plastic to make them look like wood.

If you’re interested in owning/renting a piccolo, you’ll need to keep certain things in mind.

First of all, the piccolo, while small, is exceedingly difficult to manufacture. There are a number of schools around where you can build your own flute, but I’m not aware of a single one where you can build your own piccolo. So, keep in mind, that unless a factory makes piccolos a lot, and unless they’ve done it for many years, their product is likely to be inferior to a factory that has been building them for over 100 years.

It’s possible to buy a new piccolo-shaped object, say on the internet, for less than US$50. Let’s think about this.

I like to use car analogies, because they’re easy for many people to grasp, so here’s one for piccolos. A Yugo was a car, and the Bentley is a car. They will both get you from A to B (provided the Yugo is running!).  They both have 4 tires and a steering wheel. Beyond that, the differences between them are vast. Technology, comfort, convenience, warranty, and safety are nowhere similar between these two cars.

The analogy carries out like this for the price ranges of piccolos. A US$50 piccolo is silver (looking), has keys, comes with a case and a warranty.  An American-made (or Japanese, or French) piccolo, which retails at around US$500, is silver, has keys, comes with case and warranty, and is built by people who may have been making piccolos for generations, not just a decade.

And here’s why that makes a difference.  The experienced maker will be using industry-standard materials, traceable back to their makers  (the plastic, the nickel-silver tubes, the nickel-silver keys, the stainless keywork mounting rods, the stainless – or white gold – springs that operate the keys, the heat-treated pivot screws, and more).

The Pacific Rim makers will often use whatever material is at hand, which may not last the first band rehearsal. Just look at the price – as with most retail, the dealer sells a $50 piccolo that he buys for $25 (the profit margin is how he pays his bills and feeds his family, I have no quibble with that). The factory makes some money on each piccolo that they sell to the dealer for that $25, so their cost of production could be as low as US$10!

What sort of quality can you expect for a musical instrument whose cost of production is US$10?

I was a musical instrument repair technician for 35 years, and during that time I saw a lot of cheap piccolos. Most of the cheap ones were made so badly that the cost of making the instrument playable was in the range of several hundred dollars. Most folks opted to replace the broken one with a used American one, or one of the nicer Japanese or European piccolos I had in stock.

I’m the first to admit that, yes, things have changed a lot in Pacific Rim instrument manufacturing, but most of these changes have been in the area of better quality machines, and automated assembly operations. So

child labor

now, instead of child-labor sweatshops producing badly-assembled  horns from inferior materials, there are fully-automated machine operations making instruments very accurately – still out of inferior materials.

The result is shiny, good-looking instruments that play OK for a year or two, and then turn into unfixable mush.

The better-made instruments will have stronger, more consistent body and head joint tubes, the solder sticking all the parts together will be of a cleaner alloy, the keys and other metal parts will be thick enough to be repairable for generations, the solder joints will all be smooth and strong, the stainless rods and screws that hold the bits together will have been machined correctly and cleanly (no burrs to catch your fingers – or lips!) , and the instrument will play in tune, both with itself, and with the rest of the band/orchestra.

So, with that information, you must choose between spending about US$50 for a shiny, good-looking, piccolo-shaped object that will become a lamp kit in just a year or two, requiring replacement because the repairs will run into the hundreds of dollars, OR a US$500 and up piccolo made by a reputable, experienced manufacturer which plays very well, is easy to fix and maintain, and will hold its value for years, and possibly generations.

Renting a nicer piccolo is apparently a lower cost option than buying one, but be careful about the rental contract. Some are actually rent, where you must give the instrument back to the owner when you’re done with it, and you have never owned the piccolo, others say ‘rent’ when they are actually ‘rent-to-own’ contracts.  In the ‘rent-to-own’ scenario, you’re buying the piccolo over time, and will have payed about 1.5 to 2x the retail price over that time.

Some rental contracts include maintenance, and some expensive repairs can be avoided by using this option – as always with contracts, read these provisions very carefully.

