When looking through baroque recordings today, it is a happy occassion when one finds a CD using all period instruments. The sound is so much richer and embued with great subtlety when played on the instruments it was composed for. Nowhere is this difference in sound more apparent than when comparing the modern flute to the traverso (or baroque) flute.

I discovered this recently, when I attended Oberlin College's Conservatory of Music's Baroque Performance Institute. I am primarily a recorder player, but also stayed for classes on the baroque flute. Used to the silver flute, I was somewhat taken aback by how alien a world this wooden, one-keyed flute is. In this write-up, I hope to introduce the modern player to the differences and similarites of these two instruments and share some of the knowledge I learned while attending the Institute. So, I'll start with...

The Sound

The traverso's sound is a far cry from that of the modern flute. It is softer, mellower, less strident. It is also disconcertingly different.

The first cause of this strangeness to modern ears is, as Zap pointed out in the previous write-up, that most baroque flutes are tuned to 415. Modern music is played at 440. Traverso sounds flat, an impression heightened by its mellow character. I don't have the best of ears, but even I could tell the difference. It's almost a quarter-tone. If you have good pitch, this will almost certainly sound incredibly, incredibly weird.

The other, more obvious reason, is that the baroque flute sounds, quite honestly, hideously varied and out of tune to our aesthetic. Pick it up. Play a G#. Or an F natural. See what I mean?

The traverso is keyed in D major. Those notes sound excellent and full. However, as you move into other keys and chromatic scales, the flute just sounds weird. Most modern players either give up or try and force the notes to conform.


What makes the baroque flute so difficult to learn and play is also what gives it character. Sitting in flute class, Professor Christopher Krueger gave us some tremendous advice: Embrace the sound, weird notes and all. You cannot get the same power out of a G# as a D. It will not happen. If you want conformity of notes, play a modern flute. Once you've resigned yourself to this oddity, do your scales. Consider each note independently. Find its proverbial sweet spot. Respect its individual character.

Mr. Krueger then played us a piece which made heavy use of the egregious chromatics. A modern flautist might have made it sound horrific if she tried to play it on the traverso. However, in his hands, the traverso was a creature of infinite subtlety. The quirks of each note brought a shade of meaning to the music that could never be achieved by a modern flute.

In other words, persist. For a while, the F naturals might be horribly flat and your G#s practically inaudible. Don't fear. What you give up in ease of playing, you make up for later in beauty and subtlety. Even if it takes a few years.

The Fingerings

The most obvious difference between traverso and modern flute is the lack of keys. As such, many fingerings will be very different. Case in point- E natural:

Keep that pinkie up!

This will drive you nuts, I assure you.

Another source of consternation is the absence of the thumb key. You will keep on lifting up your thumb and it will not do anything. This takes some getting used to.

The fingerings are similar in some ways, but the lack of keys means that the chromatics get rather weird rather fast. Here is a lovely fingering chart that will hopefully get you started: http://www.gruk.net/lars/quantz_fingerings.html

The Playing

There are many differences in the style and manner of playing the traverso and the modern flute. I cannot enummerate, nor am I probably aware, of them all, but I can give you some of the most noticeable and/or strange.

The first difference is that the embouchre is slightly higher up on the lip and more turned in for most players. The reason for this is that a faster, more focused air stream is needed. Most of the time, if you simply experiment for a while, you will find that you automatically fall into this position.

The second difference is one that is a bit disorienting. You need to keep your fingers high up off the holes. If you've been playing modern flute for a couple years, you are probably used to the admonishments to keep your fingers low. DON'T do this on traverso. If you keep your fingers too low, then you will interrupt the air stream and make the notes go out of tune. This is important, and people will be able to hear it.

The third difference, which is both insidious and incredibly tempting, is that you do not use vibrato in baroque playing. It is very appealing, especially to cover up some of the more out-of-tune sounding chromatics or long notes. This is simply an anachronism, though. You will find other ways of shaping the notes. One such way is a technique called flattement. It produces a sound similar to vibrato and is caused by actually shaking the flute slightly. It feels weird at first, but can spice up the playing considerably. You will also find that you will have to be more reliant on ornamentation and simple dynamics to create interest.

Finally, there are some odd trills that go on in the traverso. There are different trill fingerings to learn for each different key. You will often play them and say, "Huh? How can that be right?" But it is right. What one has to remember is that this is a historical instrument and that the Baroque aesthetic is very different from ours. Like the strange notes, learn to embrace the strange trills and you will begin to appreciate their character.

In all, the baroque flute is not merely a simplified modern flute. It is a very different instrument. For every similarity, there is another, very disorienting difference. However, when learning to play baroque music on a baroque instrument, you will quickly find that it gives the pieces character and subtlety that could not be achieved with a silver flute. The traverso is the instrument for which baroque music was designed. The music is meant for it.