How to Know It's Time to Upgrade
by Heather Neuenschwander
We all know that moment. That inkling in the back of your mind. The doubt in your head as you practice and study and sometimes even as you perform. That thought you have when you’re struggling to accomplish a goal in your lessons or in the practice room. That question: Is it time to get a new instrument? Have I reached that point where my old flute or piccolo just isn’t going to cut it anymore?
For teachers, this can be a celebrated yet dreaded moment of having to tell a student, “I’m sorry but it’s time. This flute just isn’t good enough for you now. It’s time to spend the money and get a new one.”
Some musicians have this thought cross their minds and immediately they head right out to try new instruments. For others this is an idea that nags at the back of their brains for weeks, months, or even years. They even start casually shopping and then take a break for a while. Whether this is a sudden and immediate realization or a longer journey, how do you answer the question: Is it time to upgrade my instrument? Here are 5 ways to know that now is the time for an upgrade for YOU (or your student, or your child, or your spouse).
First, let’s talk about the different types of upgrades:
Step 1: Beginning Flute. Remember your first flute? Closed hole. C foot. Nickel silver. It may have had some plating peeling off the keys or the body of the flute. Some spots that were inexplicably a different color than the rest of the flute. It probably had some dents from when you accidentally dropped it in band class or hit it on the music stand or tried to use it to “pretend” sword fight. That’s the flute you started on and learned on, it saw a lot of life (and possibly a lot of damage) and it served you well.
Step 2: Intermediate/Pre-Professional Flute. Flutists start thinking about stepping up to an intermediate flute typically after about 3-5 years of playing. For many this is in late middle school/early high school if they started playing flute in beginning band in school. This is the time that many flutists get an open hole flute with a B foot, and perhaps now a silver headjoint, or silver body or silver keys or maybe all silver! It is possible to skip over this step and go right to a professional flute. There is no right or wrong answer! Just what works best for you and your situation.
Step 3: Professional Flute. Professional flutes are the highest end, handmade flutes on the market. Silver, gold, platinum, alloys… the sky is the limit for these flutes! There are many different brands and many options for added features such as split E, G donut, C# trill, D# roller, heavy wall vs. standard wall, etc. Professional handmade flutes are the “top shelf” choice of flutists, the Rolls Royce of instruments so to speak.
When you upgrade your flute, you can go from one step to the next, you can skip a step altogether or you can just buy another comparable level flute. An upgrade does not have to mean that you necessarily move “up” in these steps. But wait a minute, that makes it even HARDER to figure out when it’s time to upgrade! So here we go, here are FIVE WAYS you can tell that it’s time to upgrade your instrument.
- You’ve Had a Large Leap in Ability
A common example is when you start studying with a new teacher. After a few weeks, months, or years of study the goal is that you get better at your instrument, right? As you improve, you begin to realize that your flute has not improved and it is holding you back. Perhaps your technique has improved to the point where you need a smoother mechanism or added features (split E, C# trill, etc.). Perhaps your improved tone and breath control have left you feeling that you’re just not getting the sound out of your instrument that you would expect at this point. One common occurrence is that you start to crack notes more often because your flute just can’t handle the volume of air and force or flexibility of tone colors that you feel you can now execute but the instrument just doesn’t have the capability to achieve.
Want proof? It’s time to experiment and try some other flutes! There’s no harm in just trying a few new flutes to see how they feel. Test the limits and see how you sound on a new instrument. Often it’s shocking how quickly you realize that your flute was holding you back as you fly through your scales on a newer, smoother mechanism and explore new tone colors with a new headjoint. Remember, you’ve worked hard to practice and become a better flutist and so, eventually, this likely means you will need a new instrument to match your new abilities.
- You’re Dissatisfied with Your Instrument
I often say that playing the flute is fun! That’s why we do it, right? That said, we have all had times when playing can be frustrating. You just can’t seem to take that next step. No matter how hard you practice, your low notes just aren’t as full and resonant as you want them to be. After hours of scales, etudes and exercises, your technique still just isn’t what you need and expect. No matter how many long tone drills you attempt while using a tuner and a drone you still just can’t seem to fix certain intonation issues. As flutists we can get bogged down in feeling negative about our playing and the fun starts to fade away.
What’s the solution? It just may be time to consider upgrading your instrument. Don’t lose your enjoyment for playing the flute! You started the flute because you thought it was fun and it should stay that way for as long as you’re able to play. Before you get down on yourself and give up, try out a few new instruments. I see it all the time as a teacher where a student is completely revitalized just by getting a new instrument. Once getting an instrument that not only plays but plays really well, the enjoyment returns and all of a sudden no one needs to nag them to practice any more. Now they WANT to play again!
- Your Current Instrument Needs Repair
As a teacher, I see this more often than any other reason to upgrade. I couldn’t accurately recall how many times I’ve started teaching a new student and quickly find out that their flute is in poor condition. An extreme case of this was a student whose flute was in such disrepair that she had adapted standard fingerings just to get the instrument to play. When I play tested through the instrument, it barely made a sound for me but somehow she had adapted so well she had auditioned into first chair of her high school band!
