Whether you’ve played the flute for a few years or longer, you may be ready to learn how to play the alto flute.
The alto flute is a bit lower than the concert flute, so it sounds gorgeous in its low register. But a lot goes into learning this instrument.
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What Is the Alto Flute?
The alto flute is a member of the western concert flute family. It’s in the key of G, so it sounds a perfect fourth lower than written. That makes the instrument a bit bigger than your standard concert C flute.
Alto flutes are longer, and the tubing has a bigger diameter. While the written range is the same, alto flutes go down to the G below middle C. A few models can even go to an F# (or a written low B).
The alto flute is my personal favorite member of the flute family. It’s really fun to play, but it’s not for everyone. If you want to give it a try, do it!
How to Play the Alto Flute
Once you’ve mastered the basics of the C flute, you may want to explore other flutes. A lot of people will learn the piccolo, which I recommend. But you can also learn low flutes, such as the alto.
If you want to try the alto flute, here are some steps.
Get the Right Model
One of the biggest things that can affect how to play the alto flute is the model you choose. When it comes to C flute, most models feel very similar, and any differences in the feel of the keys are almost unnoticeable.
However, that’s not the case with alto flutes. For example, the right hand key layout on my Trevor James alto is a lot different from my Pearl. As I trialed the Trevor James, I had to figure out that new layout before buying it.
A lot of alto flutes have an ergonomic left hand as well, which makes those keys easier to reach. But some models, usually older altos, won’t have this feature.
You also want to determine if the headjoint cut is right for you or if the shape doesn’t give you the sound you want. Every player is a bit different, and we all have unique anatomy and preferences, so the right model can make a huge difference.
Once you get your hands on an alto flute, it’s time to start to play. Luckily, you don’t have to learn any new fingerings. The instrument may be in a different key, but all of the written notes are the same as on your regular flute.
However, the alto flute is a bit larger. That means you need to relax your embouchure a bit more than you normally would. I haven’t had a problem with this because my aperture hole is already a bit larger than average.
But you’ll also need to use a lot more air to get a sound through the instrument. This can be hard at first, so keep working at it until you feel comfortable playing the alto.
Start in the Middle
As you play your first notes on the alto flute, stick to notes in the middle of the staff, like B, A, and G. If you try to play a low C, it can be hard to get a sound out due to how long the tube is.
Treat yourself like a beginner and work on those more open notes for a while. After a few exercises, you can start to move down the scale and back up and into the second octave.
Like you would on the C flute, work on getting a clear tone on your alto. Slowly work your way up and down the scale. Then, you can start to play some of your favorite pieces on your lower flute.
Think in G
One thing that can take you by surprise, especially if you have perfect pitch, is that the alto flute isn’t a concert pitch instrument. If you finger and play an A, it will sound like a concert E.
This is rarely a problem because composers transpose alto flute parts for you. But it can be a shock when you play with a tuner or when you tune in a flute choir or with your electronic tuner.
If you learn music by ear, you also want to keep the transposition in mind. I like to learn a lot of pop music by ear on my alto. So if I want to play the same melody on my C flute, I’d have to play everything down a perfect fourth.
Play Your Flute Music
The alto flute has a small yet growing repertoire of its own. However, if you just spent thousands of dollars on an instrument, you may not be ready to invest in more sheet music.
Luckily, a lot of C flute music transfers well to the alto, especially unaccompanied works. You can use the sheet music you already have to play around with the whole range of the instrument.
I especially love playing solos like Syrinx on the alto flute. Similar music sounds very haunting when it’s a fourth lower. But of course, you can also transpose the music so that it sounds in the original key.
Consider Taking Lessons
One way to fast-track learning how to play the alto flute is to work with a private teacher or coach. You may be able to work with your current flute teacher if they play the alto flute.
If not, a great option is to work with a second teacher who does offer alto flute lessons. Then, you can get feedback on your playing to make sure you’re holding the alto flute and that you aren’t setting yourself up for injuries.
I offer asynchronous lessons on the alto flute as well as the flute and piccolo. So if you want help with your low flute skills, I can review your recording and share personalized tips.
How to Choose an Alto Flute
Learning how to play the alto flute is great, and it can be very fun. But as I mentioned, getting the right flute is vital to your success. Here are my best tips for choosing an alto flute.
Set a Realistic Budget
Alto flutes start at about $1,500 when you buy them new. At the top of the end, you can spend over $40,000 on an alto flute. Used models may cost a bit less, but they can still be an investment.
Because of this price range, you’ll want to set a budget. If you’re buying your first alto flute, $2,000 to $3,000 is plenty. But when you’re upgrading, you may want to spend a bit more to open up your options.
