Welcome to another edition of Flute Friday!
Whenever I am nervous prior to a performance or audition, the first thing to go is my sound. What was beautiful and crystal clear 24 hours ago suddenly turns into a strangled, airy, tense, cacophony of sound reminiscent of a dying cat. I typically leave the scene of the crime ashamed and confused, knowing very well that that was not the type of flute tone I had wished to project to the world. After experiencing a handful of unsuccessful auditions, I have researched several ways to improve overall flute tone, strengthen embouchure flexibility, and develop a larger, yet reliable, volume of sound. The following top 10 list of tips and tricks is designed to help all of you in Flute Land strengthen your own sound and silence the dying cat within.
1. Posture. Having proper flute posture is the foundation of flute playing. The way you hold yourself and the instrument drastically alters your sound quality, fluidity of technique, and ease of breathing. Sit or stand with your back straight and your head positioned up and forward. Hold your flute as close to parallel with the floor as comfortable (at no more than a 20-degree angle). Make sure to keep one foot slightly in front of the other when standing and properly balance your weight between both feet. While sitting, position yourself at an angle to the music keeping both feet on the floor.
2. Air Support. Tense air leads to tense sound. Remember all of those times that your band and/or orchestra director screamed, “AIR SUPPORT!” in the general direction of the woodwind section during rehearsal? Taking a proper breath and supporting your tone with a steady air stream will center your tone, adding appropriate depth to your sound.
3. Aperture. The space where your lips meet to form the opening for your air stream is referred to as the aperture. A larger aperture creates an airy tone that is quite difficult to control. Practice creating a smaller aperture by practicing long tones in mirror. Faster, more concentrated air will produce a stronger, clearer sound.
4. Record Yourself. Sometimes the tone you hear up close is nothing like the tone others hear at a distance. Unfortunately, your ears can deceive you! Recording yourself and listening critically to your tone may uncover tendencies you did not even know you had. Use your smartphone to create basic recordings or, for better sound quality, invest in a handheld Zoom recorder: Zoom ZH1 H1 Handy Portable Digital Recorder (Black) . Remember: Recordings are mirrors for your ears.
5. Long Tones. This one falls under the “duh” category. Devote time each day to practicing a specific range (low, middle, high) and listen closely to the quality of sound produced on each note. Does the sound change from note to note? Aim to use the same tone on all notes throughout the range of the instrument. A great resource to practice long tones is Trevor Wye’s Practice Book for Flute on Tone (Available on Amazon: Trevor Wye Practice Book for the Flute: Volume 1 – Tone Book Only), which includes a variety of exercises in each octave range. Practicing long tones for 15-20 minutes a day will gradually yet drastically improve your sound over time. It has been rumored that even James Galway devotes at least an hour of practice to long tones per day. Can you match this for at least 1 week?
6. Embouchure Alignment. Align the flute on the lower lip so that the edge of the tone hole lines up with the edge of your lower lip. Most flutists tend to hold the flute higher on the lips than necessary. I remember this tip scribbled across several pages of my flute lesson notebook in my youth but still need to remind myself from time to time to lower my flute.
7. Angle your Airstream. Because only about 1/3 of the air we use goes into the flute and the rest is blown across the tone hole, the angle of the air going into the instrument effects the quality of tone produced by that air. Several years ago, I was taught to aim my air across the room to an area where the farthest wall meets the ceiling. This helped me to keep my pitch from drooping and my tone from falling flat. It is difficult to remember to do this when you are nervous, however, an arrow pointed in the direction of that spot marked on your score serves as a convenient visual reminder to properly aim your air. Keep in mind that what works for one person will not necessarily work for another. Experiment by angling your air both slightly higher (toward the ceiling) and slightly lower (toward the floor) until you find your ideal sound.
8. Tone Hole Coverage. As I was researching for this blog, I had an AHA moment when I remembered that generally only 1/3 of the tone hole should be covered by the lips. If too much of the hole is left uncovered, the tone will be airy. I have been experimenting with the placement of my headjoint for several years now, positioning the tone hole more to the left of standard alignment, after attending a masterclass where I was told that most flutists align their headjoints too far to the right (or closer to the body). I now recall, however, that my childhood flute teacher was always trying to get me to examine not the position of the headjoint but the amount of lip covering the tone hole! Starting today, I will be practicing long tones in a mirror to rectify a past “bad” habit! Conversely, if you are covering too much of the tone hole, your sound will be pinched and flat. Use a mirror to monitor and correct coverage. Your tone will magically improve.
9. Harmonics. Practicing harmonics is like working on the very foundation of sound production. A simple harmonic warm-up exercise is to play a low C and, by moving your lips slightly forward with each new pitch and increasing air speed between notes, sound a low C, middle C, middle G, high C, high E, high G and even a high Bb using the same fingering for a low C. When you return the lower register, you will notice a larger, more rounded and significantly more colorful sound.
10. Practice Outdoors. When I was growing up on my family’s tree farm in rural Northern Idaho, I often practiced in our old barn which conveniently contained a smaller space that was once an enclosed storage room. After years of difficult winters and spectacular wind storms, the outer walls and roof of this room had been torn down leaving a wonderful, rustic private stage. On this stage during the warmer seasons of the year, I would put on concerts for the trees, practicing my long tones, scales, solos, and orchestral repertoire for the greenery surrounding me. What I did not realize at the time, that I have now come to appreciate in my adulthood, is that it is easy to fill up a small room with a small sound but rather difficult to fill a forest with the same voice. Playing outdoors helped me to develop sound projection and taught me to not be afraid to play loudly. Although I am not about to step onto my balcony in Houston and start belting out some Chaminade, I know there will always be a place in the country that will welcome my sound and help me improve my ability to project at large distances. If you have a place like this in the country or even have access to an outdoor space on a larger parcel of land, reserve some time to practice outdoors. Upon your return to the recital hall, your sound will be much larger and project beyond your wildest expectations.
Do you have techniques that have improved your tone? Have any of the above tips changed your playing for better? Please comment below!