10 Reasons Why the Best Sax Players Play Flute

Photo by Bruno Bollaert
Photo by Bruno Bollaert

By now, many of you have noticed that many saxophone players also play the flute, which is commonly referred to as a “double” in our world. Often, saxophone parts, particularly in big bands, include segments written for the flute, giving composers and arrangers an added color to work with. And in the studio and show world, it’s almost always a requirement, along with the the clarinet family as well, which is also referred to as a double.

However, there are a number of reasons why I think being able to play the flute can be beneficial for any saxophone player at any level, even if you never intend to play in a big band or pit orchestra for a show.

Here are ten of them:

1) The flute does not require a reed.

This is perhaps my absolute favorite thing about the flute. All the common headaches with finding and maintaining good reeds don’t exist with the flute, which is a beautiful thing. Like many of us who struggle to find practice time in the day, I often find myself with just a short ten or fifteen minute window to practice, and the idea of finding a good reed and prepping it, getting it to really vibrate, and then storing it once I’m done is quite unappealing, to say the least. No need for any of this with the flute! It plays right out of the box, as they say…

2) It has almost the exact same register as the saxophone, and fingerings are almost identical.

The lowest note on the flute is a low C below the staff (of low B if you have a B-foot on your flute), and the flute goes up three octaves from there. This is almost identical to the saxophone range (including some high notes above F# that would be considered altissimo for the saxophone). This makes most saxophone music playable on flute, and vice versa. And just about anything technical that is tripping you up on the saxophone can thus be practiced effectively on flute.

3) It’s pitched in concert key.

Unlike the saxophone, which is a transposing instrument, the flute plays in concert key, so if you are still getting your transposing chops together on saxophone, flute can be very useful for playing music with other people if you don’t have transposed parts.

4) It will do wonders for your breathing and control of your breath.

Because it doesn’t rely on a reed to make the sound, the flute requires an incredible amount of control and finesse with your breath. In fact, from my experiences, advanced flute players typically know more about the mechanics of breathing than any other wind players. Any deficiencies in your breath that might be covered up by your saxophone playing will definitely be apparent with the flute, and improving these deficiencies will do wonders for your saxophone playing.

5) It travels well.

The flute is a great travel partner. It’s lightweight, and you can always put it in a carry-on bag and never worry about having to check it in when you fly. And since it’s a quieter instrument than the saxophone, it’s great for practicing in hotel rooms, or even airport lounges! And if you have pesky neighbors or family members at home who are tired of hearing the saxophone, flute might be much easier on their eardrums.

6) It can be helpful if you’ve taken some time away from playing and are building your embouchure back up.

If you’ve ever taken some time away from playing saxophone before, you know that coming back to playing can be hazardous to your lips, since you lose the callous that protects them within a few days of not playing. Since there’s no pressure whatsoever from the teeth with the flute, this isn’t an issue, so you can play away, even if you’re out of shape.

7) Since the flute doesn’t have a register key, it can help you with your voicing.

The flute has the same overtone series as the saxophone, so you can do almost all of the same overtone exercises on it, and because there is no register key, it forces you to voice notes much more precisely than you might do for the saxophone.

8) It will give your body a nice break if you’re doing heavy saxophone practicing.

Most of us who do a lot of practicing start to experience strain on some part of our body. While there are many things you can do to alleviate this, such as using a harness, doing yoga or learning Alexander Technique, one of the best things you can do is to vary what you do with your body so you’re not always in one position. Since the position of playing the flute is so radically different than playing the saxophone, it can help your body to loosen things up if you are experiencing fatigue or tension anywhere.

9) It’s the oldest instrument around, so there’s much more music written for it.

Unlike the saxophone, which is considered a baby in our musical world at just 150 years old, the flute has been around since cavemen roamed the earth, so since the dawn of notated music in the 17th century, there’s been music for flute. And unlike the saxophone, which rarely makes an appearance in the orchestra, the flute is a core part of the orchestra, so there’s much more opportunity to play it in that setting. And just to be able to play that amazing Bach partita alone…

10) There are some AMAZING jazz and Latin music flutists to listen to.

Expand your ears! Go here for a list of a hundred of the best jazz flutists, and for Latin flutists, try Maraca Valle, Dave Valentin, José Fajardo, Richard Egues, or Johnny Pacheco.

So if you don’t have one, go pick up a flute, find a good teacher, and play away. And if you already have a flute, hopefully some of these ideas will make your flute playing much more rewarding of an experience.

And one more bit of inspiration I’ll leave you with while I’m at it…

(actual flute in this clip performed by Katisse Buckingham)

And as always, I welcome your thoughts in the comment section below.

Learn with and Listen to Sam

Sam Sadigursky is currently offering online lessons through Skype and private lessons in NYC. He has given improvisation clinics across the U.S., is a regular guest professor at Hunter College, and currently performs internationally with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Folklore Urbano, and others. His new book, 12 INTERVALLIC ETUDES for Saxophone, is available here. His albums can be purchased at http://samsadigursky.bandcamp.com. To find out more, visit SamSadigursky.com.