Jennifer Cluff

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

Is it the Flute? Or is it me?

Common problems to check for

on your flute:

Here are some common problems to check for on your flute so that you can determine: Is it the flute? Or is it me?
All of them occur as the result of either simple aging, or rough/careless handling.
After you've checked all these things you should have a clearer idea how much (if any) repair your flute needs, and can take it
in to be seen to by a reputable flute technician or repair person.

It's a smart idea to use the same repair-person that the professionals do, so ask your private teacher, your nearest flute
professional, or the music school staff in your area for the name of the flute technician that the top flute performers use where you live.
Things to check yourself:
1. Headjoint cork shrinkage:
Suction-test the headjoint to see if there's a leak in the crown end due to a shrunken or loose headjoint cork.
Method #1 Suction test (easiest): Wet the pad of one finger and use it to gently and completely cover the blowing hole, so that no air could escape. Use the fleshy pad of your fingerprint, and let the saliva make an air-tight seal. Create a vacuum with your mouth on the open tenon. Determine whether there is an air leak at the cork-end of the crown by listening, and feeling for vacuum pressure.
Additionally: Test to see if the suction "holds" for a few seconds after you've stopped creating it.
Method #2 Suction test (older method): Cover the open end of the headjoint with the heel of a licked palm, a rubber stopper or large cork to totally close the tenon, or connecting end of the headjoint. Next create a great deal of suction through the embouchure hole, and listen for hiss at the crown of the flute.
Additionally: Test to see if the suction "holds" for a few seconds after you've stopped creating it.
Alternately, your cork may be so shrunken from age and moisture (takes about 10 years, but this DOES happen) that you can slide it easily by using the cleaning rod or by unscrewing the crown several turns and pushing or pulling on it.
If this is the case, and your headjoint cork slides around easily, it should be replaced. A new cork is under $10 and a technician or repair-person can accomplish this in just a few minutes.
2. Pads leaking: Finger the keys as lightly as possible, and play each note chromatically down the flute, refusing to press the key any harder than you would a piece of delicate tissue paper (or butterfly's wings, if, for example, you were a butterfly vet.) With this type of very light fingering, the note should sound immediately, without adding any finger-pressure to the keys. If the note does note doesn't sound clear without pressure, then there is a pad leak.
Ask yourself: Without adding ANY finger pressure, does each note sound equally clear? If not you have a leak.
Those clever enough to find a long, thin light that can be gently inserted down the body of the flute can look for light-leaks in the pads like a real pro.
But the best bet is, when you're returning to the flute after many year's absence, or if you haven't had it serviced in the past year, or in at the last two years, take it in to the most reputable technician you can find.
3. Pad wear and tear:
Turn the flute over, and look carefully at the pads, looking for tears, dirt buildup, and surface wear.
Any pads that show shreds of tissue, or breaks in the surface will need to be replaced by a qualified technician.
To avoid pad wear:
- press very lightly on keys when playing
-never wrap your hands around keys when assembling flute
-avoid scuffing pad edges when buffing flute with a cloth
-swab out flute body moisture after every use
4. Footjoint keys out of adjustment:
The most common reason for having difficulty with playing low C on the flute is that the footjoint keys are no longer adjusted so that they're falling at the same split second. If you look closely, the C and C# keys are both supposed to go down when depressing only the C roller. There's an L-shaped elbow that connects them, and a tiny piece of L-shaped cork at this elbow that insures that the two round pads hit the holes at the same exact instant. If there has been rough handling of the footjoint, the C and C# will not land at the same exact instant.

To check for footjoint key problems:

Depress the C natural roller only, and watch closely to see if both the C and the C# keys land at the exact same time on their respective tone-holes.

You will probably be able to see, just with your eyes, whether or not they are acting identically.

If you suspect that the C# key is somehow bent, or not closing all the way when only the C roller is depressed, but are not sure, take a leaf of cigarette paper, with the glue strip cut away, and place it under the C# key while depressing the C roller.

If the cigarette paper can be pulled out from under the C# pad with little or no resistance while just the C roller is depressed, it could be that the footjoint's keys are out of adjustment. Both pads (C and C#) SHOULD both seal at the same rate.

This is an inexpensive repair. The technician will tweak the bent key, and/or add a shim or new piece of cork to the L-shaped joining-bar of the two keys.

To avoid footjoint key problems:

When assembling the flute, never grip the keys and rods of the footjoint, but only the very end of the joint, the smooth part, where there are no keys.

Hand pressure on the footjoint is the number one cause of low note pad leaks.

Also, when you're removing the flute pieces from the case, never pick the footjoint up by the keys or rods. Slide your finger under the end of the joint, where it is smooth.

5. Gunk buildup on the inside of the embouchure hole. Does your flute sound progressively more stuffy each year? Perhaps there's a gunk buildup inside the strike wall of the embouchure hole.

To remove gunk-buildup inside the chimney of the flute's headjoint, take a clean Q-tip and dip it in isopropyl alcohol (available at any drugstore, also cleans tape-recorder heads and removes adhesive residue...handy all around product).

Gently gently swab the inside of the chimney, and carefully remove any buildup.
Check the tone of the flute to see if it has improved.

