Beginning Flute Dilemma

Do you have a policy or even a personal philosophy about starting beginning flute players? For example, do you wait until they reach a certain age or grade level? Do you require that they play a different instrument first? 

Every fall I am faced with the issue that most of my beginning flute players rarely progress at a level anywhere near the rest of my beginning wind players.

I’ve tried discouraging 4th graders from starting with flute. Essentially, I tell the parents of 4th graders that if they want to play flute, they will have to provide their own instrument; I won’t loan them a school-owned instrument. This has probably prevented some problems, but I’m not sure how effectively it’s improved my flute sections.

This year, I took a different approach with teaching fingerings to my beginning flutists. I taught them using the first 5 notes of the concert F scale instead of concert Bb. This eliminated the awkward C to D challenge, and made songs like Hot Cross Buns and Mary Had a Little Lamb more accessible. It’s hard to say how effective this has been.

Somehow, every year I manage to find a gem of a beginning flutist who stays right on track with the rest of the band, or even progresses more quickly than the rest of the class. (And no, it’s not because they have a different private music teacher!) So I don’t necessarily think my pedagogical skills are the issue.

Even with these preventative measures and crutches, I’ve had disappointing results.

Help! Any thoughts?


13 thoughts on “Beginning Flute Dilemma

  1. Hi! I have just started teaching and this is my second year. Flute has been tricky but I will tell you that I am using a new book called tradition of excellence. It starts out with private lessons for each instrument. What I am doing is having sectionals where the book says private lesson. It also has videos for the students to watch with their CD in the book. When I work with the flutes I keep a mirror close by to show them what their mouth is doing and what it should look like. Part of the problem is they can’t see their mouth to know what to adjust when you instruct them. The mirror is a great tool specially when motor skills are being developed.


  2. Do you track their practice time? How much effort are they putting forth? Do you get the kind of flautists who want their flute to be more of a fashion accessory than an instrument? I’ve got some saxophones who are falling quite badly behind, and I’m soon to be starting them on an extra lesson each week. Hopefully it’ll do the trick (but long story short, there’s many more issues than just practice time and motivation at play in this specific scenario).

  3. First, I put stickers where the fingers go.
    Second, I’ve found that if I work their fingers like a puppet, repeatedly, back and forth between the fingerings (ex: C-D) that they catch on and get it into their muscle memory.

  4. Embouchure is the most important formation at the beginning. If you start them with a smile, their tone will be airy. Start with the airstream, forming the embouchure and practicing connected and separated articulation, monitoring consistent embouchure formation. Then add the headjoint, palm flat over the end. Form the embouchure= “mmmm” with corners and lower lip relaxed, almost frowning. Then “ewww” as if you’re speaking French. (I make up a little story about something baking) Then practice a connected or separated style of articulation in duple and triple.

  5. After several years of the same frustration, I now start my beginners on B (natural), A and G, and use exercises (just the standard whole note exercises) that I write out for them. I find that once they are comfortable and can play Hot Cross Buns, they handle the switch to the beginning notes of Bb, C and D in their lesson book (Standard of Excellence) much better and catch up with the rest of the band fairly quickly. I also tell them at the first lesson that flute is a difficult instrument in the beginning, and have them promise not to cry–with a smile on my face, this somehow works. Anyhow, I have a large program and lose very few flutes.

    • I need to do this next year! And I have a question for you: I have 2 flutes who are still struggling. They have been making slow progress but it’s VERY slow. What would you do with a couple flute players who are still struggling 1/2 way through the year? They do turn in practice logs signed by their parents (they’re 5th graders) and both of them could stand to practice a bit more. I’m thinking that I should probably start them with B natural, A and G, but do you have any other suggestions?

    • Yes Laurie! Let them play tunes to their hearts’ content on Mi, Re, and DO in G major. After that, learning concert Bb is so much easier! Back in my day, band directors had to discourage flutes, as it was THE instrument to play!

  6. Hey Steve! I don’t know about flutes but I know that music is what keeps kids turned on to education and we have totally seen that at our elementary school. I am reaching out to you and your followers to check out our drumming campaign. We need help getting the word out all over to keep us moving to our goal. Please take a minute and check out our campaign and share it if you would. thank you from our awesome drummers!!!

  7. When I taught beginning band, after about my fourth year, I started testing the kids on their preferred instrument. I found that if a student could not produce a decent sound on flute right away, that was not their instrument. Also, after several years of tracking, I knew how many kids I would have in band and limited the numbers of each instrument to the balanced instrumentation I desired. On the soccer team, everyone may want to play forward, but the coach – the expert – that’s you, gets to decide what is best for the team. Once you overcome the difficulty of this hurdle in your mind, it increases students desire to be in band. I got to the point where – out of 30 possible kids that could join band – 28 would join.

  8. My flutes and I also have hard time starting out. This has been so helpful! I’ve only been teaching band for 2 years so I have just recently started thinking about this problem and how to solve it.

  9. A couple more thoughts: if they can hold and balance the flute with a good hand position and posture, that can eliminate the shoulder-balance, and embouchure/lip plate placement problems. Have the student learn to balance the instrument with their right hand in position first, before they start playing. I have them do different types of exercises balancing, leading up to right hand only holding the flute parallel. Then hold the left hand on the crown, to place the lip plate where they want it. Then, they slide their left hand onto the thumb key and into position. The goal is to keep the flute in control, and get into position without looking.

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