by Howard Fosdick © FolkFluteWorld.com.
Ever heard of a flutophone? Millions of schoolchildren were first introduced to musical instruments by way of this simple flute. In fact, manufacturer Grover/Trophy Musical Products states that some 50 million of the flutes have been sold since they started marketing it in 1949!
To joggle your memory, here's how they look:
Photos courtesy of Grover/Trophy Musical Products
Depending on your perspective, you might consider this instrument:
- Nothing but a toy
- A musical toy useful for early childhood education
- A starter or "preband" instrument to get schoolchildren interested in playing music
- A fun, inexpensive little flute that even an adult might enjoy playing
- A ill-tuned toy unworthy of adult interest
Actually, each of those views has some validity. This article dares tread where no serious musician has ever gone before: it tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the flutophone. Let's unravel the mystery of one of the most popular musical instruments ever sold.
In the late 1930s, several inventors hit upon the idea of introducing young children to music through instruments made of newly-available plastics. They believed that very inexpensive, durable toy instruments could be used to teach children about music and musical instruments.
Two plastic flutes quickly rose to prominence. Ziegner Swanson invented the tonette, and by the early 1940s, half the nation's schoolchildren were tooting the little plastic flute.
At about the same time, Elver Fitchhorn invented the song flute. Like the tonette, this was a simple, keyless flute with a range of about 1 and 1/3 octaves. It also played all accidentals within its limited range. Both instruments were keyed in C, with their lowest note the same as the soprano recorder. This makes it easy to find sheet music that can be used for their melody lines.
Into this fray stepped Joe Thompson (1897-1968), based in Covington, Ohio. Thompson was a farmer and musician. He switched to music full-time when he opened his Thompson-Etter Music Store in 1939. He followed his curiosity and invented several plastic musical instruments. His big hit, of course, was his flutophone. Thompson designed the instrument in with the help of Maurice Eidemiller. Then, in 1943, he contracted a plastics-molding company named Trophy Plastics in Elyria, Ohio for production.
Thompson's flutophone was similar to its competition in several respects. It was tunable with a moveable mouthpiece, like the tonette. It also was tuned to the key of C, had a similar range, and played all sharps and flats within that range.
In 1949, the established Grossman Brothers Music Company acquired Trophy, and production was in full swing. The competition between the flutophone, tonette, and song flute was full on for the next several decades.
Book Cover of "Flutophone and Tonette for Beginners"
These three "preband" instruments remained dominant in American education until the 1970s or 1980s. That's when inexpensive plastic recorders first became available. The recorder's holes are arguably harder for small fingers to cover than the raised holes of the "big three." But the instrument is way more musically capable. Not only can it play two full octaves, but its accurate pitch and pure tone renders it a much more serious musical instrument.
Plastic recorders forced the tonette out of the competition. The flutophone and song flute continue on. But their sales are largely restricted to elementary school children now. Middle and high school students instead adopt the recorder.
Grossman Brothers Music Company has long since changed its name to Grover Musical Products, and sales of its venerable flutophone continue. Meanwhile, new kinds of preband instruments have been introduced by several companies including Nuvo, Yamaha, and Suzuki. And that's where we are today.
How to Play
Playing the flutophone is simplicity itself, which is obviously one key to its great popularity. To play up the scale, you cover all holes with your fingers. Then progressively release them in order, one at a time.
The fingering chart on the left shows how the flutophone's simple fingering is the same as that of the tonette and the song flute. The one on the right specifically addresses the flutophone. You can see that the instrument has a range of 9 whole notes:
Aside from its limited range, tuning is another flutophone limitation. The specimens I've played are rarely fully in tune with themselves. You have to be very conscious of your breath pressure across the scale to get some notes at accurate pitch.
Finally, there is the instrument's tone. It sounds like the very inexpensive plastic flute it is. I'd describe it as "mid-century plastic whistle."
As I mention in my articles on the tonette and song flute, those competitors offer tonal beauty within their limited range. This is assuming that you play good specimens of these two instruments, as the production quality varied greatly over the years (those made after the 1960s sound inferior).
All these flutophone limitations are fine, if we accept that the flutophone is a tool to introduce young children to music. Its design goal is education. It is not intended as a truly capable musical instrument.
Understood in this way, the flutophone has more than fulfilled its destiny. It's a fun little educational horn for children. And it's safe, durable, and attractive. Which is why 50 million have been sold over the past 80 years.
How does it sound?
- This original composition gives you a good idea of how the flutophone sounds to most of us
- Here's a fun snippet of a speed flutist really going to town on his flutophone
- Here's another dexterous performance by a flutophone fan
I especially like that first example because it shows how regular folks can enjoy making music and exercising their creativity even with an instrument as inexpensive and limited as the flutophone.
Part of the flutophone's genius is that it's in the same key (C) as the soprano recorder, and that it shares the same base note (C5). The result is that you can play music written for any of a number of folk flutes, including recorder, tonette, song flute, ocarina and tin whistle in C, and many more.
There's no need to buy any sheet music. Just go to our list of free downloads.
Other free resources that might be helpful are available here.
The flutophone has survived and prospered for 80 years, and will likely live into the next century, too. It's inexpensive, durable, and safe for small children. They find it attractive and it fits their smaller hands.
Sure, it has severe musical limitations. But as an introduction to music and the joy of children might find in making it for themselves, it's tough to beat.