Sometimes you’re faced with the decision “do I fix this flute or do I get a new one?” We face this conundrum often with our vehicles. Do I total this car and get a new one or do I pay the repair bill and try to keep it going for a little longer? You start to evaluate how many miles it has, the blue book value, any upcoming specials on new cars, etc.
Unfortunately there’s no easy answer for cars or for instruments, it’s a personal decision based on your current flute’s condition, your budget and your future goals. This is the time to consider the big picture. How old is your flute and what is its overall condition? What’s the current value of your flute? Could you get any money selling it or trading it in or perhaps you’re in need of a backup instrument or a dedicated marching instrument? Are there any deals running right now for new instruments? (The holiday season is a great time to buy and flutes make great presents for kids, spouses, parents, or really for anyone who likes to play the flute!) Lastly, does your current flute match your goals? What will your flute playing look like in the next few years and what type of flute should you have for that? More on that next.
- Big Goals, Big Future
One way to know it’s time to upgrade is by assessing your goals and making a plan to meet those goals. For example, if you’re hoping to audition for college programs in the next couple years you probably don’t want to do that on a beginning instrument. Perhaps you’re looking at grad school auditions but you never stepped up from that intermediate flute and now it’s time to consider a pre-professional or a professional handmade flute. Maybe you’re taking orchestral auditions hoping to land that coveted spot but there just seems to always be one thing holding you back.
Some people play the flute just for fun and that’s great! For some of you this is your career, your passion, your livelihood, your everything! Make sure that your instrument matches your goals. As you work your way through the natural progression of being a flutist from student to performer, teacher and professional, you will need an instrument that you can grow into not one that you will quickly outgrow. Plan ahead for that big audition or that major performance, a new instrument just may give you the confidence you need to win that spot or nail that concerto!
- You Want Something Nice Just to Have Something Nice
What if you’re not a professional flutist? Maybe you’re not out on the audition circuit. You don’t plan to play the Nielsen Concerto with a live orchestra behind you any time soon, or ever! That doesn’t mean that you don’t want a nice instrument.
As a teacher, I’ve heard parents tell a student they won’t get their son or daughter a new flute, even though the old one clearly isn’t good enough, unless they are planning to audition for college programs. I try to share another view. Being a music major is the right choice for some and for others music is the side dish and not the entree. Playing in the pep band or non-major band at school can be the fun activity that gets them through the tough exam days. Later in life they may use that flute to play in a community band or a flute choir or some other similar ensemble as a fun hobby or side activity away from their day job. This all becomes less likely if they don’t have a good instrument to play. Again I say, playing the flute is fun and it’s more fun when you have a decent and working instrument.
Many adult amateurs or non-professional players will get a nice flute simply because they can. You’ve worked hard. Maybe you had a long and fulfilling career. Maybe you raised a few kids. Whatever life threw at you, you’ve made it through many of those tough moments. Now you find that you have a bit of extra time in your schedule (and a bit of extra money in your bank account) and you want to play your flute more so you want to have a nice flute to use. There’s nothing wrong with getting a nice flute just because you can! You’ve earned it so treat yourself!
Regardless of your age or ability level, there are many reasons to upgrade to a new instrument. If you’re wanting to try some instruments, contact us. We offer FREE 7 day trials! You can schedule an appointment to try out some flutes at our store or we can mail you some instruments to try as well. Remember there’s no harm in looking! Whether you’re thinking of a new flute, piccolo, headjoint, alto flute or bass flute we are here to help you play at the level you need and deserve.
Heather Neuenschwander is an active flutist in Iowa City and the surrounding area. Heather has performed on flute and piccolo with the Muscatine Symphony Orchestra, the Ottumwa Symphony Orchestra and the Grinnell College Symphonic Band. She recently performed at the National Flute Association Convention in Salt Lake City, participated in the American Gothic Performing Arts Festival and co-founded and conducts the Iowa City Flute Choir. She teaches flute lessons at West Music in Coralville, IA while also maintaining a home teaching studio. In addition, she works in Online Sales and Promotions for Flute Specialists, Inc. based in Clawson, MI. Heather has also done freelance work at Flute Authority in West Music Coralville play testing flutes. Heather has five years of experience teaching 6-12 grade band, choir and music appreciation in public, private and charter schools. Previously, Heather resided in the Metro Detroit area and played with the Michigan Philharmonic Orchestra, the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, the Michigan Flute Orchestra, and the Dearborn Symphony Orchestra.
Heather has a Master’s Degree in Flute Performance from Oakland University (Rochester Hills, MI) and a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education from Wayne State University (Detroit, MI). Her principal teachers are Sharon Sparrow, Jeffery Zook, Amanda Blaikie, and Ervin Monroe. Heather currently lives in Coralville, IA with her 4-year-old and 9-year-old sons and her husband Josh who is pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in Wind Conducting from the University of Iowa.