The Great Flute debate: Open or closed hole

Plugged holesGordon Palmer, a friend of mine who can be found via the contact info at the end of this post recently posted this gem on the Sax on the Web site. I wanted to put it here for my many sax friends who, like me, struggle with doubling on the flute. I plugged my flute key holes and shortly thereafter my wife, the purist, acquiesced and did the same with her flute—it just made too much sense. I have included a picture of my plugged hole Gemeinhardt and an open holed Gemeinhardt flute from the Kessler Music collection.

So before we wade into the great open holed flute debate, let me say that purchasing a custom head from Kessler Music and done by craftsman Chris McKenna was the best thing I have done to date for my flute playing. All of a sudden the clarion range was possible and making pleasing music was possible. Now all that is left is to start taking lessons and practicing. Now let’s hear from Gordon:

Many reasons are touted for having open holed key works 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.

image3. 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. Fortunately another very neat metal type is available, at unrealistic expense!

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. This argument loses weight if the flute, along with the player’s head, is rotated 45 degrees anticlockwise (looking form above) as is common modern practice. The rationale for this rotation is to ease stress on the right shoulder, but often overlooked is that it increases the stress on the neck.

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. It is an issue of good teaching.

6. Finger Position: 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 and piccolo where the fingers are central.

7. Acoustics/Intonation: From “The Flute Book – A Complete Guide for Students and Performers” 2nd edition, By Nancy Toff (1996): “…Many acousticians – Dayton C. Miller and Arthur Benade are perhaps the most prominent of them – consider the plateau model acoustically superior. They brand the open holes a significant flaw, ‘the one acoustical crime that has been perpetrated against the Boehm flute,’ in Miller’s words. Flute maker Albert Cooper (the legendary flute maker and creator of the now modern scale – the Cooper Scale) considers the French model’s scale inherently less accurate because it overcompensates for the sharpening effect of the perforations.

8. 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.

9. Acoustic theory: The bore should be of a hard material to effectively define the vibrating air column… 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

10. Servicing: The standard way of adjusting the way a pad closes on a tone hole is by ‘shimming’, which is inserting paper spacing washers or partial washes behind the pads. For this process a pad may need to be taken out and put back many times. During pad removal a pad is far more likely to be distorted or damaged during if it is on an open-hole key, where there is a difficult-to-remove pad retaining grommet.

11. The pad retainers for open-hole flutes are far from being an ideal method of retaining pads. They are prone to leaks. Splits are not uncommon.

12. 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. Skin simply is not flat, and therefore does not seal well. This phenomenon is worse when the key cup surface is smooth, without ridges around the open hole.
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! The response of a flute is extremely sensitive to even the tiniest leaks.

13. 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.

ChrisMcKennaHead14. 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! But sincerely believing such things is part of the human condition!

15. 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.

16. 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. The buyer can stretch his/her budget that little extra, so open hole is what he buys. Or it could be simply that the cheapest student flutes are not offered in open-hole versions, so it is assumed that open-hole makes a superior flute.

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.

In the final analysis, it is difficult to change with reason, what a person has come to believe is better. A player plays on what makes him happy.

About Gordon Palmer:

I have not written any sort of book, other than the 10000 odd posts on SOTW. My teaching sites are:

First Note From a Flute:

Flute Lessons by Email:

About Gandalfe

Just an itinerant saxophonist trying to find life between the changes. I have retired from the Corps of Engineers and Microsoft. I am an admin on the Woodwind Forum, run the Seattle Solid GOLD Big Band (formerly the Microsoft Jumpin' Jive Orchestra) a GOLD sax quartet, and enjoy time with family and friends.
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5 Responses to The Great Flute debate: Open or closed hole

  1. Adam says:

    I think that this article looks too favourably upon closed holes, without truly considering the advantages that open holes offer over closed holes.

    There are things that you can play on an open-holed flute that are unplayable on closed holes – composers like Robert Dick and Ian Clarke (to name possibly the most popular two) have both written compositions involving multiphonics, glissandi, quarter tones and alternative fingerings. What’s more, a growing number of contemporary compositions involve these techniques, and a lot of them are entering (or approaching entering) the mainstream repertoire, whereas once they were though of as being just ‘wacky’.

    It’s one thing buying a flute with a C footjoint and then coming across a piece requiring a low B – you can just buy a separate B footjoint for not very much. But to buy a closed hole flute and then want to play one of the pieces requiring the above extended techniques – the only real option is a whole new flute!

