I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately from parents coming in to upgrade their student’s flute about the purpose of open-holed keys on the flute. Truth be told, there are a lot of differing philosophies about this subject, and the trends are different depending on where you are in the world, believe it or not! Here are some of the most basic reasons for why most flutes you’ll encounter, besides student flutes, will have open holes.
As flutes evolved from an instrument with no keys but simply holes which were covered by the fingers, to ring keys (similar to a clarinet), to the traditional keys we see on French-style flutes today, open holes have generally been the standard of how keys were constructed, particularly in the United States. Plateau-style, or closed-hole keys, came a bit later and are almost universally used on student flutes, as the player gets used to the proper hand position. Once a flutist upgrades to an intermediate step-up flute or higher, open holes becomes the new standard. This feature requires more accurate finger placement on the keys, which can improve technique. As a flutist transitions from closed to open holes, plugs made of plastic, silicone, or cork can be used to close the holes until finger reach and technique improve. A set of plugs comes with every instrument sold at the Indy Flute Shop.
It can be said that open holes also provides more outlets for air to leave the instrument, which can result in more depth and resonance to the instrument’s sound. However, there are many professional players, especially in European countries, that play very high-end instruments with plateau keys, so in all reality this difference is minimal. There are other good uses for open holed keys, such as alternate fingerings for intonation purposes, as well as extended techniques such as note bending and glissandi.
The bottom line is that in the United States, it is very uncommon to have anything besides a student flute with open holes. Most manufacturers require a special order for a closed-hole instrument, if it is offered at all. I generally suggest for players that are uncomfortable with this concept to simply keep the plugs in the instrument. For more information and a visual of these keys, check out this video from the IFS archives.