Do you see the larger flutes in flute choirs and want to try them? The smallest of those low flutes would be the alto flute, and it’s a great place to start.
Whether you’ve played the alto before or not, give it a shot. You may fall in love, in which case, you’ll need to know what the instrument is and how to play it.
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What Is the Alto Flute?
The alto flute is a member of the western concert flute family. It looks very similar to the C flute, but it’s slightly bigger and plays a fourth lower than the “regular” flute.
Some people say the alto flute plays the tenor role in a flute choir or ensemble. That’s partly true, but its range is closer to that of an alto voice or instrument. You can play solo or ensemble music on the alto flute, and it has a surprisingly large range.
If you like the flute, you may want to expand your skills. The alto flute is an especially good option if you don’t like the piccolo (PP link).
Alto Flute Materials
Like the concert flute, most alto flutes use some kind of metal. You can find more affordable silver-plated instruments that may have a solid silver lip plate and riser or headjoint.
More expensive alto flutes use more solid silver for the body and perhaps the keys. However, the more solid silver you add, the heavier the alto flute can be.
Silver isn’t the only common material for an alto flute. You can also find some altos that use nickel, brass, or a copper alloy. Some of these models are more affordable, and others are a bit expensive, depending on the material and construction.
Alto Flute vs. Flute
Before you start to play the alto flute, you should consider how it differs from the flute. The alto is longer and thicker, so it can play a fourth lower. Because of its larger size, an alto flute also feels heavier to play.
To help with the balance, some players use an alto flute with a curved headjoint. The curve brings the bulk of the instrument closer to you to lessen your reach.
Most adults and older kids don’t need to play on a curved headjoint on a C flute. It’s small enough that the keys are easy to reach, and balance isn’t a huge problem.
How to Play the Alto Flute
If you want to make the alto flute a part of your practice routine, you should consider how to play it. You can use a lot of the same techniques as on your regular flute.
However, the differences between the C flute and alto can make the lower flute harder. I got thrown into playing the alto flute in college, and I ended up not liking it.
Once I actually got to practice it and learn it on my terms, I started to enjoy it much more. Now, I love playing the alto flute.
Here are some of my tips to help you love to play the alto flute.
Start on the C Flute
First, you need to establish a good foundation of flute playing. The C flute is smaller and more affordable, so you can give it a try more easily. If you happen to not like it, you can quit without losing as much.
You’ll also find more resources for beginners on the C flute than the alto. Private teachers will also be more likely to work with you on the flute if you’ve never played it.
Once you get some experience playing the C flute, you can figure out if you want to add the alto flute to your routine. Playing the flute well will also help ease the switch back and forth between instruments.
Practice the Low Register
As you work on your C flute studies, pay special attention to your low register exercises. The alto can go almost as high as the C flute, but you’ll be playing in the low register more.
If you want to get a good head start on the alto, you should have a good low sound. Then, you can easily transfer everything from your embouchure to your airstream.
You can also work on how to keep from going flat when playing in the low register. When you play the alto flute, this is incredibly important. The more you practice the low notes now, the easier it will be to play and test alto flutes.
Get a Good Quality Alto Flute
Next, you should look for a good alto flute. It doesn’t have to be super expensive, but it should come from a reputable brand. You may even be able to get an alto from the company that made your C flute.
I bought my first alto before my current C flute. However, both are from the same brand, and that company just seems to work well for me.
But you don’t have to buy an alto from the same brand as your current flute. Try as many altos as you can to figure out which one works the best for you. More recently, I switched to an alto flute from a different brand.
Revisit Your Beginner Flute Books
Once you get an alto flute, look back at any beginner flute books you still have. You can start playing some basic exercises on the alto to learn how it sounds and feels.
Of course, you’ll be able to go through the exercises more quickly this time. However, a book has a good structure to help you build a foundation of good alto flute playing.
The beginner books usually have a small range, so you don’t have to worry about playing super high or low at first. Instead, you can take things as slow or as fast as you need, and you can work on your alto skills.
Use a Tuner
As you test alto flutes and practice the one you buy, use a tuner. The instrument can have some tuning issues in the extreme registers, and a tuner can help you account for those.
