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Thread: Flutes: Open-hole versus Closed-hole

  1. #1
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    Default Flutes: Open-hole versus Closed-hole

    Another thread was recently "polluted" with questions about this issue, so I started this on-topic thread. This is a statement I recently put together covering my view on the topic.

    Many reasons are touted for having open holes, but for perhaps 95% of players they serve no purpose and have significant detractors. Some issues are:

    1. Intonation: A flute goes quite sharp when it is played loudly. This can be compensated for (for SOME notes) by partly closing a tone hole. This is possible only with open holes. Alternatively, the pitch can be humoured with special fingerings when playing very softly. However an accomplished player has sufficient versatility in embouchure and air pressure to correct the intonation by other means. Certain alternative fingerings are available to humour pitch with close-hole too.

    2. Intonation: Theoretically the notes which involve open holes are slightly better vented and are theoretically slightly sharper, so the flute maker allows for this in tone hole position or size. However many players on open-hole flutes plug the holes, theoretically putting the flute out of tune. In reality, the venting of holes on a flute is so good anyway, that this intonation effect is probably so small as to be negligible or non-existent.

    3. Comfort: Many players plug the holes. One type of plug projects and is uncomfortable, another tends to push through the hole, and both are capable of leaking.

    4. Hand position: Open hole encourages an UN-ergonomic position for wrist in order to reliably cover the G key. Some players want to believe so much that the open-hole system is better, that they convince themselves that the distorted wrist position is indeed more natural, but this fails the common sense test.

    5. Hand position: Some teachers claim that they cannot get pupils' fingers into 'good' positions without the aid of open holes. In answer to that I'd say that I have taught over 400 beginners on closed-hole flutes, and this has not been a problem.

    6. This so-called 'good' finger position has the balls of the fingers (under the nails) centred on the key cups. If the fingers are not perfectly centred on the keys - much frowned upon! - what is the big deal, really? Bagpipers and recorder players have no problems with fingers projecting well over the holes. And there are few keys on a saxophone where the fingers are central.

    7. Acoustic theory: "There should be as little interruption to the bore as possible." Open hole introduces a further step, up from the bore to the pad, and then up again to the finger.
    8. Acoustic theory: The bore should be of a hard material. The washers and screws of a closed-hole pad are far harder than the 'squishiness' of a chimney of air leading up to a soft finger.

    9. Servicing: If a pad needs to be taken out for shimming, it is far more likely to be distorted or damaged during removal if it is on an open-hole key, where there is a difficult-to-remove pad retaining grommet.

    10. Perhaps most important of all - Leaks! My finger skin is hard, but not very hard. Air leaks badly along my finger print grooves on open-holed keys. Try this test: Cork the lower end of the body of an open-hole flute. Close the keys with the fingers and 'squirt' a mouthful of air gently into the other end. An open-hole flute will leak unless the fingers are pressed quite hard - harder than a player should need to press. If the fingers are wetted before the test, then air can be heard bubbling out of the fingerprint grooves in the skin. This is not an issue of not covering the holes properly. It is a result of low finger pressure on a large area of skin, which simply is not flat, and therefore does not seal well.
    What on earth is the use of adjusting a flute to be leak-proof for good response, and then introducing finger leaks by having open holes!

    11. Finger Contortions. For people with a short right pinkie relative to the D finger, contortions are needed to play low C or low B without introducing a leak under at lest one of the three right hand open-holes. Again the flute is not ergonomic.

    12. Tone: It is claimed that the extra venting offered by open-holes improves the tone. Pause to think about this. Of the twelve notes in an octave, there are only five where open holes contribute to venting. Have you ever heard of a player saying how their Bb, A, F#, F, & E have a better tone than the other notes? An emphatic NO! Therefore the notion of better tone is bunkum!

    13. With open-holes, a wider range of unusual effects are available, such as warbling notes, 1/4 tones, slides from one note to another, two notes sounding at once, etc. Perhaps only 2% of players ever use these, especially after the experimental novelty wears off. There are plenty novelty effects available on a closed-hole flute for the one-time experimenters to play with.

    14. Open-hole flutes usually cost slightly more. So it is my guess that when buying a flute, the typical player, encouraged by a teacher, assumes that because the flute costs more it must be better. They can stretch their budget that little extra so open hole is what they buy. Or it could be simply that the cheapest student flutes are not offered in open-hole versions, so it is assumed that open-hole is superior.

    So in spite of having played an open-hole professional flute for a decade, I changed back to the more desirable closed-hole flute to avoid all these problems. Choosing open holes seems to be largely a 'fashion', or prestige-driven thing, nurtured by teachers and marketers who have not really thought much about it, and supported by manufacturers who oblige the market.