    This aside, taking a couple of your arguments:

    1. Intonation.
    Yes, an accomplished player can bend a nute into tune – but a lot of orchestral players will slightly uncover a hole to get a pianissimo middle E into tune, for example. “Certain alternative fingerings are available to humour pitch with close-hole too” – these same fingerings are of course available on open holes too, along with a whole lot more.

    3. Comfort: Many players plug the holes.
    Many, but by no means all!

    4. Hand position
    I agree with you that an inline G key (as found on US, French open holed flutes) is unergonomic compared to an offset one (as found on closed hole and UK, many other European open holed flutes). Some people believe that Louis Lot originally developed the ‘inline G’ to reduce production costs, as it requires one less rod on the mechanism than an offset one – it was not about ergonomics.

    5. Hand position
    Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Many students take a while to adjust to an open holed flute because of bad hand position. An open holed flute really does encourage good hand position because, quite simply, you can’t make a sound without it!

    6. Finger Position
    I understand that the argument is that the fingers should be nicely curved (like those of a piano player), which results in better finger control and smoother and faster technique.

    7/8/9. Acoustics
    What you’ve said makes perfect sense – a closed hole flute should sound superior. However, this is getting down to minutiae of acoustics – the cut of the headjoint and the material the flute is made from will have much more impact.

    12. Leaks
    Wow, I’ve never heard this before!

    14. Tone
    I agree. Complete hogwash about better tone on open holes!

    15. Unusual effects
    As I said above, the number of pieces entering mainstream is increasing.

    16. Open-hole flutes usually cost slightly more
    So far as I know, the only manufacturer that charges more for open holes is Yamaha. All the Japanese and American manufacturers charge either the same, or, for an inline G model, actually less than the usual closed hole-E mechanism model. (see 4 above, ref Louis Lot)

    I’m not saying that a closed hole flute doesn’t have its advantages, and of course many great players use closed holes – but I’m just trying to square the debate!

  2. Gandalfe says:

    Thank you Adam for taking the time to present your arguments. This player used an open-holed flute with plugs in. My wife, the other flute player in the house asked me why so I handed her the instrument (we have matched instruments) and shortly thereafter she purchased and installed plugs. Same goes for the custom head that I ordered. Nothing speaks like a good example.

  3. Pedro says:

    Two cents from a doubler:

    “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. (…)”

    I believe – as Cooper said once – open hole flutes should have a different scale to closed hole flutes.
    However, as far as I know, no maker do offer a slightly different scale for the french key.
    And since you are using a scale which is not intended for a certain type of key, it is plausible that plateau style may have a slightly better intonation.

    “12. 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. (…)
    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! The response of a flute is extremely sensitive to even the tiniest leaks.”

    Well, what I can say is: this phenomenon does not occur to me.
    I think people with hard finger skin or even with “gardener’s fingers” (as Trevor Wye calls the scratched fingertips) are the minority.
    I would not consider this item as an advantage of the closed keys because in this case plateau type is the “only option” for these players, not the “best option”.

    It’s worth mentioning that neither closed hole pads have a perfect seal.
    I tend to agree with what Jim Schmidt stated in his website:
    * If you look at bladderskin under a microscope you can see that the surface is a bit fuzzy(…)
    * but when the pad skin surface is rough there are tiny microscopic leaks at the tonehole(…)
    * You may be surprised to find that overworking yourself in search of a “””PERFECT””” seal is just a waste of time(…)

    “16. Open-hole flutes usually cost slightly more. (…)”

    Most makers offer both key styles at no additional costs, and this proves that no maker has been offering a special scale for the open hole keys, because if you do offer two slightly different scales for tubes of same dimensions, certainly one scale must have more space between toneholes and thus will be more expensive, ’cause will need longer rods, rims, etc.

    By the way, I see no problem in plugging the holes.
    I’ve found the best compromise by plugging only the two holes of left hand.
    By this way I can get a more confortable left hand position and also can do some glissandos and shadings on the right side.
    Jonathon Landell had been offering flutes with LH closed hole keys and RH open hole ones.


  4. Gandalfe says:

    Fascinating! Live and learn. Thanks Pedro.

  5. Jack Luster says:

    Thank you for the input. I have an open hole Pearl student flute, inline C, and plugged the holes. Too problematic to fight the flute for hand position. Originally, I had an offset C foot. After years on the inline, I think that is a moot point.
    Anyway, thanks again.

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