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I have used soprano baroque recorders for students aged 8-10 as a "pre-band" instrument. I find that most students enjoy practicing note-reading, and the average student is able to progress reasonably far in two years of study. I find that students who can master at least the first octave of the instrument progress very quickly on clarinet or saxophone in their next year after playing recorder. I suspect it's because there are so many similarities (the basic fingerings, breathing, etc.).

I have also noticed that beginner flute players struggle tremendously because it's so much harder to produce a tone on a flute. I know that playing a single-reed instrument is obviously different than a fipple flute but it's a similar shape and size and students seem to adapt quickly. The concert ("band") flute is quite different and in my experience, harder. Flute students at this age (10 or 11 years) seem to more frequently lose interest as their reed-playing classmates advance beyond their skill level.

I'd like to be able to give all the students a chance to learn some rudimentary skills for flute playing, too.

I'm curious... does there exist a simple instrument that could do for the flute what the recorder does for clarinet and saxophone? Is there such thing as a "transverse recorder," say?

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  • Do you have any sense of the degree to which the different orientation of the instrument is responsible? Or the embouchure and different needs of breath control? Or other factors?
    – phoog
    Jun 29 at 8:05
  • Nope, no idea. I suspect it's mostly the necessity of proper lip placement/air direction on a flute when compared to the recorder which works when you simply blow into it
    – nuggethead
    Jun 29 at 12:50
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    How about arranging private flute lessons? Frankly, if your single-reed players aren't getting lessons, they may be producing more sound sooner but they are equally at risk of developing all the wrong breathing and embeauchure habits. Jun 29 at 17:15
  • +1 for private lessons, which I encourage as much as possible (providing families with names of good local teachers, etc.) Not all can afford, unf
    – nuggethead
    Jun 29 at 18:42
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    And from your response to the suggestion of private lessons we gather that you are not a flute player yourself? That of course makes a difference. Jun 29 at 23:27

2 Answers 2

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TL;DR

  • Step 1: Soda bottle
  • Step 2: Fife

Soda bottle

Flute players are sometimes told that blowing across the top of a soda bottle is similar to blowing a flute. (Anecdotally, A flute-playing acquaintance confirms that this offered some help in developing their embouchure.)

Though the flute tone hole is generally smaller and differently shaped, the techniques are similar, and the bottle can be easier. Using a common object can be very appealing and fun for kids.

Some additional advantages:

  1. Very inexpensive
  2. Lends itself to a natural physical experiment: put various amounts of water in the bottle and observe the changes in pitch.)
  3. Neat party trick with friends; awesomely annoying party trick with parents and siblings.

A couple of internet reference points:
(Note that these do not directly advocate soda bottles as a teaching tool.)

A common way to explain the flute embouchure is to equate flute playing to blowing into a pop, or soda, bottle.

Flute Techniques, by Dr. Karen McLaughlin-Large, Kansas State University, 2013

Exercise 2

1.ALWAYS begin students with head joint exercises.

2.Cover the lip plate and blow over the end of the head joint like playing a bottle.

3.Use little tension. Very relaxed.

4.Remember to use the surprise breath.

However, for a contrary opinion, see

The flute should not be played like a coke bottle.

Fife

I would look first at the fife (Wikipedia). It's held and blown like a transverse flute, but is smaller, lighter, and non-keyed. Given the setting, where many students many need instruments, there are inexpensive plastic fife's available. For example, at the time of this post, Yamaha makes a plastic fife, available on Amazon for $10.55.

Yamaha YRF-21Y plastic fife

And here is a detail showing the mouthpiece.

Yamaha YRF-21Y plastic fife mouthpiece detail

There are other transverse flutes, such as those listed on Wikipedia:

Indian classical flutes (the bansuri and the venu), the Chinese dizi, the Western fife, a number of Japanese fue, and Korean flutes such as daegeum, junggeum and sogeum.

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  • 1
    I had both a fife and a recorder as a child (though I never had any formal instruction in either, nor in any other wind or brass instrument). I had a horrible tone, but I could play the full lower octave and some simple tunes. One could even imagine a fife-and-drum corps of sorts (even though my autocorrect seems to prefer a five-and-dime corps!), which would seem to be useful in preparing the students for a marching band. I don't suppose recorders lend themselves to marching. Anyway, this seems the most obvious suggestion, so +1.
    – phoog
    Jun 29 at 8:03
  • My wife played flute a little bit as an elementary school student and many years later picked up a couple bansuris (different keys) and a dizi. She found the bansuri easier to play.
    – Theodore
    Jun 29 at 15:40
  • @Theodore Bansuri was easier than dizi or easier than flute? (Or both?)
    – Aaron
    Jun 29 at 16:19
  • @Aaron Bansuri was easier than dizi. She no longer owns a flute and hadn't played in decades.
    – Theodore
    Jun 29 at 16:23
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    @CarlWitthoft I may have come up with a way to address your criticism, at least partially: soda bottles. Although not identical to flute embouchure, do you agree that it could be helpful in sparking kids' interest in the instrument by giving them something easier and simpler to start on, thus making it a little easier to sustain the motivation to work through the flute embouchure's initial difficulties?
    – Aaron
    Jun 29 at 21:51
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I have seen flutes with a recorder headjoint. However, those are not cheap and usually considered a crutch anyway. Your flute students need to learn to deal with embouchure at some point.

The suggestion of a fife is a reasonable one, especially the Yamaha with a plastic lip plate that is flute like, rather than the traditional "military" fife. The shorter instrument is more responsive, and because of the higher register carries more than a concert flute.

But I wonder, is it the band environment that is putting them off? In a distant past I learned flute and never gave it a second thought that my tone got better and better. Yes, my teacher, and flute players on records, were better but that never discouraged me.

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  • Could you be more explicit about the band environment and how that might affect things?
    – Aaron
    Jun 29 at 23:30
  • @Aaron That's what I'm actually asking of the OP. I wonder if young person would not be so discouraged if they didn't have to deal with the comparison with other instrumentalists their age. Jun 29 at 23:52
  • It’s the competitive part that I’m suggesting be more explicit. It’s fairly clear that’s what you mean, but I think it could be said even more directly.
    – Aaron
    Jun 29 at 23:55
  • I think you missed the point - or perhaps I was unclear.? I do not want anything to do with a flute with a recorder head joint. We can agree that would not be prudent
    – nuggethead
    Jun 30 at 0:28
  • Also, re competition, it is not in any way a competitive ensemble. But when after a short duration of lessons the other wind players can play 8-bar phases and the flute players are still struggling to string three decent notes together, it can be disconcerting!
    – nuggethead
    Jun 30 at 0:30

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