    The inclination towards open holes is much stronger in some countries than others; America seems to have rather unquestioningly adopted the idea from the French. My own country seems recently to be following suit. There are many superb players in the world who do indeed play on closed-hole flutes.

    There is a common notion that manufacturers do not offer closed holes in their top models. This is far from the truth. The truth is that many market outlets have never offered the closed-hole options that the manufacturers offer. Perhaps it is simply so they can carry a smaller range of models in stock.
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    The original enquirer, CityStone, specifically asked about 'shading' notes. The example given was on a bamboo flute, sliding smoothly in pitch between G & A. (The player had not played a Boehm keyed flute)

    Perhaps some elaboration is needed here.

    Even with open holes, this can be done only to a very limited degree on a Western style Boehm-system flute. Firstly, there are only 5 notes out of the 12 in a scale, that hkave the use of open holes for shaduing, and that shading can normally cover only part of a semitone interval. For example sliding the finger across the G key to open the hole, will take the pitch only part way up to A. Then there has to be a sudden leap in pitch the rest of the way as the key is lifted. The player can probably do more note bending by embouchure changes (just as possible on a closed hole flute) than he can with the open holes. The combination of both adds to the possible bending. However this will still be nowhere near as versatile as the shading possible on a keyless flute. The Boehm flute just was not really designed for the style of playing where shading is an important feature.
    Contentment is not the fulfilment of what you want, but the realisation of how much you already have.

  3. #3

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    Thank you for your insightful comments Gordon.

    Its unfortunate that I am (in the near future at least) unable to get acquainted with an open hole flute to compare for myself the advantages and disadvantages of open/closed holes.....

    I would bear your points in mind though when I decide to get a better flute next time

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    I have an open hole flute with an inline G. I keep the G hole closed otherwise I couldn't play it. I've often wondered if it really mattered if the holes were open or closed

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    My post in the old crashed forum on this subject probably bears repeating:

    Open holes.

    I am a well-established woodwind repair specialist, and a reasonably accomplished flute player. I offer the following thoughts on the issue of open-hole versus closed-hole flutes....

    Many reasons are touted for having them but for perhaps 95% of players they serve no purpose and have significant detractors. Some issues are:

    1. Intonation: A flute goes quite sharp when it is played loudly. This can be compensated for (for SOME notes) by partly closing a tone hole. This is possible only with open holes. Alternatively, the pitch can be humoured with special fingerings when playing very softly. However an accomplished player has sufficient versatility in embouchure and air pressure to correct the intonation by other means. Certain alternative fingerings are available to humour pitch with close-hole too.

    2. Intonation: Theoretically the notes which involve open holes are slightly better vented and are theoretically slightly sharper, so the flute maker allows for this in tone hole position or size. However many players on open-hole flutes plug the holes, theoretically putting the flute out of tune. In reality, the venting of holes on a flute is so good anyway, that this intonation effect is probably so small as to be negligible or non-existent.

    3. Comfort: Many players plug the holes. One type of plug projects and is uncomfortable, another tends to push through the hole, and both are capable of leaking.

    4. Hand position: Open hole encourages an UN-ergonomic position for wrist in order to reliably cover the G key. Some players want to believe so much that the open-hole system is better, that they convince themselves that the distorted wrist position is indeed more natural, but this fails the common sense test.

    5. Hand position: Some teachers claim that they cannot get pupils' fingers into 'good' positions without the aid of open holes. In answer to that I'd say that I have taught over 400 beginners on closed-hole flutes, and this has not been a problem.

    This so-called 'good' finger position has the balls of the fingers (under the nails) centred on the key cups. If the fingers are not perfectly centred on the keys (much frowned upon!) what is the big deal, really? Bagpipers and recorder players have no problems with fingers projecting well over the holes. And there are few keys on a saxophone where the fingers are central.

    7. Acoustic theory: "There should be as little interruption to the bore as possible." Open hole introduces a further step, up from the bore to the pad, and then up again to the finger.

    8. Acoustic theory: The bore should be of a hard material. The washers and screws of a closed-hole pad are far harder than the 'squishiness' of a chimney of air leading up to a soft finger.

    9. Servicing: If a pad needs to be taken out for shimming, it is far more likely to be distorted or damaged during removal if it is on an open-hole key, where there is a difficult-to-remove pad retaining grommet.

    10. Perhaps most important of all - Leaks! My finger skin is hard, but not very hard. Air leaks badly along my finger print grooves on open-holed keys. Try this test: Cork the lower end of the body of an open-hole flute. Close the keys with the fingers and 'squirt' a mouthful of air gently into the other end. An open-hole flute will leak unless the fingers are pressed quite hard - harder than a player should need to press. If the fingers are wetted before the test, then air can be heard bubbling out of the fingerprint grooves in the skin. This is not an issue of not covering the holes properly. It is a result of low finger pressure on a large area of skin, which simply is not flat, and therefore does not seal well.

