Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Flute tapers, fade-outs, diminuendos, note endings, soft-endings

Questions and answers about learning how to play softly, play diminuendos with good tone, create tapered note endings on flute.

I'm working on long tones and dynamics, this morning and hoping to correct a problem I've noticed in my playing a long tone diminuendo. It seems I can only make the tone go thin, sounding breathless and weak, instead of making it sound clear, while becoming softer and softer.
What I am trying to achieve is a gentle putting down of the tone to rest on a soft plush bed, all the while keeping it in pitch, not killing it by choking it to death. So far, I manage to stay in pitch only by cutting short the life of my poor tone.... (Some would call this mercy killing....but they are not on my Christmas card sending list.)

Jen, if you read this, I have read through your page on flute dynamics but I just don't "grock" the concept. I must be doing the voyel "E" all wrong, because all I seemed to produce this way was "a paper bag full of wasps" kind of sound....
Where oh where am I going wrong...?
Any hints on how to improve (ahem... Acquire, let's be honest) a diminuendo? signed: M
Matt writes:
Dear M.
Have you tried first playing which ever note you're trying to diminuendo on at different volumes first getting a good centred tone? For example playing a whole note ff,f,mf,mp,p,pp first?
Perhaps do that before you begin practising diminuendo on any note.
Then after gaining a really good centred tone at each dynamic level you'll have the steadiness in the embouchure for diminuendo.
I'm sure Jen will have plenty of good ideas. Matt.

Dear Diminuendo-dudes,
Ah yes.....
Diminuendo. The 37-part learning process.
You flutey dudes have a tremendous amount of faith in me, I must say. :>)
Looking through ALL my "how to" books on flute playing, (Debost, Kincaid, Wye, Gilbert, Hill, Mather etc.) I see that "how to
diminuendo" is frighteningly under-discussed. Do you wonder why?????
It's a mammoth topic. I wonder if I should even try....

To start, I'd definitely take Matt's very good advice and practise playing a given pitch for a long held, pure toned whole note at every dynamic until you find a sustainable piano and pianissimo, with great tone, and then go from there.
Geez.......if Trevor Wye can't describe it in words... do you really think I can???
Best, Jen

M. replies:
Ah! Good tip for the decrescendo, this. Giving each note it's own value, in a decreasing order before linking them up. Thanks Matt. I will try that.
How would you go about diminishing the same note from, let's say f to pp. I tend to go "fluittt" to "pffftttt hack cough"... I stay in pitch (or go slightly flat), but the quality of sound just isn't there at the end.
Please, Jen. How do YOU do a diminuendo on a long tone? I hear, in my head, how I want it to sound, but I can't get anywhere close to
replicating the strong but gentle sound I'm hearing. Hugely frustrating!
signed M

Dear M.

There are many many many variables. There's no simple answer.

If for example, you are playing with a beautifully clear tone quality at mezzo forte, and are completely relaxed, secure and without extraneous effort (that's the starting point, of course for everything---but having a flute coach really helps with the reality check) then there are several ways to reduce the volume:

a) blowing slower air (although this alone will cause the note to go flat in pitch) This must be balanced with a motion that will again RAISE the pitch back up again. For example...

b) raising the air stream upward (angling up) so less air goes into the flute by either.... pushing the lower lip slightly (.05 mm) forward, or bringing both lips slightly forward together (as if about to say "oooo" or "euuuu")

c) pressing the lower lip vertically straight upwards so that it pushes the upper lip slighly farther upward from below. By doing this the air stream angle naturally becomes higher. The upper lip can also have a rounded centre, to keep the tone sweet.

d) raising the tongue as though saying AH, Ehhh, Eeee, so that there the air speeds up as it passes through a smaller mouth cavity

e) raising the lower teeth so that the lower lip naturally rises vertically with it.

f) raising the lower lip upward at the corners (like a strange corner-smile) so that the lower lip uncovers the blowing hole slightly to raise the pitch. (this is from Gilbert)

Each method depends on the level of the student's embouchure control.
If they have no control yet in the center of the lips, they will find each method challenging or too tricky yet to completely control, and all for different reasons.

