Alto Flute: choosing a curved or straight head-joint
By Dr. Christine Potter
People who are interested in purchasing an alto flute must make a decision whether to get a curved or a straight head joint. There are advantages and disadvantages to both and people should try each design before deciding. Most entry-level altos can be purchased with either head joint or both head joints.
If you are a flute choir director purchasing an instrument that several people will use, I suggest getting an alto with both head joints. You will have short people and tall people, people who just can’t balance the curved head well, and people whose hands hurt if they play a straight head.
The primary advantage of a straight head joint alto is that the intonation is better in the third octave. It is not as good as a c flute’s intonation in this octave and you will still make some adjustments, but it is better than the curved head. The reason the intonation is better with a straight head is that makers are able to make a continuous taper from the crown end of the head joint to where it joins the body of the flute. If you look at your c flute head joint, you will see that the crown end of the head joint is smaller than where it goes into the body. This was one of the design features found to be necessary to improve overall flute intonation.
Some people prefer the more flute-like physical relationship of the straight head alto, it feels very similar to what you already know and there is just the one adjustment needed to line up the mouthpiece with the body, just like the flute.
The big disadvantage to the straight tube is that if your arms are short, the right hand has to twist to the left when you reach for the keys. This is painful for many people, and the foot joint notes are even more difficult to reach and are more awkward to play. The right hand thumb is put under even more stress as it tries to keep the flute from rolling backwards while having an even heavier instrument to support that is farther from the player’s body. The tube is larger in diameter than c flute, so it makes balancing the alto on the left index finger joint also difficult. This was my situation when I was looking for an alto many years ago, and I found a curved head instrument with a stunning sound that I have had ever since.
The big advantage of the curved head joint is that your right arm and hand are a comfortable distance away and there is no twisting of the right wrist. The little finger is perfectly positioned to play the foot joint keys with ease. The lowest notes are easy to play and access.
A second advantage of the curved head joint is that with a little experimentation, one finds a spot to set the position of the head joint so that it leans slightly back against the chin and prevents the flute from rolling backwards. The curved head joint actually allows a more stable position for the instrument than the straight head.
The big disadvantage is the intonation of the notes in the third octave. Starting with the C above the staff is almost all ¼ step sharp. It is not yet possible to make a continuous taper from the crown end of head-joint, through the curve and into the flute. Makers are using a graduated cylinder approach, where each section is slightly larger than the one before. This helps, but not enough. Look for improvements in this design in the future.
Choosing a curved head joint means you will need to develop alternate fingerings for the third octave when you have notes up there. You will need to become fluent with these fingerings, and you will find that more than one will be necessary depending on dynamics and surrounding notes.
A second disadvantage of the curved head joint is the challenge of finding the best possible position of the two independent parts of the head joint in relation to the flute body. The head joint does not go directly over the flute body or directly between the flute and the player. Start from a position on top of the flute and then tip the curved part about ½ an inch towards you, then adjust the short straight part of the head joint where you need it to be. Experiment with these angles until you find what works best for you. Once you find the correct relationship of these two parts, you will find that the balance is even easier than on the c flute.
If you are thinking you will do most of your practicing on the curved head to save your right wrist and then switch to the straight tube as you get closer to the performance, it’s a good thought but doesn’t work in reality. You will have to spend plenty of time on the straight tube to work out intonation and tone issues, and your wrist will still hurt. Go for the curve.
Copyright Nov. 2011, Chris Potter
Chris Potter is an internationally recognized alto and bass flute expert and flute choir conductor who commissions and premiers pieces by a wide variety of composers. The next premier will be a piece for low flutes ensemble by Katherine Hoover. The composer/arranger of many books, her next publication will be a method book for alto flute, scheduled to be available in March 2016. Her 12th annual Alto and Bass Flute Retreat will be held this summer in Boulder, Colorado with a second retreat on the east coast. In demand as a conductor and performer, she is also the flute choir coordinator and conductor of a low flutes choir for the James Galway Festival in Switzerland. Contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org