Piccolo makers that are so new I’ve never seen one in 35 years of fixing them: Glory, Mendini, Andoer, Sky, Ravel, GLARRY, Paititi, Merano, Roy Benson, Hawk, Barrington, Cecilio, Di Zhao, Dixon, Durit, Eldon, Kaerntner, LADE, Levante, Luca, OPUS USA, Stagg, Tempest USA, Vento, Windsor, Yibuy, Zephyr. These are not necessarily bad instruments, but the makers (or at least the labels) are so new that they’ve never been through my shop.

Piccolo makers that have been successful for generations: Artley, Armstrong, Gemeinhardt, Yamaha, Emerson, Pearl, Jupiter, Haynes, Powell, Burkhart, Brannen Brothers, Trevor James, Landell, Bulgerhoni.

All trade names are property of their respective owners.

Your choices in a piccolo will very much help determine your student’s success – choose wisely!


As always, we welcome your comments!



Tuba or French horn, and Why Should I Care?

Let’s start with the last question first, “Why should I care?”. Those of you who play an instrument that’s not either of these already know a few of the jokes about them:

  • A couple of tuba players walk past a bar – hey, it COULD happen!
  • How many French horn players does it take to replace a light bulb? Four, one to screw in the bulb, and the other three to check for valve string adjustments.





So, now that you’ve got a visual on each of these horns, let’s run down the question. Ultimately, you should care about the sounds that they make – in fact, you already do!

Have you ever heard the melody that goes with the character of Luke Skywalker? In the Star Wars movies, his character is always introduced by the French horn. The sounds made by expert French horn players are featured in the sound tracks of a great number of movies, such as “Braveheart”, “Wyatt Earp”, “Red Dawn”, “Dances with Wolves”, “Cowboys”, “Mask of Zorro”, “Cocoon”, the “Star Trek” movies, “Field of Dreams”, “Glory”, and a huge number of others.




If we look at the brass section of the orchestra as if it were a vocal group, the trumpets would be the soprano ‘voices’, the French horns would be like the altos, the trombone would represent the tenors, and the tuba would be the equivalent of the basses.

Most French horns would stretch out to over 12 feet (3.7 meters) in length if the pipes were straight.

Yamaha double horn

Most tubas would uncoil to around 18 feet (5.5 meters).

The haunting, romantic sounds of the French horn have come to be associated with movie scenes involving horseback riding, chases, heroes, the forest, outer space, feelings of love, ships-on-the-water, storms, impending conflict, and moments of longing romance, among many others.


Film composers have been using this catalog of emotional reinforcement of the specific movie scene for many years now, and to great effect.

When the “Star Wars” franchise began in 1977, it began the reintroduction of full-orchestra movie scores to the industry after an absence of at least 20 years.

John Williams, who wrote the soundtrack for “Star Wars”, helped popularize the idea that film music could stand on its own as a presentation in an orchestra concert setting. He began including his film-score work while he was conductor of the Boston Pops orchestra, making the music familiar to millions, who then went to see the movies.

It was a great marketing success, and totally changed the way movies and their music were sold to the public.

A full-orchestra score always includes a tuba. The least-known, and likely the most abused instrument of the orchestra is also one of the most important.

Players and listeners of rock, blues, jazz, bluegrass, and other forms of similar music always hear the bass guitar or upright bass, but may not always hear it consciously.

If you’ve ever been to a concert when the bass is interrupted by a bad cable, or speaker failure, or the player has to quit for a moment because of a broken string, you notice immediately that the bass part can’t be heard.  When the problem is resolved, you go back to hearing the group as a whole, without noticing the bass.

It’s the same with a full orchestra.  You may not hear the tuba when the entire brass section is playing, but you would definitely miss it if it dropped out.  It often plays the bottom note of any chord – the root – and just as a tree without roots would fall, so might the chord without its root.