If the flutist does have great control over the center of the lips (they play from "the inner lips" , not too tight to the teeth, with lower lip quite stable) then they will find each method gives more or less control depending on context and pitch.
It's important to note that professional players often keep the air speed much faster, throat much more open, and lips much more soft for pianissimo playing than do students first trying it. And it's also important to note that the range of dynamics on flute is not that large, and creating tone colour changes (reducing or expanding the harmonic overtones in the sound) are very valuable for giving the effect of a dynamic change.

Personally, I have tried many different methods I find that the common errors are what really get in the way of student success:
Common diminuendo errors:
- the flutist drops the air speed at too rapid a rate, and the pitch is going flat even before they begin to employ their chosen method of raising the angle of the air. This causes the student to start squeezing their lips to try and save the dropping pitch too late. This is too much of a tension-producer.

This is why learning to sustain whole notes at each dynamic (FF, F, mf, mp, p and then pp) is prescribed as a starting goal instead of diminuendo itself. The lips need to be cushioning and holding the core of the sound without taking emergency journies to save flat notes at the same time.

- the flutist tries to play TOO quietly all at once. Playing 'pp' can take several *months* of ten minutes or more a day of exercises on pitch and soft/loud playing.

- the flutist doesn't realize that every note on the flute has a different air-speed/embouchure, and bendability for dynamic and pitch. Often students accidently start their experiments with diminuendo-ing on the most difficult notes first (high F#3, E3,or perhaps the very bendable left hand notes in the middle octave (A2, B2, or the one-fingered open notes of C and C#) or they start on very high notes. Eeek! :>P)

Other errors:
Typically students may also have these problems to deal with early on:

- the flutist mistakenly closes off the air in the throat, causing a tight sound which strangles their tone. Throat should stay open; air flow should be well supported by open and resonant lungs.

- the flutist mistakenly over-tightens, squeezes or puckers their lips to control their too-slow air flow which also strangles the tone. (bumpy crumpled lips produce turbulence in the sound. You need smooth, soft inner lip surfaces to hold a note a soft dynamics.)

- the flutist *puckers* the lower lip and thus loses contact with the lip plate (try leaving the lower lip flush to the embouchure plate, and minutely adjusting the upper instead.)

- the flutist thrusts the jaw more and more forward, losing control over the blow hole because it's too far away (this is also very damaging/tiring to the jaw hinge.)

- the flutist forgets to 'stay on the sweet spot' in their effort to sound softer. The tone must come BEFORE the effect of diminuendo. Remember to stay on the sweetspot. Remember to keep the upper lip involved in aiming at the 'sweet spot.'

Take time to experiment: even if it means you seem to be playing less than the ultimate "pppp" during your first week. :>)

How to begin work on dynamics and diminuendos:

1. Firstly I get the flute student to develop a very clear and reliable tone, so that they are always on the "sweet spot" and develop a memory of where it is for each note, or can find it quickly if they lose it.

2. Next, we develop the flutist's cresendo: going from comfortable MF to forte and fortissimo by crescendo that relaxes and opens more and more. This is done so that they are blowing easily, freely, and have an open jaw, open throat, release uneeded tension, have good air flow/support and use a large body resonance (open chest). "Fulness of Tone" from De La Sonorite by Moyse has a good exercise for this.

Otherwise soft playing always sounds poor in tone, or starts from too tense or constricted a sound.

3. Next we experiment with angling the air stream upward or downward for various effects on pitch and tone. Eventually after much practise the student will find this easier to do in the center of the embouchure rather than by large lip motions. Trevor Wye's Tone (vol. 1 of Practice Books for the Flute) has quite a few pages on this; pitch bending, and tapering etc.
I find that Werner Richter's book on Embouchure is also marvelous for this for more advanced students ("Conditioning Training for the flutist" from )

4. Once the student has more control over the center of the embouchure (is not moving the corners of the lips as much), and has more "inner lip" is being used to aim the air", we experiment with both raising the lower teeth, or dropping the teeth and pulling the upper lip down over a well-open jaw.