Then, you can practice what you need to do to correct the tuning. When you get to play alone or with others, you’ll know how you should play to stay in tune.
Remember that the alto flute is in G, so the note you see on a tuner will be a fourth lower than the written pitch you hear. If you don’t want to correct for this, Tunable lets you change the instrument to account for the transposition.
Learn Alternate Fingerings
As you work on the high register, you may find it can sound quite out of tune. You can learn some alternate fingerings to use when playing that high. Some alternate fingers you use on the C flute can work here.
However, you might want to experiment with different fingerings. Every model is a bit different, and the scale and design isn’t as standardized as it is on the C flute.
Working on alto flute fingerings can take time. Just get your tuner out and start with the standard flute fingerings and common alternates. Soon enough, you’ll find fingerings that work well for your instrument.
Stretch Your Muscles
Especially if you’ll be playing the alto flute for a while, you should stretch first. Stretch out your arms and roll your neck back and forth. That way, you can loosen your muscles and prepare to hold the instrument.
Stretches are particularly important if you buy a straight headjoint. It can be hard to reach the keys, even with long arms.
Of course, stretching before you play the flute is great, too. But with the larger instrument, it’s even more important to help reduce your risk of a performance injury.
Make It a Habit
Once you get an instrument, you should make practicing it a habit. You don’t need to practice for hours every day, but you should practice multiple times a week.
That way, you can maintain the skills you learned after each practice session. All you need is 10 or 20 minutes, and you don’t need to play anything super difficult.
Consider playing some scales or other exercises. You can even play something fun, like a Disney song or a pop tune. Then, you’ll look forward to practicing, even when you have a busy schedule.
Switch Between Flute and Alto Flute
In some cases, you may need to play the flute and alto flute on the same concert. To prepare for this, you should practice switching between the two instruments.
I like to switch back and forth every few minutes. For one, playing C flute gives my arms a bit of a break, so I can return to the alto flute with more endurance. Switching also helps keep things fresh and interesting when practicing.
You can also practice switching as an excuse to practice your C flute. When you first get an alto, you may want to only play that. But you should keep playing the C flute in case you ever need to perform on it.
If you haven’t taken flute lessons before, you may want to start. You can look for a teacher who plays the alto flute and can work on that instrument with you.
Then, you’ll learn about specific techniques you can use on the alto. Some things that work on the C flute may not transfer, and having a specialist helps you avoid those problems.
I’ve never taken alto flute lessons. However, my primary teachers have all played the alto flute, and they have helped me with certain tricky pieces in alto flute parts.
Take a Course
Another option is to look for an alto flute course that you can take online or in person. One example is Chris Potter’s Alto and Bass Flute Retreats.
You can also attend flute events, such as the National Flute Association (NFA) Convention. A lot of flute events have workshops and sessions for the alto flute. That way, you can meet other players and improve your skills.
Even when you develop your playing, it never hurts to learn more. That way, you can stay up to date with all of the alto flute repertoire and other changes.
Join a Flute Choir
One of my biggest tips to help you play the alto flute better is to join a flute choir near you. A lot of flute choirs need low flutes to balance all of the C flutes. Like a string orchestra, the ideal ratio is half C flutes and half low flutes (or half violins and half violas and low strings).
I’ve also found that playing the alto flute in flute choir can be fun. You get to play the lower harmonies, which the C flute rarely gets in an orchestra or band piece.
If the local flute choir is selective, playing alto may help you get in. Some groups may not have super strict requirements for low flutes if they need more players.
Don’t Give Up
If you want to play the alto flute well, it will take time to reach your goal. However, try not to let that get you down and make you want to quit.
You can practice a few minutes a day and slowly make progress. The important part is that you’re making consistent progress. Soon enough, you may find playing the alto flute comes naturally to you, just like playing the C flute.
As you start playing the alto flute, you may not want to play it in an ensemble. That’s okay, and you don’t need to do that before you’re ready. Either way, find what makes you happy so that you can look forward to playing.