The idea that tubas are just to be made fun of is, frankly, a lot of their own fault. There’s quite a lot of solo tuba literature written and performed, some of it just embarrassing, like “Asleep in the Deep’, and the ever-popular “Tubby the Tuba”. In that vein, here’s a YouTube of a tuba player attempting the piccolo solo on the Sousa march “Stars and Stripes Forever” (https://youtu.be/zmFYgc-Emmc)

Many serious pieces exist however, and can be heard whenever a talented tubist is willing. Generally, this will be in the neighborhood of a college with a true music department, where a band or orchestra director has the pull to bring that person on stage. For instance, here’s a link to the   Ralph Vaughan-Williams Concerto for Bass Tuba.

It is arguably the loudest brass instrument, but because it often plays the note of the lowest pitch, it’s very hard to hear its relative volume.

The bass in all our open air speaker systems is perceived as omni-directional, because lower frequencies are hard to tell as to incoming direction. It’s the same with a tuba – you may not be able to hear it separately, but you can feel when it’s playing.





This post started out as a reaction to an image search on one of the popular browsers, the term used was ‘tuba’, and I came up with pictures of French horns, flugel horns, European tenor horns and baritones, mellophones, trombones, trumpets, and the ever-popular violin (violins? on a tuba image page? really?).

So now you know the differences between them, and perhaps why you should care.

The next time you’re watching a movie, take a moment and really listen to the soundtrack – you’ll know something now about what you’re hearing, and why it affects you the way it does!


What, Exactly, is a Step-Up?

Simply put, a step-up instrument is the music industry’s term for the next more expensive instrument in the manufacturer’s line. Generally, this involves more, or more expensive, features.

Take a guitar, as an example, in this case we’ll use a classical guitar. And it will make more sense if we start by describing the student, or entry level, instrument. This is a nylon-string instrument, plain nickel-plated tuning peg gear frames, plain tuning peg buttons, 2-piece back with no inlay, plain cedar top with no ornament around the sound hole, entry-level (read cheap) strings, and a very plain bridge. Absolutely a no-frills classical guitar.

The step-up model from this same manufacturer might look like this: gold-plated tuning peg gear frames, gears, and screw heads, patterned tuning peg buttons, 2-piece back with inlay on the seam, cedar top with wood inlay rosette, silver-plated string windings, and a bridge cut in a slight pattern.










A car analogy might be useful.  The entry level we could call the Chevrolet Impala. The step-up might be the Buick LeSabre, and the pro model in this example would be the Cadillac CTS-V.

The cars, at some level, illustrate how the differences in the musical instrument models work. All the cars will get you from A to B, but they have different levels of comfort, convenience, and technology. The 2 guitars will each play all the notes on the fretboard, but they have different levels of appearance.

All of the features, with the exception of the strings, do not affect the sound in any way, they are all appearance features. Generally, the features which might improve the sound are found in the pro models. These might include a 1-piece back, specially trimmed interior bracing, improved fitting of the neck to the body block, a bridge made of denser wood, harder nut and saddle material, and very nice strings.

It’s the same with the wind instruments, brass and woodwind. As before, we’ll start with the description of the beginner trumpet. A beginner trumpet is made of lacquered brass, has nickel-plated valves, has brass inner and outer tuning slides, has a 2-piece bell, and has stamped waterkeys. The step-up model might be made of silver-plated brass, have Monel valves, have nickel-silver outer tuning slides, a one-piece hand-hammered bell, and Amado waterkeys. With the exception of the hand-hammered bell, none of these features on the step-up affect the sound at all.

The only mystery here is why the step-up model might be worth the price, which could be 50% or more higher than the student model. Of course, pride of ownership is the key here – it’s just cooler to own this snazzy piece of musical gear than the plain vanilla one!

native shopping ad


–  your comments are welcome!

What’s the best used…..?

Back when I had my store, I would often see a comparison shopper, generally a young woman with a young family (we’ll call her Tammi), who came in with a question. “I need a clarinet for Julie, who starts middle school band in a week, what do you have for cheap?”

Tammi has never been in a music store in her life, and is overwhelmed by the number of choices she needs to make.  Tammi had just been to the ‘rental night’, or similar event, where the school gym is filled with music stores who have brought their rental stock and their contracts to see what needs they could fill.