    What on earth is the use of adjusting a flute to be leak-proof for good response, and then introducing finger leaks by having open holes!

    11. Finger Contortions. For people with a short right pinkie relative to the D finger, contortions are needed to play low C or low B without introducing a leak under at lest one of the three right hand open-holes. Again the flute is not ergonomic.

    12. Tone: It is claimed that the extra venting offered by open-holes improves the tone. Pause to think about this. Of the twelve notes in an octave, there are only five where open holes contribute to venting. Have you ever heard of a player saying how their Bb, A, F#, F, & E have a better tone than the other notes? An emphatic NO! Therefore the notion of better tone is bunkum!

    13. With open-holes, a wider range of unusual effects are available, such as warbling notes, 1/4 tones, slides from one note to another, two notes sounding at once, etc. Perhaps only 2% of players ever use these, especially after the experimental novelty wears off. There are plenty novelty effects available on a closed-hole flute for the one-time experimenters to play with.

    14. Open-hole flutes usually cost slightly more. So it is my guess that when buying a flute, the typical player, encouraged by a teacher, assumes that because the flute costs more it must be better. They can stretch their budget that little extra so open hole is what they buy. Or it could be simply that the cheapest student flutes are not offered in open-hole versions, so it is assumed that open-hole is superior.

    So in spite of having played an open-hole professional flute for a decade, I changed back to the more desirable closed-hole flute to avoid all these problems. Choosing open holes seems to be largely a 'fashion', or prestige-driven thing, nurtured by teachers and marketers who have not really thought much about it, and supported by manufacturers who oblige the market.

    The inclination towards open holes is much stronger in some countries than others; America seems to have rather unquestioningly adopted the idea from the French. There are many superb players in the world who do indeed play on closed-hole flutes.

    There is a common notion that manufacturers do not offer closed holes in their top models. This is far from the truth. The truth is that many market outlets have never offered the closed-hole options that the manufacturers offer. Perhaps it is simply so they can carry a smaller range of models in stock.
    Contentment is not the fulfilment of what you want, but the realisation of how much you already have.

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    Distinguished SOTW Member michaelbaird's Avatar
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    Why then are open hole flutes considered to be the standard? I would rather play a closed hole flute.

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    For the same reason as people do other silly things, such as wear high healed shoes. Unquestioning, blind following of fashion. I don't think open holes were the norm in my country before what I see as American influence on a new generation of young players, who now often seem to lead their pupils to unquestioningly do the same.

    Perhaps it is partly because in a catalogue, open holes may cost slightly more, and that slightly is something the buyer can afford, and the buyer makes an assumption that because it is more expensive it is better.

    But I think it has a lot to do with stockists not wanting to carry double the stock to cover both. So once momentum gathers from the original "butterfly effect", the stockists perpetuate it.
    Contentment is not the fulfilment of what you want, but the realisation of how much you already have.

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    I personally like high healed shoes but I'm a male nurse and can't wear them... people will talk :P

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    So!
    Contentment is not the fulfilment of what you want, but the realisation of how much you already have.

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    I have an open hole Armstrong (it was a surpirse gift, so I have no choice over what I want).

    Anyway, I have been playing this flute with the holes plugged. But out of curiosity, I took out the plugs and tried playing it. To my surprise, I couldn't even produce a single note. I thought I might not have closed the holes properly with my fingers but I tried to deliberately close it tightly and still produced no sound. Things were back to normal when I re-plugged the holes though.

    Could this be due to myself or the instrument?

    I never favored open hole flutes anyway....should I get a new closed one instead?

    I need a flute that is easy to play and has a nice rich tone...and is not too expensive.

    Any comments on a Yamaha 300 series? A flutist once recommended this to me.

    Thanks in advance

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    YFL-311 (S II) is my top recommendation here (NZ) for players who want a better than basic student model. I reckon they play better than a 50 year old, overhauled Haynes.

    But USA seems to set up Yamahas differently to how Japan does. So don't go by what I say, unless you get a Japanese-set-up one.

    YFL-311 has silver head, split E, off-set G, closed tone holes.
    Common here, but I don't think I have even seen one in a USA catalogue.
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    I prefer the open hole flutes over closed, it is simply down to a feel thing, the instrument feels more alive in my hands with open holes than with closed holes. I don't equate any difference between playing open holes on flute to playing clarinet, you just cover the holes and deal with it. It actually promotes good finger technique to have open holes, this will increase speed of execution of many phrases. You can slide notes more effectively too.

    I see no difference between flute with open holes over Bassoon either, just cover the holes. The overall fingering on a Bassoon is much more challenging than on Flute, no one says anything about making a covered hole bassoon.