Just like when trying C flutes, stick to alto flute models you can afford. That way, if you find one you love, you can get it and not worry about the price.
If money is a bit of a concern, ask the store you’re buying from if they offer financing. I financed my first alto flute, and it was a great way to get an instrument without draining my bank account.
Try Straight and Curved Headjoints
You can choose an alto flute with a straight headjoint, which looks very similar to a C flute. However, due to the size, curved headjoints are also common to make the right hand keys easier to reach.
As of this writing, I personally prefer the straight headjoint. Despite being quite short, I have relatively long arms, so the reach isn’t a problem for me. But you may have a different experience.
Be sure to try alto flutes with straight and curved headjoints. Go with whichever headjoint feels more comfortable to you. I’ll share more details on headjoints later in this article.
Another thing to keep in mind is what metal you want to go with. Silver-plated alto flutes are quite popular, especially for beginners. They’re the most affordable, and they aren’t as heavy as solid silver.
Of course, you can get a solid silver alto flute. These models start at around $3,500, $2,000 more than silver-plated instruments. And like flutes, you can get an alto with a solid silver headjoint and a plated body.
The next most common metal is black nickel. Gemeinhardt has the Ali Ryerson model in this material. Trevor James also has some black nickel altos, though it appears they’ve been discontinued.
Speaking of Trevor James, they also released their copper alloy alto flute in 2018. I recently bought one for myself, and I love how it plays and sounds. It’s also a bit lighter than my silver-plated alto, which is super nice.
Next, there’s the gold-brass alloy from Yamaha. It’s very similar to the copper alloy, but there’s a bit of gold with copper rather than primarily copper.
Finally, you can find a gold-plated alto flute from Gemeinhardt. The base is solid silver, but there’s a layer of gold on top, so you can get a nice, warm sound.
I also want to note that you can find a few wooden alto flute headjoints. You’ll need to buy them separately from your alto flute, but they can be a nice upgrade.
Try the Alto Flutes That Interest You
You can read articles like this and watch all of the alto flute reviews on YouTube, but you still need to test the altos that you want. We all have different anatomy and preferences.
So while I may sound good on one alto flute, you may struggle to make the same sound. The best way to narrow your search is to get your hands on as many altos as possible.
When I was shopping for my first alto, I trialed a couple. I also borrowed a few alto flutes from my fellow flute choir members. That way, I could figure out what I did and didn’t want in an instrument.
You can request a trial from a store like Music & Arts or one of the big flute specialty shops. That way, you’ll get to test a few alto flutes side by side to decide which is best for you.
Record and Listen Back
When you play an alto flute, you have to think about a lot of things. That makes it hard to really pay attention to the sound. So I’d recommend using your phone to record yourself playing each of the models that you can.
Use the same excerpt for every recording, and listen to them back to back. You can hear a lot more of the nuances since you aren’t focused on getting the notes right.
Another benefit of recording is that you can send the recordings to others. Send them to your teacher or other flute players you know to get a second opinion. You can also send them “blind” and not share the brand to keep their opinion as objective as possible.
Best Alto Flutes
There are tons of alto flutes out there. I recommend reviewing all of the brands and models in your price range to decide which is right for you. However, here are some of the top brands at different price points.
The first alto flute I ever bought was a Pearl 201S. It’s the brand’s entry-level flute, so it’s all silver-plated except with a silver lip plate and riser. You can get the 201 with a straight headjoint, curved headjoint, or both.
It’s one of the most affordable alto flutes on the market, but the price does go up every year or so. Another nice thing is that you can get it with a split E, but I haven’t missed that spec.
The alto also comes with Pearl’s signature One-Piece Core Bar, which refers to the flute’s mechanism. I enjoyed playing on the flute for about five years, and I think it’s great for any new alto player.
You can also get the 206, which has a silver headjoint. Then, there’s the 207, which features all silver tubing, including the body.
I recently purchased a Trevor James Copper Alloy alto flute. I’d first tried one at NFA in 2022, an I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I did a trial and after comparing it to the Pearl, I found I was ready to upgrade.
The alto flute is 85% copper and 15% other metals. Those other metals help strengthen the copper so that it’s not too soft.
Trevor James also makes a silver-plated alto flute. That can be a good option if you like the traditional sound of a flute. On the used market, you can even find a black nickel alto from this brand.
All of their models come with either or both headjoint styles. They have an ergonomic key layout as well, so playing is super comfortable. But the copper alloy is a bit more expensive than the silver-plated model.
Another one of the most popular alto flutes is from Yamaha. I got to play on this one when I was in college, and it sounded great. It has a gold-brass alloy, so it looks and sounds unique.