These are referred to as FULP and PLOT when described by Walfrid Kujala in his article (on my blog.)

Forte = upper lip pulls down (Forte Upper Lip Pulls down)
Piano = Lower Teeth rise. (Piano LOwer Teeth rise up)

This gives a sense of controlling the pitch for very soft playing whether entering at a soft dynamic, or tapering off to a soft dynamic. Simple LOUD/soft terraced dynamics in Baroque music are useful for learning this.

5. To further aid the colours and range and dynamics possible, we next experiment with:
Ah, Eh, Eeee, and oooo, as described by Wilkinson in "The Physical Flute" book. This allows you to change the size of the mouth cavity using the tongue.

Tongue re-positioning is very useful in situations where you have to sustain a long time on little air. But it also is fabulous for note tapers that happen fast and must be precisely controlled.

(Galway uses forward tongue placement in soft playing, and Keith Underwood develops this tongue position in "buzzing 101" in his flute videos.)

6. Next, I employ the vertical raising of the lower lip, (discussed by Nyfenger in "Music and the Flute"). I also find it useful to be aware of the possibility of lessening the pressure of the left hand so that the flute is not so severely clamped to the chin.
Combining this with the tongue being forward as in "eee" gives you three variables on control for soft fade-outs.

7. Finally we place the vibrato level and vowel sound for the shimmer and colour. As in the Galway Weggis Masterclass singing lesson with Patrick which was online a week or two ago, certain vowels give a head tone, chest tone, or face-tone, which can be used to alter the audible harmonics so that a very soft dim. can still be heard from very far away in a large hall. This is a high level of finesse that will come much later, but useful to know.

All the techniques above are very useful at the higher "finesse" levels when you have to obtain or maintain a certain pitch, a certain colour AND a certain volume.
The variables are endless (large halls vs. small chamber music rooms; playing with piano vs. playing with string players and the changes in pitch expectations; tone colour choices for different repertoire and different moments in different pieces.)

I would hesitate to give any more 'blanket instructions' without seeing the student play and ascertaining their tone quality first.
As Keith P. says "Don't risk paralysis by analysis" and over-think the skills. Just work on one level at a time staying relaxed, experimental, and always listening.

This long winded typing is what happens when I have to IMAGINE what flutists are doing after reading email descriptions only.
I have to imagine all the possibilities instead of just dealing with the student standing before me. And yes, there should be a prize for multiple-imagining where no flute lessons are actually taking place.

D'oh! :>)

Hope this helps but do go and watch a real flutist really do these things,
Best, Jen :>)
Comments (3)
Blogger Jen Cluff said...

Dear Flutists,
I'm so grateful that the following just came into my inbox:
Hello Jen,

Just wanted to say your posts are the best I have ever seen. You are a really excellent communicator, and you have taught me a lot (and I have a MM in flute and have taught and played all over hell and back!)

I am now going into health care and do some limited teaching. I actually use your posts as supplemental teaching for students and parents. It's not that I am lazy, it's that your posts are that good!



You are a role model for all young people entering the flute world, especiallly the young women who can look to you and see a face and a person that is nurturing, capable, and accomplished that they can also relate to.

Please keep doing what you are doing.

I am the parent of a grade six student who is about to learn the flute. She has just gotten her first flute (it is second hand), and found she is excited but anxious about taking on this new instrument. She visited your site, and found in it a treasure chest of inspiration and knowlege.

Thank you
A grateful father

Thanks to everyone who's written such supportive and uplifting emails. You are SO kind.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008 10:28:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree (strongly agree!) with the person signing as "S." Many of us have masters degrees in performance and still are far from satisfied with our pitch control, breath support, round sound, etc. I love your valuable tips and explanations. Thank you for being a resource for so many people. Please don't stop! Anne

Saturday, September 12, 2015 10:51:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Anne,
It's people like you and S. that make my day (or year in this case! ha ha.)
Thankyou so so so much for your kind words. I can't help myself; I'll keep going on this blog; don't you worry!
The big explainer, Jen :>D

Saturday, September 12, 2015 11:19:00 AM


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