9 reasons your flute isn’t playing: Troubleshooting

From time to time people have shown me a flute that doesn’t work to ask what is wrong. I  believe you should ask the maker of the flute, but people don’t know always know who made their flute.  And so they ask me.

In cases where I am the maker of the flute, I usually start with questions about where the flute has been or who has played it since the flute left my workshop.

The question of why a flute no longer makes a sound can be a tough question because I never know what kind of life the flute has led since leaving me to go live with its new owner.  After seven years of making flutes and being at several workshops and flute circles, I have learned not to be too surprised at the life a flute can have.

Below are nine possibilities of why a flute may not play properly.  Perhaps these possibilities will help you to troubleshoot problems with your own flute.

1. The bird is not placed on the flute properly.

You do need to have the bird placed on the flute properly. The birds on my WrenSong flutes are made to be at a very specific place on the nest of the flute.  If is not in the correct place, your flute may sound too breathy or it may not play at all.

See this link for instructions https://judyrobinsondesigns.com/2016/05/07/steps-for-playing-native-american-style-flute/

One time a lady contacted me that her flute  made no sound. She then read the instructions that came with her flute (see link above) and realized she had put the bird on upside down. When she righted the bird, her flute make the appropriate sounds.

Another time, a man contacted me that the flute made a sound of flowing wind but no tone. It turned out he had not put the bird on the flute at all.

2.  The flute has wet out.

Sometimes, I imagine a beautiful sound coming from the flute and all of a sudden for no apparent reason it stops. How could that be?

One reason could be that you are playing outside and the wind steals your breath.  The answer to that problem is to play where the wind cannot take your flute’s voice away.

The other reason a flute would suddenly stop producing a tone would be if the flute “wet out.”

After you play a flute for a long period of time, the condensation can build up inside the first chamber of the flute and the flute stops playing. The solution for this is to remove the bird from the flute and let it dry overnight.

In most cases, overnight is enough to have the flute dry out. However, if the flute was really really wet inside, it might take longer.

One time I was troubleshooting one of my own flutes I had loaned a friend. The inside of the flute was so wet that it took about a week for it to get back to playing. This is not typical – however. One factor to think about that different people produce different amounts and kinds of saliva when playing.

3.  Someone put something into the mouthpiece of the flute.

Impossible you say? I once had flutes for sale in a store and I was contacted because one of my flutes stopped playing.

I retrieved the flute and discovered that two plastic straws had been shoved into the mouthpiece. The only way to fix this problem was to saw off the end of the mouthpiece. This lets the straws out, but leaves a much larger hole for the mouthpiece.

A friend of mine tells a story where a flute did not play. Nothing rattled when the flute was shaken so he concluded there was nothing inside the flute. But it was a puzzling situation until he shone a powerful flashlight into the flute and discovered someone had put a small piece of fleece in through the mouthhole.   It did not rattle, but it stopped the flute from working.

4.  Someone sat on the flute.

You’d be amazed that people will forget that they sat on their flute.  Until I ask them.  Then they remember, “Oh yea, I did sit on my flute.  I’d set it on the couch.”

A flute can crack and the crack is not always visible. If you blow through the flute and you can hear air escaping – the sound a tire puncture emits – then your flute is cracked somewhere. The flute is not really repairable.

Best prevention is to remember to never place your flute on a chair or couch where people sit.

5.  Someone drove or rode over the flute.

The crack or break is visible.  Don’t set your flute down on sidewalks, roadways or skate parks.

6.  Someone stepped on your flute.

Seldom intentionally.  This is comparable to #4 but with a different part of the body.  Again, if the flute is cracked, it is not really repairable.

7.  The dog used the flute as a stick.

I had two parents return to my booth during a Christmas show one year after buying a flute for their son the previous Christmas. They said their son loved his flute. But he left it on the kitchen table and their large dog thought it was a stick and took it off the table to play with. They needed a new flute for their son.

8.  Someone colors with a crayon or puts gum on the nest  (where the bird sits on the flute).

If the true sound hole has been altered, the flute cannot play. Often when people say their flute does not play they are unaware that a child has taken the flute, removed the bird, and found two holes that they try to color with a crayon. Or to poke gum through one of the holes. This can render the flute unplayable.

The cure for these kinds of problems is not to let your flute be played without your supervision.  It is not a child’s toy. Even adults who have not read any instructions on how best to care for a Native American style flute can sometimes harm the flute — unknowingly, of course.

9.  The flute went swimming.

You have no idea that your flute was taken swimming.   It is possible the flute is wet inside and you can’t tell from the outside.  Remove the bird and let the flute dry.  Don’t cook the flute in the oven or microwave!  Never.

But if the flute does not dry out on the inside, it may well never play again.  If a wood flute gets dropped into a swimming pool, the chlorine can damage the finish of the inside of the flute.  Again, you cannot see the damage, but you know by the absent or wounded voice of the flute, that something unhealthy has happened.


I have listed nine reasons your flute might not play.  Most of these I have learned from people who have contacted me to diagnose their flute’s silence.

If you know of other reasons your flute has stopped producing clear tones,  please contribute them in the comment section of this post.  Thanks!

2 comments

  1. This is some very handy information. The ghost crack is a real bummer, indeed!

    Like

    1. Yes, a crack is definitely not good. Usually something is done to the flute to create a crack — whether leaving it a hot car or sitting on it or…

      Like

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