Unfortunately, there’s a pretty steep price increase from Pearl and Trevor James. Because of that, I’d recommend this model for professionals or (like how I got to play it) college flute studios and flute choirs.
You can get it with either or both headjoints. The flute feels good to play, but again, the price may not be worth it, especially for your first alto flute.
At the top of the line, you may want to look into Kingma alto flutes. Eva Kingma is a Dutch flute maker, and she specializes in low flutes. They’re all handmade instruments, so they’re best for professionals.
Kingma uses silver and silver plating, so you won’t find some of the more unique metals. However, what is unique is the open hole alto flute model. If you play a lot of new music, open holes can be a good choice.
Of course, these flutes have a pretty high price point, so they aren’t going to work for most of us. But I still think they’re worth knowing about.
If you have money to burn, you can look at the alto flutes from Nyenyezi Horns. Technically, they’re all Trevor James flutes. However, Nyenyezi bedazzles the entire flute with crystals.
That adds a lot of money to the price point. They’re some of the most expensive altos on the market, so they’re not for everyone. These flutes can also be a bit heavier due to the weight from the crystals.
Also, you can’t order them in for a trial at your house. That means you have to take a chance and buy one or go to a flute convention to test them out.
Why Play the Alto Flute
The alto isn’t as common as the C flute or piccolo. So you may wonder if it’s even worth learning how to play the alto flute. Consider the following reasons to learn this low flute.
Expand Your Repertoire
It may be small, but the alto flute repertoire is growing. If you learn the alto, you can access some more music that you may not play on your C flute. You can also play different parts in an ensemble.
The alto flute is a standard member of the flute choir. I’ve played alto in flute choirs for the past few years, and I love it. You get to act like a viola in a string orchestra.
There’s also the occasional alto flute part in orchestra music. Composers like Holst and Stravinsky used the alto flute in some of their larger works.
Work on Your Low Register
Of course, the alto flute gives you a ton of opportunities to play low notes. If you like the low sound, you’ll get more of a chance to play that register when learning how to play the alto flute.
I’ve also found that playing the alto flute helps me with my low register on the C flute. The embouchure is very similar due to the overlapping notes. So switching between instruments can be much easier.
Get More Gigs
If you want to pursue flute playing as a career, learning how to play the alto flute can make you more marketable. Adding alto flute to your arsenal can help you get gigs that call for the alto flute alone.
But you can also get doubling gigs on the alto flute and C flute. And if you play other woodwinds, you’ll have even more opportunities to get paid gigs.
Plus, you won’t have to be the best flutist in your area to be the first people call for a performance. You just need to be the best person who plays the alto flute or the best who plays alto flute and whatever other instruments you play.
Straight Headjoint vs. Curved Headjoint
One of the biggest things to decide on is whether you want to play on a straight headjoint or a curved headjoint. Depending on the model you buy, you may be able to get a either headjoint or both of them.
Consider some of the differences and pros and cons to help choose the headjoint for you.
The straight headjoint on an alto flute works very much like that on a C flute. It offers the same balance points, so holding your flute may feel less awkward compared to holding one with a curved headjoint.
Intonation is also a bit better on a straight headjoint. That’s because the headjoint can have a continuous taper to the closed end. You won’t have to learn as many alternate fingerings when playing in the high register.
Another benefit is that the straight headjoint usually costs less than the curved. So if money is a bit of a concern, you can afford more models with this headjoint style.
Of course, this headjoint also requires a farther reach. If you have short arms or short fingers, you may find it hard to play. It can also wear out any player after a long practice session.
I’d recommend the straight headjoint to anyone who wants one and can reach the keys. Also, I want to bust the myth that short people can’t play a straight headjoint. I’m just over 5 feet, and I have long arms, which is more important.
The curved headjoint on an alto flute brings the instrument closer to you. So you don’t have to reach as far with your left or right arm. That can be nice when you play for a long time.
However, this headjoint does have more intonation issues. You’ll have to learn more alternate fingerings to keep your flute in tune.
I’ve also found it a bit awkward to balance the curved headjoint. I can do it, and I think I found a good placement on my Trevor James alto. But it’s still something to keep in mind.
Another drawback is that, with few exceptions, the curved headjoint does cost more than the straight headjoint. My Pearl 201 is the exception, but with the Trevor James, the difference is about $200.
I’d recommend a curved headjoint to anyone with shorter arms. They’re also suitable for players with arthritis or other health problems.
It’s also pretty common for alto flutes to come with both headjoints. My Trevor James came with both as did the Yamaha that I played on in college.