Tammi has discovered a number of things:

New clarinets are not cheap. The standard, plastic, student-model clarinet that Tammi was offered could be purchased for about $700, or rented for $38 per month. $700 was out of her budget, but she was a little bit shy about the ‘rental’ contract, which indicated that she would own the instrument after 36 months, when she will have paid $1,368 for her $700 clarinet. On a month-to-month basis, it might have been manageable, and regular maintenance was included, which made sense, given that Julie is a beginner, and accidents do happen. Tammi has learned to read these contracts.

After researching a bit on the internet, Tammi knows that she can get a slightly better deal by buying the clarinet online, but the warranty information is a bit sketchy. Julie is a beginner, after all, and there may be a service issue down the road, forcing Tammi to ship the clarinet off to a facility far from her, without any way of knowing how long it will be gone.

Tammi is going to learn a few things while she’s in my shop:

  • New is not necessarily better.  Many makers have discovered that they can build a clarinet similar to the ones they have built over the years, but making the parts lighter and thinner, they can do it cheaper, making the sale more profitable for them. Lighter and thinner is not what you want to hear when choosing a clarinet for a beginner. Beginners are going to be a bit rough on the instrument until they learn how to handle it successfully. The older methods of construction are often more robust, and will last longer. Many times, I’ve worked on 50 year old American-made instruments, still in good shape, that are now on their 3rd generation of beginner student!
  • instrument repair shopA well-made, refurbished instrument is often a much better buy than a new one.  I always kept a good stock of Vito clarinets on hand. Vito, an American-made student clarinet, is thought by me and many other technicians to be the best student model clarinet ever made. These are well-engineered, stoutly-made clarinets that will stand up to several generations of beginners. Because of several American makers consolidating, Vito is no longer made, but there are plenty of them around. I would buy or trade for these clarinets, them refurbish them to play and look like new, and sell them for about $400.
  • Tammi could arrange for this to happen herself, and save even more money. She could buy a good Vito on Ebay for $25+shipping, locate a shop to refurbish it, spend about $300, and have a shiny, well-made clarinet, in perfect shape, and be out of pocket about $350.

There are similar deals available on all the common beginner instruments – flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, baritone horn. One good way to start is to locate an instrument repair shop that will work with you on this type of project. Recommendations from private teachers is one way to go, another is to visit www.napbirt.org, the website of the National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians, a group of instrument technicians dedicated to learning and technical development of their skills.

There are lots of used instruments available. For instance, as I’m writing this, there are 5,140 clarinets available on Ebay.  How to sort them out?  I’m going to name names here. Limit yourself to instruments made in these countries: USA, (western) Europe, Japan. I’m not excluding the makers in other countries, but they have only recently come to good instrument-building. The bargains are in the older, well-made brands. Here’s a list of brand names I like:

  • Flutes – Artley, Armstrong, Bundy, Gemeinhardt, Yamaha, Pearl
  • Clarinets – Bundy, Vito, Yamaha, Noblet, Normandy
  • Saxophones – Bundy, Yamaha, Selmer, Leblanc, Conn (avoid Conns made in Mexico), King
  • Trumpets – Bach, Conn, King, Getzen, Leblanc, Selmer, Bundy, Yamaha, Holton, Olds (USA)
  • Trombones – Bundy, Conn, King, Selmer, Getzen, Bach, Yamaha, Holton, Olds (USA)
  • Baritone horns – Conn, King, Bundy, Holton, Selmer, Olds (USA)

Good hunting!

Note – I’ve been retired from the musical instrument technician field for some years.

Next note – All the brand names mentioned in this post are the property of their respective owners:  Bundy, Conn, King, Leblanc, Noblet, Normandy, Selmer, Bach, and Holton are owned by Conn-Selmer, Inc. Getzen is owned by Getzen Co. Yamaha is owned by the Yamaha Corporation of America. Pearl is owned by Pearl Corporation, USA.  Olds is owned by F. E. Olds.

P.P.S. – your comments are welcome!