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Chinese alto flute

Chinese alto fluteOrigin: China
Guide price: £600 upwards
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: 2008
Date reviewed: March 2008

An amazingly cheap alto flute that's actually up to the mark

The alto flute has always struck me as a rather impressive instrument visually. It could be said that most bass harmony instruments have such an effect, but for some reason the larger flutes seem to have a touch of the 'awesome' about them.
I think, in part, this is down to their rarity. Baritone saxes are pretty common, tubas are ten-a-penny (not literally, unfortunately) and even most half-decent schools can field a bass clarinet or two these days.
So why are the bass harmony flutes any different?
A very great deal has to be down to the need for precision and the corresponding cost - coupled with relative paucity of dedicated music for the instrument. Flutes are perhaps among the most finicky of instruments, and whereas as baritone sax that has been carelessly thrown together will still perform (up to a point), a similarly built alto or bass flute simply won't blow at all. Thus it's always been necessary to shell out considerable sums of money if you wanted one that had more than half a chance of working.
Until now, of course.

It must be said, cheap alto flutes have a truly dreadful history. For many years the only option on the market was the notorious Chinese Parrot model, the mere mention alone being sufficient to make me wince.
Make no mistake, these things were awful - the build quality was dismal and the keywork so soft that you could bend it just by looking at it. If you could reach a low D on a Parrot alto flute you were doing very well indeed - and if you could get it in tune you deserved a medal.
Repairing one was a Sisyphean task - utterly and completely pointless, and these things must have driven many a conscientious repairer to take the mallet to them...which, strangely enough, more often than not actually made the damn things work.
The simple reason these things existed at all was the price. If you wanted an alto flute of even reasonable quality you were looking at the prospect of spending many thousands of pounds - which is a hell of a lot of money if all you needed one for was to play 12 bars of incidental music during the course of a gig.
And it has to be said, that's pretty much been the lot of the alto flute in the past. For the average jobbing musician an alto flute gig was likely to be soundtrack work for horror movies or anything featuring Henri Mancini.

Things changed a few years ago when the first of the new generation of Chinese alto flutes arrived, and even though these early examples weren't particularly well-built they were already streets ahead of the Parrots. Two or three years later and the quality has risen to the point where these instruments are no longer 'just adequate' but thoroughly usable.

The build quality is surprisingly good; tidy pillars and fittings, neat solderwork and (most importantly) level toneholes. The pillars themselves are fitted to straps, which although adds to the weight of the instrument as a whole is a bonus in terms of strength - and is probably quite a wise move in terms of the target market (students) and the fact that a flute of this size is likely to cop a few knocks in its lifetime.
The tenon sleeves are properly finished, which ensures both the head and the foot joint can be fitted with ease and yet remain in position.
This build quality is echoed in the keywork, with neatly assembled keys that are both strong and accurately mounted on their rod and point screws.
The point screws are of the cylindrical type, so there's no scope for adjustment when the keywork wears - but as there's really only one critical point screw on a flute (in the bottom pillar of the right hand key stack), and it's easy enough to swap out for a proper point screw, I shan't complain too much.
The action is powered by 'stainless' springs. They don't look as good as those seen on branded flutes (Yamaha etc.) but they seem to work well - and in fact the action on this example was quite well balanced. I felt it benefited from a few minor tweaks, but many a player would be more than happy with the feel straight out of the box.
The main stacks feature adjusters, which are always a boon for repairers or knowledgeable player who like to carry out their own minor adjustments.

Compared to a standard flute the alto feels positively huge in the hands. The whole thing is half as long again as a standard flute and of considerably larger diameter (standard flutes are pitched in C, the alto is pitched in G) - so it's quite a handful even for the average adult. Handling is made a little easier by the use of an extended touchpiece for the upper C key and key pearls on the stack cups.
It takes some little while to get used to the action, and if you're a flute player already you'll probably find yourself tripping up for the first hour or so. After that things seem to get easier and it's surprising how quickly your fingering technique will adapt - though it will take rather longer to become accustomed to the comparatively larger stretch between the thumb and the forefinger of the left hand (because of the diameter of the tubing). If you're a sax or clarinet player you'll probably find the instrument a little easier to handle initially.
Most of these flutes come with a straight and a curved head joint. I can see how the curved head will make the instrument more accessible to smaller player, but I've always found it a bit tricky with regard to the angle of the left arm.

As for blowing, well, it's breathtaking.
I should clarify. I don't mean that in a quality sense (let's have some restraint here), rather inasmuch as the alto flute requires a bit more volume of air than the standard flute. That shouldn't be a problem, but there's also the issue of tone production - and in the early stages, when you're figuring out just how to make the thing play, it can leave you a little puffed out.
It doesn't take long to 'find the tone' though, and once you do you'll find it a lot easier to play this flute.

Tonewise I was most impressed. I think I was half expecting a fairly breathy and indistinct tone, but this flute is really rather deft in the lower octave. There's a nice 'bounce' or resonance to the lower notes - you feel like you can really get your teeth into them. It's quite addictive too - the more you work at the lower notes, the crisper they become, and the more the flute seems to reverberate. It's almost an holistic experience, on a par with, say, mediaeval chanting or new-age warbling (whatever that might be). After half an hour or so I began to wonder if there were any whales in the neighbourhood that needed saving.
The top end took longer to find, it's less distinct than the lower end and requires a little more concentration and precision to bring it out. That said, I didn't have any problem actually pitching the notes and once I'd stopped revelling in playing the low notes and begun to rein in my embouchure (i.e. practice my intervals) I found the upper notes came up nice and crisp - or at least as crisp as is possible on an alto flute.
There's no doubt that this flute doesn't have the depth and precision of tone of a professional flute - that kind of tone costs a serious amount of money - but it has more than enough for the average player, and at a fraction of the price.
I was left with the impression that there was more to be got out of this flute, and that to me is very encouraging indeed. Patience and practice will pay dividends.

I mentioned the accuracy of the keywork. This is an important consideration for flutes - even the slightest bit of play in the keywork can result in a leak, and even a small leak on a flute can have a drastic effect on the performance. Earlier Chinese alto flutes suffered from inaccurate key barrels and poorly drilled pillars, and this inevitably led to issues with the lower notes.
It has to be said, there are still some examples out there being built to this standard - and this puts the onus on the buyer to make the appropriate checks before, or as soon as possible after, buying (check out the article on testing the action for details).
Perhaps the biggest problem is figuring out whether the alto flute you've got your eye on is one like this one, or one of the less well made specimens. At the moment I can't really offer any practical advice other than to be aware that if you see one of these for very much less than around £600 there's a chance it's one of the poorer examples.
What this particular alto flute represents is the capability of the genre - a working, usable instrument at a very decent price indeed.

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