Five Things All Marching Band Flutists Should Know

Just in time for marching band season, I present you with these pearls of wisdom.

I have played in and coached marching bands for many years. The flute is a delicate instrument and if not cared for properly, can be destroyed by marching band. Band directors, students, and parents would be wise to heed these common pitfalls.

Five Rules To Help Your Flute Survive Marching Band

1. Never use a dollar bill to clean the pads.

Every flutist in the country seems to have heard the urban legend that the best way to clean a sticky pad is with a dollar bill. Don’t do it. Paper money is dirty. Really dirty, like 3,000 different types of bacteria and cocaine dirty. Prevent sticky pads by swabbing the inside of the flute  after every rehearsal, store the flute in its case in a dry place, and never expose the flute to extreme temperatures, like leaving it in the car.

marching band

cleaning papers

If the keys become unbearably sticky, use a product specifically designed to clean flute pads like these papers made by Yamaha. Tear off a small sheet and gently place it under the sticky pad. Gently close and open the key. If the pad is really sticky, you may need to softly close the key and slowly drag the paper out.

2. Protect the flute from rain and snow.

This may seem obvious, but sometimes band directors forget that there are flutes and clarinets in the band. While a little rain and snow might not hurt the brass instruments, the delicate mechanism and thin pads of flutes can be destroyed by the weather. Complete re-padding of the flute is costly and rust inside the rods can be impossible to repair. In an emergency, place your flute inside the jacket of your uniform. Back inside, make sure you swab it out and allow it to completely dry before closing the case.

flutes for marching band

plastic flutes

Guo and other manufacturers are now making plastic flutes and piccolos that are impervious to moisture. It’s my dream to have music boosters buy enough for the entire marching band flute section. They are available in a wide variety of colors too!

3. The flute is not a baton for twirling. 

I’d be rich if I had a nickel for every time I saw a flutist twirling a flute at a football game. Leave the baton twirling to the majorettes. Twirling quickly becomes dropping, which can cause irreparable harm to the flute if you bend a rod or break a key. Other damage can include scratches and huge dents in the tube. The flute is an expensive piece of equipment and repairing this kinds of damage is costly.

4. Do not put the flute on a music stand.

bad idea

bad idea

This happens all the time with flutists. It seems like such an easy, convenient place to rest the flute, but DO NOT put your flute on a music stand. Music stands are not strong enough to hold a flute and when the upper desk drops, you flute will fall to the floor with a clang and a gasp from the rest of the band. If you are lucky enough to have a strong stand, placing your flute on the ledge is still a bad idea. Because the end of the flute hangs over the side, it is easy to bump into it and knock it off. Dropping the flute from this height will likely cause a dent or bend.

5. There are no good lyres for a marching flip folder.

marching band lyre

forearm clamp

I have seen three different styles of flute lyres for marching band, but all of them are miserable. The “forearm clamp” is available in several styles. This torture device involves tightly attaching a strap to the arm to hold up the music. There are two significant problems with this tool. First, you must tighten the strap like a tourniquet. If your fingers don’t turn blue from lack of circulation, sweat will make the device slide right off.

marching band

arm clamp #2

Another equally bad option is a metal clamp that attaches to the flute. This will scratch your flute and is hard to position, if you are able to get it to stay on the flute at all. (Amazon reviews of this product are pitiful.) Many years ago, I saw a third option: a lyre that would extend from the armpit forward. It was strapped around the back and cradled in the armpit However, I am not able to find that product anymore. It must have been so user un-friendly that the manufacturer gave up.

marching band lyre #3

clamps onto the body of the flute

Bottom line: lyres do not work for flutes in marching band. MEMORIZE YOUR MUSIC!

If you are a marching band flutist (past or present), what knowledge would you like to pass on to the next generation?

Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is a big problem for musicians.

A musician’s most important sense is hearing. When musicians experience hearing loss, it can end a career. Hearing loss can occur from exposure to loud noise, aging, or neurological problems. For orchestral musicians, hearing loss can cause difficulty with tuning and blend. Music teachers with hearing loss may have trouble detecting and fixing errors.

Hearing problems are not limited to diminished hearing. Exposure to loud sounds can also cause tinnitus, also known as ringing in the ears. You may have experienced this after listening to a loud concert. Tinnitus, can be temporary or permanent, but it can have devastating consequences for musicians.

Hearing Loss Affects 40% of Musicians according to a survey conducted by Charity Help Musicians UK.

A German research study from 2014 studied the incidence of hearing problems in musicians versus the general public. The study observed that hearing loss is an occupational hazard for musicians. It concluded

Professional musicians have a high risk of contracting hearing disorders. Use of already available prevention measures should reduce the incidence of HL (hearing loss) in professional musicians.

I have had my hearing testing and I have lost some of the high end of my hearing, probably from playing piccolo. My husband and kids are able to hear higher pitches than I can. Although I now use ear plug when practicing high notes, I wish I had known about using ear protection while in high school.

Let’s talk about safety.

I am concerned that high school students are being exposed to loud noise in marching band. Perhaps the noise level is appropriate on a football field, but when rehearsals are inside, the noise level is extreme. Even on the football field, the instruments are often held close to the head. There were many times I had a trumpet blowing in my ear during close formations. My ears would ring after marching band rehearsals.

Two of my students are playing in a “BLAST” concert next week. At the end of the marching band season, some local high schools bring the competition show inside for a final performance in the school auditorium. There will be over a hundred band students playing music intended for a stadium, but they will be playing in an auditorium. I’ve never been to the “BLAST” concert, but everyone says it is extremely loud. Do the kids play with ear protection? I asked my students and they looked at me like I was from Mars. Do the parents and siblings in the audience wear ear protection? No. This is a horrible idea! Everyone within 2 miles of the high school should be wearing heavy-duty ear protection.

hearing protection

hearing protection- the kind you need for playing piccolo!

Hearing loss is not cool. Tinnitus is not fun. We don’t let the football team go on the field without pads. We shouldn’t let the marching band play the halftime show without earplugs.

A simple solution: wear ear protection.

My favorite ear protection is the ER-20.

save your hearing with these

ER-20 earplugs

The ER-20 earplugs are comfortable to wear, virtually invisible, and protect your hearing. Unlike foam earplugs, these reduce the volume by 12dB across the spectrum, which means things sound the same… just quieter. You can still hear voices well, which is important in a rehearsal. I wear the ER-20 earplugs anytime I play piccolo (practice at home, rehearsals, and concerts). I also use them at rock concerts and at movie theaters. (Am I the only one that thinks the volume is too high at the movies?!) My husband uses them when tuning pianos. Losing his hearing would also be terrible for his career. These earplugs allow my husband to adjust pitch, but the loud test blows will not damage his hearing.

The ER-20 earplugs can be purchased on Amazon here.

The price of the ER-20 earplugs has come down since I purchased a pair. Now you can own a pair for less than $15. I’ve had mine for about 20 years and keep them in my flute case. The best solution for hearing protection for musicians is to purchase custom molded ear protection, but these are expensive. Because foam earplugs are available at every convenience store for cheap, everyone should have some. We buy them by the box for mowing the grass and working with power tools. But even if you forget your ER-20 earplugs and can’t get to a Walgreens for foam plugs, you can wad up a piece of tissue or toilet paper and put it in your ears. Make sure the piece is large enough that it won’t get stuck in you ear canal. You won’t win any awards for fashion, but you may save your hearing!

Rant over.