What's With the Giant 4? A brief Intro to the Contrabass Flute
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
The flute. That shiny little metal instrument, playing those magical melodies and fanciful flurries.
So, what do you get when you let it grow up?
The contrabass flute.
What in the world is a contrabass flute?
Well, as you can tell from my 10-Year Challenge picture above, it's a big flute, a REALLY big flute. In all seriousness, let's talk about the contrabass flute. You've probably seen a flute and probably know what a flute is, so we can use it as a reference.
The contrabass flute, sometimes referred to as the "contra" in the flute community, plays a full two octaves below the concert flute. While most low flutes don't come with a B-foot, the option for one is standard on contras. [Side note: A flute has a few parts to it; the last of which is called the "foot joint". It can consist of either two or three keys. If it has two, then it's called a C-foot. If it has three, then it's called a B-foot. When the two keys are depressed, it creates a C. If three are, then it creates a B, hence the names. Picture below. top is C-foot, bottom is B-foot.]
For sheet music, players generally read the same music as a concert flutist would, but each note just sounds 2 octaves lower. For example, if the sheet music has this note written,
it would sound like this note on the contra.
Where would one find a contrabass flute? Why haven't I seen one before?
Have you ever seen a flute orchestra? If the answer is "no", then that's probably why you haven't seen a contra before. Contras are fairly rare, but have been gaining popularity nowadays. There are very few contrabass flute soloists, so you probably haven't seen someone playing it that way, but they're mostly used in flute orchestras. Nowadays, more people are starting to play them. I'm part of a Facebook Group that consists of low flutes players, and I see more and more people post about either getting their own contra or their flute orchestra getting a contra. These posts are usually asking questions, such as how to set it up, what's "normal" for a new player, etc. So it looks like in the near future, the contra should become more known!
What can a contrabass flute do?
1) Low Notes
In a flute orchestra, the main role of a contrabass flute is to provide bass. Interestingly, even though the lowest note it plays is only the C two octaves below middle C (or B if you have a B-foot), when you get below its lowest A, it has a very fat sound that makes it feel like a string bass or a tuba. One time, I even ended up playing the tuba part for orchestra at church. We don't have a tuba player (or any low instruments for that matter), but with that group, adding in the contrabass flute actually gave it fairly good bottom.
Believe it or not, this giant can play melodic lines pretty well. Given that it's a woodwind instrument, it can actually play pretty quick, too! Throughout its range, it can play with the same agility. The only difference is timbre (tone color). Here are its ranges and timbres:
Lowest notes until lowest A-ish: Super full bass sound
A or Bb until mid octave E: Very open sounding and very full and mellow; be careful when using a mic on these notes. They get picked up very easily and can actually overload a mic and cause clipping.
F until higher octave C: Somewhat airy with a slight grainy texture
Higher octave C until highest notes: Fairly airy, and it gets more airy the higher you go, but...it can be used for dramatic effect! =D
Below is an example showing most of the range of the instrument. I have another video that showcases around mid C until the highest E that this thing can play, which is pretty ridiculously high for a contrabass flute. It's also on that same channel. If you look for the one with "Hua Chenyu" in the title.
3) Special effects
The contrabass flute can do lots of crazy things. I'll talk about these things more in depth in a future post, but below is a list of some extended techniques, and a quick description of what they are.
Harmonics: Play the fingering for a low note (best on low Eb and below), then overblow it. That'll produce tones higher in what's called the "harmonic series". Take a bottle and blow over it. Blow at different speeds and you'll get different notes. That's the general idea of harmonics. You can actually play more than one harmonic at the same time on contrabass flute!
Key clicks: The keys on the contrabass flute are LOUD. That can be a nightmare when using a mic, but we might as well put that to good use, right? Click a fingering and you'll hear the note for a quick second. You can play full melodies or basslines solely with clicks. It's kind of a pizzicato effect (string plucking), but also kind of different. More details in a later post!
Multiphonics (singing): Sing a note while playing a note. It's wild. This is one way to play chords on contra.
Multiphonics (by fingerings): Certain fingerings are unstable and produce multiple fundamental tones. If you can control your airstream in the correct ways, you can play all the fundamentals at the same time, producing a chord that contains those notes!
Beatboxing: You may or may not have heard Greg Patillo, the guy that beatboxes on the flute. It creates an effect where you essentially have percussion plus melody. For contra, it's a bit different. Yes, you can still do that and have percussion and melody, but something special about contra is its range. It is LOW, so if you wanted to, you could actually play a full on bassline while beatboxing, which will basically give the effect of bass and drums.
So this was just a quick introduction to an instrument that most people aren't familiar with, let alone know even exists! What do you think about the contrabass flute? Do you have any questions about it? Feel free to leave a comment below and let's start a conversation about it :)