The alto flute can be an amazing instrument to play, from its haunting sound to its role as a middle voice in a flute choir. But if you choose an alto flute with the wrong headjoint style, it can lead to pain and discomfort!
For a while, I thought I couldn’t play the alto flute since my right thumb would hurt after trying to hold an alto with a curved headjoint. But once I tried one with a straight headjoint, I found it much more comfortable.
So, before you embark on an alto flute trial or purchase, consider a few things to help you choose the right headjoint style for your needs.
Benefits of a Straight Headjoint
Tuning and Intonation
One of the biggest ways in which the straight alto flute headjoint is better is when it comes to tuning and intonation. Flutes, including alto flutes, have the slightest taper in the headjoint. The taper is particularly important when playing in the third octave.
That continuous taper is impossible to achieve on a curved headjoint. Since the straight alto flute headjoint works similarly to that of a C flute, this isn’t as big of an issue.
Playing on a curved headjoint may require more alternate fingerings to play in tune, particularly in the third octave due to the taper.
Similar Balance to the C Flute
The alto flute is about eight inches longer than the C flute, and the diameter is one inch compared to the C flute’s .75 inches. Despite the difference in size, balancing an alto flute with a straight headjoint is comparable to that of a C flute.
You use the same three main balance points: your lower lip/chin, your left index finger, and your right thumb. This can make it easier to transition between instruments.
More Models Available
Most entry-level alto flutes come with a straight headjoint, curved headjoint, or both.
However, some handmade alto flutes only come with a straight headjoint, namely those from Miyazawa, or select Jupiter alto flutes. Other Jupiter alto flutes come with both headjoints, but do not offer an option with only the curved headjoint.
With most brands of alto flutes, you can choose either headjoint to your preference. However, you’ll almost always find the price of an alto flute with only a straight headjoint is more affordable than the same model with only a curved headjoint.
The Pearl 201 alto flute is the primary exception to this rule, where either headjoint option costs the same. Of course, the cost to purchase both headjoints together is higher.
Benefits of a Curved Headjoint
Suitable for Smaller Players
Younger players should stick with the C flute. However, some adults and teens have shorter arms or smaller hands. Don’t let that keep you from exploring the world of low flutes!
A curved headjoint can make it much easier to play the alto flute if you have shorter arms and fingers. It brings the instrument closer to you, so it can feel more comfortable.
Note: Your overall height doesn’t matter as much. I’m 5’ 2”, and I have long arms so I feel better playing a straight headjoint. In the same vein, I know a few taller people who prefer a curved headjoint.
Shorter Arm Reach
Even if you have long arms, it can hurt to stretch long enough to reach the right hand keys on an alto flute with a straight headjoint.
If you want to play in the orchestra for a musical or opera, a curved headjoint will take up less space. That can be especially useful in the cramped environment of an orchestra pit.
Also, while many alto flutes shift the position of the left hand higher up the tube, not all do. Models like the Jupiter alto flute and some Altus alto flutes place the left hand farther down, meaning it can also be difficult to reach.
Another thing to keep in mind when you’re deciding between alto flute headjoints is how long you expect to play at a time. I’ve played in flute choirs with rehearsals spanning one and a half to two and a half hours.
Yes, you get small breaks in there. However, it can still wear down your arms to hold up an alto flute for that long.
The curved headjoint can be easier to handle for long rehearsals and performances. Alternatively, you can use a performance aid to help hold up the alto flute.
Trying Both Styles
Before you decide which headjoint style suits you better, give both a try. You may be surprised by which headjoint you prefer.
For example, I thought the curved headjoint would be better for me. That’s the setup everyone used in flute choir when I was in college.
But once I tried a few alto flutes with straight headjoints, I realized that option was more my style.
Using Both Styles
Can’t decide which headjoint style is right for you? Consider buying an alto flute with both headjoints. For one, you’ll have more time to experiment with each headjoint.
You may also want to consider resale value and the ease of reselling an alto flute. Like a C flute, you may want to upgrade as your alto flute skills improve or you get more serious about the instrument.
If you have an alto flute with both headjoints, you’ll have a larger market of interested buyers. You won’t have to find a buyer who wants a specific headjoint. And yes, both headjoints cost more upfront, but the resale value will also be higher.
Buying an alto flute with both headjoints is also a smart choice if you’re a teacher. You can get an alto flute for use in your studio ensembles, and having both headjoints means more of your students can play the instrument.
Finally, some people say it’s a good idea to practice on the curved headjoint due to the ergonomics. You can then switch to the straight headjoint to perform with better intonation.
I understand where that argument comes from, but the differences in intonation are significant enough that you really should practice on the headjoint you perform on.
That way, you can get used to any alternate fingerings you have to use and embouchure changes you have to make.
What’s Right For You?
There are pros and cons to both curved and straight headjoints for the alto flute. Neither headjoint style is right for everyone. Whether you’re looking for your first alto flute or an upgrade, compare both headjoints to decide which will better suit your needs.
And don’t be afraid to schedule an alto flute trial to ensure you choose the model that’s right for you!
About the Author, Hannah Haefele:
An active freelance remote recording artist and alto flute player, Hannah has worked with clients from the United States to Sweden. She currently runs her blog at hannahbflute.com about all things flute. Originally from Kansas City, Hannah Haefele earned her bachelor of music in performance with a minor in Spanish from Emporia State University (KS) in 2017. Hannah continued her musical education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, earning a master of music in performance in 2020.