Getting Experimental: Singing and Playing on the Flute

Photo by Charles Parker on Pexels.com

Hey there musicians! Spring has finally sprung! And I am so glad to be back for another guest post this Flute Friday. My name is Aleah, and I’m going to be talking about the benefits of singing and playing. 

I have been admittedly practicing more guitar and piano than I have been flute lately…And it’s been apparent in my tone. Uh oh. One way I like to get my embouchure and breath support back into shape is by playing overtones, and, from singing (humming) and playing. 

Singing and Playing: An Introduction 

Did you know that you can both sing and play the flute at the same time? When the concept was first introduced to me in undergrad, I nearly scoffed out loud during my lesson. My flute professor wanted me to do what?!

My prof was working on a solo piece by a modern Iranian composer, which involved singing different tones than what you were playing. I wish I could recall the name of the piece and or the composer, but alas, it escapes me. 

When I expressed interest in trying out the technique myself, all the etudes and bookwork I had been assigned went to the wayside, and we focused the entire lesson on singing and playing. While I didn’t succeed for the first week (and didn’t get much besides a spitting sound the first day…), this is now one of my favorite ways to warm up. 

Singing and playing is one of the three ways we can create multiphonics on the flute. This technique is easier to create on the flute than on other winds because the flute has such a low level of resistance (back pressure). 

Background: Singing and playing is a 21-st century extended technique. This technique can be found in genres from contemporary classical, and flute beatboxing, to modern jazz. 

And while it isn’t found in flute repertoire very often (There actually isn’t even a standardized way to notate it yet!), I find it to be one of the most helpful ways to practice. Here’s why: 

  • It improves your tone
  • It trains your ears
  • It helps you conserve your breath
  • It gets you multitasking

Before I dive too deeply into the benefits of this technique, here are a few tips for getting both your ‘hum’ and your flute tone to sound simultaneously:

  • Stop being such a ‘good flute player’
  • Start by singing the same note you are playing  
  • Try alternating between starting your hum first then adding the flute note in, and then vice versa 

When we try and keep our embouchure very focused and proper, oftentimes, extended techniques will not sound at all. Get experimental with your embouchure. Think about that feeling when you do percussive tonguing or other extended techniques you don’t typically see in Classical-Era classical music. Don’t be “A good flute player”. 

While you may be tempted to jump right into turning this new flute party trick into a multi-phonic, you may want to hold the phone for just a minute. I found the most success with starting out on the same note in both my voice and the flute. It doesn’t necessarily need to be in the same octave, though.

The last tip I have before I really get into the ‘pros’ of singing and playing is this: Don’t try and do both at once! This may sound counterintuitive, but adding in the voices one-at-a-time, so to speak, will help you have better control. 

The Benefits of Singing and Playing 

It Makes Your Tone More Resonant 

When you sing and play at the same time, it forces your throat to be open. Tight throats are an enemy of any flutist looking to have a soaring and brilliant high range. If your throat is too closed, the hum simply doesn’t come out or is very weak. Balancing the levels of the two voices is key. 

As I’ve been teaching a new adult student of mine these past few weeks, I’ve been talking more and more about the changes I’ve been noticing in my throat as I transition to different air directions or targets. 

It Trains Your Ears

Because the flute is so close to you, it is very difficult to sing a different note than what you are playing, even if it isn’t dissonant.  You know when you are having a great tone day, and you can feel every note you play reverberating in your fingers? Now, try going against the grain. 

Fight against that tonic, and hum something else over top of it. 

And octave? Pretty easy. 

A tritone? Not so much. But with practice, you can really improve your ear training and even sight-singing by doing this. 

It Forces You to Conserve Your Breath

Even if you decide to keep practicing humming/ singing the same note that you are playing, you still are focusing on an essential skill on the flute: conserving your breath. 

As an asthmatic and classical flutist, I should honestly incorporate this into my practice more often. 

When I am singing and playing, I imagine this small graphic in my mind- The air from my lungs coming up, and splitting into two equal parts: 50% for singing, and 50% for playing the flute. Now, I’m not exactly sure how scientifically accurate that description is, but nevertheless, when you sing and play, you will need to conserve your air for sake of expression. 

Multitasking 

This extended technique almost feels like playing the piano, when it comes to the sheer brainpower it takes to make it happen. Who says flutes can’t play two notes at once?! 

Pieces

Once you get your feet wet and are incorporating singing and playing into your daily practice, consider adding one the following pieces into your repertoire: 

-Lookout (Robert Dick) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCFjaRSCHS0 

-The Great Train Race (Ian Clarke) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHzBFZmGsDo 

Lookout is one of Robert Dick’s most famous pieces- and for good reason!  This piece for flute alone is both haunting and ethereal. The Great Train Race is probably the most daunting piece that I’ve heard with this type of multiphonic (But it has other extended techniques in it as well). If you’ve always been a train enthusiast, or just like a good challenge, this one’s for you! 

Conclusion

Diane Picchiottino

Whether you want to improve your singing and playing to have a new (and impressive) flute technique under your belt, or to improve your air conservation and tone, it’s worth taking the time to check out! 

Have you ever tried singing and playing? What tip helped you consistently get both tones to sound? Comment down below!

Oh- and happy (experimental) fluting! 

Aleah Fitzwater is a classical flutist and music educator with a passion for arranging pop-punk and alternative songs for flute choir. She also teaches people how to digitize sheet music with optical music recognition on the ScanScore blog: https://scan-score.com/en/scanscore-blog/ 

You can find more of her multi-genre fluting on Youtube, Instagram, and Spotify under Aleah Fitzwater, and AleahFlute.https://aleahfitzwater.com/ 

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