Best Alto Flutes for Beginners
When you first start playing the alto flute, you shouldn’t invest a ton of money. You’ll need to pay a bit, unless you have access to one through a school or community group.
Think about your budget, and try to save up at least $2,000 for a basic instrument. That way, you can have at least a few options to compare and try.
Once you fall in love with playing lower flutes, you can upgrade to something more expensive. But you shouldn’t spend more than you have to when you first start playing.
Here are some good beginner options that I’ve tried or have heard played.
First, I have to share my first ever alto. I bought the Pearl 201S in early 2018 after saving up for a few months.
This model has a solid silver lip plate and riser, and the rest of the body is silver-plated. It also features an ergonomic left hand design, which makes playing much more comfortable.
The alto flute has a good sound, especially in the low register. However, it can be hard to keep from going flat when you play down low.
You can choose from a straight headjoint or a curved headjoint. If you can’t decide or want to share the alto with a group, you can get both headjoints.
- Easy to play
- Multiple headjoint options
- Nice sound
- Good materials
- Not the best intonation
- Thin sound in the high register
When I was in college, one of the school-owned altos was a Jupiter. I can’t be sure, but I believe it was the JFA1100, which is a beginner model.
It was pretty easy to play, and it uses silver plating for most of the headjoint and body. The alto I had access to came with both headjoints, and they were both easy to use.
I didn’t play this alto very much, but it offered a decent sound. It was easy to blend when playing in flute choir, which is great for students.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the ergonomic design, so the left hand keys are hard to reach. If you get a curved headjoint, that shouldn’t be an issue.
- Good sound
- Easy to blend
- Nice for students
- Works well
- No ergonomic left hand
- Not the best quality
Trevor James Alto Flute
More recently, I switched to playing a Trevor James alto flute. Specifically, I purchased the copper alloy model, but the company also makes nickel altos and standard silver-plated altos.
It was smooth to play up and down the registers. I was able to play on both a straight and a curved headjoint, and both felt nice and sounded good.
While I haven’t played the nickel or copper models, I’ve heard them, and they sound great. But don’t get caught up in the looks of those models.
Instead, try all three if you can to see if one works better for you. That way, you can purchase the best alto flute for you.
- Multiple headjoint styles
- Different materials
- Easy to play
- Good quality
- Suitable for casual players
- Not the most affordable
- I didn’t find the extra cost worth it
Gemeinhardt Alto Flute
The Gemeinhardt Alto Flute comes in nickel as well as silver, so it can look and sound a bit different. I haven’t personally played it, but my masters flute professor owns one.
She and some of my fellow flute students played it when I was in grad school. The model sounded pretty good, and I don’t remember it having a ton of issues.
If you like the look and sound of nickel, it’s a good option. You can use it if you have a sensitivity to silver, but of course, people with nickel allergies should avoid it.
As with any beginner model, give this model a try. Then, you can know for sure if it will work for you and your needs.
- Good value
- Multiple headjoints
- Different material
- Unique look and sound
- Nice for students
- Not for nickel allergies
- Somewhat expensive
Is the Alto Flute Easy to Play?
It can be easy to play if you practice it regularly and if you get the right model for you. If you hardly touch it, you may find it hard to hold for long periods.
I know when I take long breaks from it, my hands hurt after I play it again. But if you make it part of your daily routine, you may not have to worry about that.
Who Should Play the Alto Flute?
Any good flute player who wants to expand their skills should try the alto flute. Even if you find you don’t like it, you can at least say you gave it a chance.
But you may find you really love it, and you can focus more on the alto than other flutes. Then, you can make it your specialty to help get gigs.
Is a Straight or Curved Headjoint Better?
A straight headjoint is better for some players, especially those with long arms. If you like the balance of the C flute, a straight headjoint might be better for you.
However, people with short arms may want to get a curved headjoint. That way, you don’t have to reach as far to play the footjoint keys.
Will You Play the Alto Flute?
The alto flute is a fun instrument to play alone or with others. I first played it in college, and while I didn’t love it back then, I really like it now.
If you’ve had a similar experience, give this low flute a try. You may just need to get a different model that suits your playing and your body.