Many people interested in bass flutes contact me and want to know how to find basses to try, what brands to try, how to test the flute to see if it will work for them, and what features to look for. I test low flutes at every National Flute Association convention and keep current on new brands and new developments related to bass. To share the information I have learned about playing bass flutes, I have put together a Bass Flute Basics series of ten videos on YouTube that you can refer to if you more questions than are answered in this article.
Where can I find a bass?
Because basses all have different key layouts and designs, it is important to try at least two different brands to find what is going to fit your hands the best. The best selection will be found at a large convention or festival where there will be several brands to try. There are such festivals in Australia, France, Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Mexico, Venezuela, China, Japan and England. The National Flute Association in the U.S. www.nfaonline.org organizes the largest convention: there are about 40 different basses available to try in the exhibit area. The next U.S. convention is in Las Vegas in August 2012. If you are looking for an instrument you plan on spending many hours with over many years, it is worth the investment of your time and money to travel to such an event to find the best one for you. The NFA has international flute organizations listed in the Resources section of their website and www.larrykrantz.com also has a listing of international flute organizations.
There are two large regional festivals in the U.S. where you will find a large variety of basses to try: Florida in January and Texas in May. These two events attract retailers from all over the country. Flute Fairs and Festivals sponsored by local flute clubs are also scheduled in almost every U. S. state. They attract local and out-of-state retailers who might have a bass to try. For a listing of flute associations and clubs, go to the National Flute Association website and look under Resources.
I have a list of stores on my website www.altoflute.net/html/articles.html that carry more than one brand of bass. If you live near one of these stores, plan an excursion to try basses.
Another option is to have instruments sent to you through the mail. Plan on having a security deposit equal to the value of the instrument being put on your credit card. It is difficult to compare instruments this way because usually you can only try one at a time. There is usually a trial period of five business days, and if you don’t purchase the instrument there can be a restocking fee and you pay for insurance and postage to return it.
What brands should I be looking for?
The complete list the brands I recommend is on my website www.altoflute.net. To get you started, three good entry-level brands are Di Zhao, Pearl, and Jupiter diMedici. Altus and Eva Kingma are for more serious players. The instruments I try at the convention are new and not all makers or flute retailers are at the convention, so I do not cover every make and model. There is a definite trend of more companies making basses, and new brands and models are appearing every year.
What features should I be looking for?
Make sure that your bass has trill keys. Trill keys are used for much more than trilling on the bass. They are used for alternate fingerings to help with the intonation of the third octave and for stabilizing certain common notes that crack easily. I have made a YouTube video www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqOZZzdfAUU that discusses this in more detail.
Many basses come with a left thumb crutch to help stabilize the instrument. Ask if more than one crutch can be sent along, as everyone’s hands are different sizes and shapes and you would like to pick the one that fits you best. There is a screw-type adjustment that will tighten around the metal peg to keep the crutch from falling out.
Some basses have a large bore option. This kind of bass will have a bigger, richer sound but it will be heavier and somewhat more difficult to balance because of the increased diameter of the tube. Decide what’s important to you.
Some basses have a low B key. Yes, you will be able to play one note lower, but the bass will be that much longer and heavier. You will play the low B less than you do on c flute, so decide how important this option is for you.
There are some vertical basses available. If you cannot hold up the flute for any reasonable length of time (see my YouTube video www.youtube.com/watch?v=yy-W6R7Xhjw for some solutions to this problem), you should consider the vertical bass. There are at least two companies that make them. You will find that the right wrist has an awkward twist and some makers have not completely solved how to support the bass on the floor. The Kingma vertical bass is the best currently available.
How to I test the bass?
Refer to my YouTube video www.youtube.com/watch?v=yy-W6R7Xhjw for help setting up the instrument properly.
When you get a bass in your hands, have a series of exercises and pieces in mind to play. Here are some suggestions of the kinds of things to try.
Play a one octave F major scale and observe how your fingers feel on the instrument. It is more challenging to get a sound out of a bass than and alto or a c flute, the embouchure is more relaxed. Are the fingers of your right hand hitting the trill keys? Is there too much stretch between some fingers? Is the A flat key in a good spot for you? How does the left thumb support feel in your hand? How much adjusting of your hand position does it take to balance the instrument? Can you balance the instrument?
Then try the E flat scale, then the D scale and then the C scale. How does the low register respond? If the low register is a struggle after several tries approaching the notes from above, this may not be the instrument for you. Relax your mouth and see if that helps. If the low register is weak, eliminate this instrument from consideration.
Next, try sliding between low E flat, D flat and C to see how well the foot joint keys are designed. Does your little finger get caught between the keys when you try to slide? Do the keys make too much noise when they close? How difficult are they to maneuver?
Play fast two octave arpeggios like D major, F major or F minor to see how agile the mechanism is. How much noise do the keys make? How easily do the notes speak when you do this? Can you get up and down the two octaves and find the top and bottom notes?
Play simple melodies you know by heart and see how well the sound flows from one note to the next. Are there funny gaps or hesitations?
Tongue a scale with short notes. Which notes respond well, which don’t? Try double-tonguing a mid-staff note: is it possible? Work your way lower and see if you can double-tongue all the way down to low C. Can you actually hear separate notes?
How loudly and softly can you get the instrument to play? Pick some easy notes like B flat just above the staff to test this. The bass should be able to play very softly with ease. Can you start softly on the mid-staff B flat, make a crescendo and slur down by half steps to F# and have a huge rich sound? What can you get the instrument to do in the low register?
Assess how your hands, arms and shoulders feel now that you have been playing the instrument for a while. Since the bass is larger, heavier and longer than c flute, it is probable that your hands and arms will be fatigued. This will probably lessen only slightly over time. The bass flute lap crutch which came out in spring 2011 has been of great help for arm fatigue, but can be hard to get a hold of due to its popularity.
People with right shoulder or upper back and neck problems need to find a way to help support the instrument to avoid pain and pinched nerves. If you are someone with these problems, consider playing a curved head alto.
As more basses are purchased, manufacturers have an incentive to invest money improving them and designing new models. I hope there will be more bass support devices in the future as this is a problem for most people. Kotato has a wonderful solution to this problem but they have a patent on their idea that includes a modification integrated into the body of the flute. I find most left hand crutches to be uncomfortable and wonder why some basses don’t need them and others do. Another area that needs improvement are foot joint keys that are difficult to maneuver. The pitch of the third octave will improve tremendously when manufactures learn to make a continuous taper through the curve of the head joint. I will continue looking for progress in these areas and will post updates on my website and on YouTube.