    Gordon has some great points but due entirely to the feel of an open hole flute, under the hands, I think you will find that others wont change. I know I wont, the feel is integral to getting the sound and the most out of an instrument.

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    I prefer open hole flutes also. I have developed fingerings covering part of holes for effects which have become part of my expression.

    I think many people (more than 2%), actually use this technique. That is including people who play 20th Century music where these effects can only be possible on an open hole flute.

    There is also Steve Kujala's influence in jazz flute playing. He regularly slides in and out of notes using partial covering. I hear many people around my area starting to use this expressive tool.

    If you only have a closed hole flute, you will never be open to these experiences.

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    But why is it so difficult for me to get a note on the open-hole flute?

    This Armstrong flute is ok when I plugged the holes but not a single note is produced when I removed the plugs. I had deliberately closed the holes tight with my fingers can can't even produce an A or G note.

    Can anyone explain why?

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    You must surely be able to play first finger C, and the adjacent C#, B, Bb.

    Either you are not covering some holes completely, or the air is leaking severely along your finger print grooves, or you are lighlty touching trill keys with the sides of your fat fingers in their slighlty modified locations or angles.

    Try doing it after a good hand soak in the dish water or shower, or actually wet the fingers, to seal better.
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    tubbycub, This problem is very common for those who are new to open holes. Try just taking one plug at a time, starting on the D hole-on up, so you can pay close attention to that one open hole. After you get used to that, move on to the next hole. I promise you, it will come.

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    Thanks to Gordon and Ivy for your valuable advice

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    "
    10. Perhaps most important of all - Leaks! My finger skin is hard, but not very hard. Air leaks badly along my finger print grooves on open-holed keys. Try this test: Cork the lower end of the body of an open-hole flute. Close the keys with the fingers and 'squirt' a mouthful of air gently into the other end. An open-hole flute will leak unless the fingers are pressed quite hard - harder than a player should need to press. If the fingers are wetted before the test, then air can be heard bubbling out of the fingerprint grooves in the skin. This is not an issue of not covering the holes properly. It is a result of low finger pressure on a large area of skin, which simply is not flat, and therefore does not seal well.

    What on earth is the use of adjusting a flute to be leak-proof for good response, and then introducing finger leaks by having open holes

    Are you saying then that instruments like Oboes, Clarinets, Bassoons, and other instruments that require your finger to cover the tone hole are by design inferior because they will definately have leaks as you have described? According to what you have stated, it is amazing someone could even get a low E out of a clarinet with 7 leaky keys above it!

    I don't mean to pick a fight, but it doesn't make much sense to me.

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    Quote Originally Posted by saxomophone
    "
    10. Perhaps most important of all - Leaks! My finger skin is hard, but not very hard. Air leaks badly along my finger print grooves on open-holed keys. Try this test: Cork the lower end of the body of an open-hole flute. Close the keys with the fingers and 'squirt' a mouthful of air gently into the other end. An open-hole flute will leak unless the fingers are pressed quite hard - harder than a player should need to press. If the fingers are wetted before the test, then air can be heard bubbling out of the fingerprint grooves in the skin. This is not an issue of not covering the holes properly. It is a result of low finger pressure on a large area of skin, which simply is not flat, and therefore does not seal well.

    What on earth is the use of adjusting a flute to be leak-proof for good response, and then introducing finger leaks by having open holes

    Are you saying then that instruments like Oboes, Clarinets, Bassoons, and other instruments that require your finger to cover the tone hole are by design inferior because they will definately have leaks as you have described? According to what you have stated, it is amazing someone could even get a low E out of a clarinet with 7 leaky keys above it!

    I don't mean to pick a fight, but it doesn't make much sense to me.
    I'd say it makes sense that finger tissue may not be as good at making a seal as a traditional pad and cup. If that is the case, then yes, logically the open holes in those isntruments have a measurable drawback to them, but what woodwind doesn't have bad points?

  20. #20
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    I agree with the above, especially for the large, flat, open keys on some oboes. They DO easily leak along the finger prints. I had an oboe customer who complained vehemently that I had not eliminated the leaks, until I got him to do a 'bubble test' with wet fingers, locating his skin as the problem!

    However for ring keys as on clarinet, there are other factors involved:

    On an open hole flute key, because of the relatively flat design, the finger contacts a large surface of metal, compared with the timber tone hole edge within a clarinet ring key. For a given force exerted on the key by a finger, the less surface area the finger is contacting, the more pressure on the skin involved, and hence the greater likelihood of sealing.

    The fingers would seal a lot better on flute keys if the keys had a slightly raised ridge around the open hole.
    Contentment is not the fulfilment of what you want, but the realisation of how much you already have.

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