Getting both headjoints can be a good option for an alto that will be shared. You may not know what everyone will prefer. Having both headjoints gives more players in your studio or flute choir the chance to play the alto.
Some players like having both to switch off. They’ll play on the curved headjoint during long rehearsals and perform on the straight headjoint. I understand why, but the intonation and feel is so different that I don’t like to do that.
However, I did buy my new alto with the intent for it to be my “forever alto flute.” While I prefer the straight head now, I may want a curved head in a few years or a decade, so I don’t have to worry about buying a new headjoint later.
Alto Flute Accessories
When learning how to play the alto flute, you’ll want to get some accessories to make your life a bit easier.
Cleaning Rod and Cloth
Most alto flutes come with a wooden cleaning rod and a cleaning cloth that you can use to swab out the inside of the flute. You should also get a polishing cloth to use on the oustide.
Now, if you buy a used alto flute, you may not get those things. You can shop at any of the major flute shops to get the cleaning supplies you need.
Also, if you use a curved headjoint, you may want a swab with a weight. That way, you can swab out the curved part of your instrument.
Alto Flute Stand
Another essential accessory in my opinion is a stand. I have a Hercules Alto Flute Stand, and I love it. The stand base is nice and big, so it’s not going to tip over.
Meanwhile, the peg is tall enough to hold the alto flute securely. The stand also works with flute and piccolo pegs (sold separately). I already had those pegs on hand, so I have one stand that fits all of my instruments.
Some players use wooden flute stands with an alto peg, so that’s another good option. But I’d recommend a stand so that you have a safe place to rest your alto whenever you take a break or if you need to mark something in your music.
We all need a tuner, whether you play the alto flute or just the C flute. I use the app Tunable on my iPhone and iPad. I also own a Korg tuner-metronome for when I want to use a separate device.
You can get a cable to connect your tuner to your flute. That way, if you need to tune before a rehearsal, you can do so. The tuner will only pick up your sound rather than what everyone else is doing around you.
Whether you’re trying a new alto flute or working on your tone, you should use a tuner. Having a good tuner on hand, even if it’s an app, is vital to your success.
You can also look into different performance aids for the alto flute. Examples of these include hand positioner patches and right hand thumb support.
I don’t have any personal experience with these things. However, I’ve heard they can be very helpful for some players.
How to Transpose Music for Alto Flute
The good news is that most composers and arrangers do all of the transposing for you. When you get a piece of music in flute choir, for example, you should be able to read what’s on the page and sound in tune with the ensemble.
But you should still consider how to transpose alto flute music. This comes in handy when playing warmups with a group as well as tuning. When you play the C flute, you’ll tune to an A, but the alto flute tunes to a written D.
To transpose music from C flute to alto flute, play everything up a perfect fourth. So a C will be an F and so on. If you want to transpose from alto flute to C flute, you’ll play everything down a perfect fourth.
When to Start Playing Alto Flute
If you’ve never played the flute, I’d highly recommend starting on the C flute. It’s smaller and more affordable, and it’s much easier to learn. Work on your flute playing until you feel comfortable with it.
I can’t give you an exact timeline because we all learn at different speeds. But after a while, you can look into learning how to play the alto flute. Knowing the basics of the flute will make the transition much easier.
Where to Buy an Alto Flute
You can buy an alto flute from most major flute stores in the US. Some general music retailers also have a small selection of alto flutes for sale. That’s how I purchased my first alto flute.
I bought my newer alto flute through my flute technician. She also sells a few instruments, including the occasional alto flute.
When to Upgrade Your Alto Flute
Just like the C flute, you may find a great alto flute when you start playing. But after a while, you could outgrow the instrument.
When I was looking to upgrade, I was finding it hard to experiment with different tone colors out of my Pearl alto flute. I could only push the flute so far before it would crack.
Another good reason to upgrade is if you only have a straight headjoint or curved headjoint and want the other. You can buy an alto headjoint alone, but that may not be the most cost-effective option.
Finally, you may just want to upgrade. As long as you have the money, you can get a new alto flute whenever.
How Hard Is Alto Flute?
The alto flute can be especially hard when you first learn. Like any new instrument, it takes time to get a good sound and to figure out how to hold the flute comfortably.
Luckily, it’s not too difficult if you already play the C flute. You’ll mostly have to get used to a longer reach and a looser embouchure.
If you love the low register of the C flute, you should learn how to play the alto flute. It’s a great lower instrument that you can play solo or in a group.
My favorite flute is the alto flute, and I love getting to explore the different sounds that it can make.
If you’re looking to play the alto flute, be sure to review a flute fingering chart so that you don’t play any wrong notes.