To avoid gunk buildup:

-Clean the inside of the embouchure hole at least every few months if you've previously experienced a 'gunk build-up' problem, and remove lipstick or heavy makeup before playing.

6. Checking for general key adjustment problems:

"Adjustment" means that two keys are falling at the same time, or that a lever is operating a key at a distance accurately. If one or more keys is "out of adjustment" you will find that the note in question sounds stuffy, or has poor tone compared to its neighbouring notes.
You may also find that you need to apply alot of finger pressure to make the tone sound clear on a certain note.

So here are some adjustments that you can check yourself. (Very much like checking for pad leaks: Use a butterfly-touch when depressing keys).

Check keys by playing gently:

a) All the Bbs on your flute for tone quality.

Check: Thumb key Bb; RH index finger Bb; RH lever Bb (above F key) If these do not sound equally clear in tone, bring the flute
very close to your eyes and watch each series of keys and levers
as you finger these forms of Bb. When you observe that one of the
keys is not sealing all the way, take it to a repair person.
b) F# fingered with the RH ring finger.
When you depress the right hand ring finger the round, padded key
just above the F natural key (have a close look) should be going
down at the same time to cover the "real" F# tone hole with no
You can also place a gum-less piece of cigarette paper under this
"real" F# key, (above the F natural key)" &" and depress the RH ring
finger, checking that the paper is properly "gripped" by the real
F# key.
If it is easy to zip out from under, you need to have the
repairman take a look at it.
Additionally, you may want to check the adjustment of the RH
middle finger and how well it closes this "real" F# key.
c) Check the F natural keys the same way as you checked the F#.
Both keys should descend to cover at the exact same rate and
In general: You should never have to press down at all (!) on
your flute's keys in order to get pads to seal.
7. Other pad problems:
Pads can be worn, can shrink and dry out, and can swell and seal
unevenly. Only a good technician can spot these details, so if
you have not played the flute for years, or it's been longer than
2 yrs. since it was last serviced....make an appointment and take
it in.
Your flute playing will improve dramatically when the flute is
properly sealing and in good adjustment.
8. General things to avoid in order to preserve your flute in top condition:
-Rough handling during assembly. The safest method for assembly
and disassembly is to never grasp the keys or rods, but only the
smooth areas of the flute.
-Rough handling of the embouchure plate.
Gripping too hard, poking sharp objects at, or accidently banging
the headjoint against the music stand can dent or bend the
embouchure plate. Other dents can be taken out, but not the ones
that occur at the tone-hole of the flute. Be careful.
-Avoid cleaning between the keys with cloth or Q-tips.
Trying to get dirt or tarnish out from between the flute's keys
can knock springs out of place, or even break them.
Leave this detailed cleaning to your repair person who will
remove all the keys in order to clean tiny areas.
If you must remove dust from intricate areas, use compressed air,
or blow your own compressed air at them. :>)
-Avoid the use of silver polish.
Silver polish will travel farther than you can control, so do not
use it.
It is especially bad when it gets on the flute pads, and creates
sticky sounds that won't go away with time.
Again, if you wish to have a shiny instrument, leave that to the
- Avoid excessive use of pad-cleaning papers.
If you use cigarette or other papers to clean pads please avoid
holding the keys down and pulling the paper out from underneathe.
This activity damages the pad surfaces, eventually causing the
pads to rip.
The correct way to dry an overly wet pad is to lay a gum-less
paper on it, tap the key lightly, and remove the paper while the
pad is UP.
- Avoid extremes of temperature:
Don't leave your flute in the car where it can be subject to
extremely hot or cold temperatures which can damage the pads.
If your flute is very cold, and you start to practice and water
droplets are building up very quickly in the headjoint, you may
wish to swab it more frequently in order to keep pads from
getting over-saturated, and to avoid a "stuffy sound" in the
water-logged headjoint.
- Avoid dust, dirt and pet hair from entering your flute's
Pet hair, according to Cinncinati Fluteworks, is the most common
item found wrapped around the inside of the flute's moving parts.
If you have dogs or cats, keep the flute case closed whenever
you're not using it, and avoid placing your flute on a couch or
bed where pet hairs may cling.
In general, don't leave your flute out, but put it safely in its
case when not in use.
- Avoid laying the flute on a soft surface.
Apparently the flute's main tube, and rods (which hold the keys)
can warp over time, if the flute is continuously placed on a soft
surface like a bed or couch.
If you are not using your flute..put it in its case, and/or lay
it carefully on a table top or dresser for your 10 minute
practice breaks.
- Avoid laying the flute on its keys.
Water inside the flute can collect on the pads if the flute is
upside-down, and additionally, keys and rods can bend if the
flute's weight is on them.
Always lay your flute down (in your lap or on a table) with the
keys UP!!!!
- Avoid transferring sugar from your birthday cake to your
flute's pads:
If you're going to play Happy Birthday to yourself, brush your
teeth and wash your hands first!!! :>)
Hope all these ideas are of help to newbies coming back to the
flute, or young beginners who never knew about them.
Happy tootling,
Jen Cluff

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Copyright © 2006 Jennifer Cluff