Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why is my tone inconsistent from day to day?

Dear Flutists,
Why is it that some days I have fabulous tone straight off the bat, and others the tone is fuzzy, insecure, and hard to achieve?

There are several reasons why tone production is slow to come on
certain days. The body's "bio-rhythmic co-ordination" is cyclic, and some days it is
simply more co-ordinated than others.

But also, a common fault is that the flutist attempts to play
something complex before being fully warmed up, after missing a day or
two of practice.

What you want is a "sound quality checklist" or "embouchure/breathing
warmup method" that covers the basics. (see links to articles below)
Your flute teacher will teach you all about this if you ask.

However, as we are all biological creatures with good and bad days, there will still be some days that are quicker than others for centering the tone and getting the lungs to operate well. The sensitivity and condition of the lips also
play a role. I find exercises that increase lip sensitivity, and reduce the complexity of the task are very useful. (see all flute skill book list in pdf)

Tone going " suddenly fuzzy" is very common in flute students. Gradually, over
time, they learn what the most common reasons are, and know how to fix them themselves.
Some of the most common reasons for unexpected poor tone quality are:

The flutist may be:

1. Using insufficient air speed from the lungs (breathing apparatus is
not as co-ordinated or strong as it was the day before).

2. Using a tight throat to speed up the air instead of the abdominal
torso muscles that aid the lungs in exhaling.

A good video on the use of the throat in flute playing is covered in Robert Dick's "Throat Tuning" and "Silent Singing" teaching: Video

3. Creating an opening in the lips that is to one side or the other,
and not centered to blow at the center of the blow hole. The use of a mirror on the music stand is the most helpful solution to this problem.

Other reasons for inconsistent tone quality:

4. The flutist has placed the flute on the chin in a new or unusual way that they
are unaware of, so that the lip's approach to the flute has been

5. The flutist has changed the placement of the lips' relationship to eachother
(upper lip is too tight against the teeth, or lower lip is rolled inward)

6. The flutist has changed the placement of the headjoint on the body of the
flute, requiring them to tuck their chin down, or lift their chin up
which changes the balanced relationship of the head, and therefore the
lips' approach to the flute's blow hole.

7. Has rolled the flute inward or outward with the hands to a position
that the lips cannot accomodate as well as they did the day before

A good coaching flute teacher can help with all the above.

Or the flutist:

8. Has less sensitivity in the center of the lips, on the inner lip
membrane. Perhaps this is because they are not yet aware of the "wet part" of the inner lips, which is the best way to angle the airstream into the flute.

9. Has allowed the tongue to form a new shape in the mouth that is
blocking the air to the lips, or crowding the inner mouth, reducing
resonance. Awareness of the tongue's position in the mouth and the root of the tongue staying out of the way of the sound quality is key to improving ones own mouth-awareness.

10. Has placed the flute off-center on the lower lip so that the lip
aperture is hitting the air-stream's splitting point obliquely. Again, a mirror will show this.

11. The lips are dry, cracked, flakey etc. Often a humid environment
(hot shower or bath, followed by application of lip balm in winter)
can help, if this is the case.

12. The extraneous pressures or movements of the fingers are causing the flute to flip and flop at the lip.

Links to articles on all these topics are found below.

If you wish to have a consistent tone from day to day, you'll want to
do the following things:

1. Practice consistently:
a) Practice every day (skipping days causes loss of memory for
sensations that "work")
b) Increase your sensitivity to correct sensations and what exact tonal changes those personal sensations create.

2. Study with a teacher who can "spot you" to see and hear what you're doing when the tone goes wrong.

3. With your teacher's help, systematically develop your own check
of the angles and the air use that give you your best sound

4. Investigate exercises (overblowing harmonics, singing-while-playing etc.) that center the tone and correct the amount of air use and aim. (pdf)

5. Use a mirror, a sound recorder (in your weekly lessons as well as at home) and jot down discoveries in a note-book to keep records of your successes.

6. Have your teacher check your flute for:
Leaking pads, leaking cork, cracks in mouthpiece solder, gunk
buildup in blow hole etc.

Here are some articles that might be useful:

Breathing easily for flute.

Using the lungs in their best muscular way to free the throat from tightening:
Blowing Forte Article.

Reducing Throat Tightness.

Longtone Warmups: (free pdfs).

Sudden Tone Loss - Causes/Solutions.

Lining up the Headjoint for easier balance.

Using a mirror to center the embouchure (pdf).

Using the inner lip membrane for good tone: (Marcel Moyse's advice).

General articles on Tone.

Reducing fumbling fingers which can unbalance the flute.

Finding stability on the chin for the flute.

And do write back and let us know which of the ideas worked best for your tone production consistency.

Best, Jen
Comments (4)
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I was wondering if you could provide any advice for producing the notes C Sharp 4 and D Natural 4 [Flute Notation], as in, how wide the embouchure should be and how fast the air stream must be, etc. I actually find that out of the 10 times I try to play either, it only comes out 30% of the time.. [It's quite sad really..]


Friday, April 20, 2012 9:47:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Hi Anonymous,

The embouchure charts in Volume 2 of "The Art of Playing the Flute" by Roger Mather are fabulous for "at a glance" summaries of embouchure width, placement, and embouchure hole coverage.
Whereas the 3rd octave is up to 2/3rds of blow hole coverage with a smaller lip opening and a 45-degree downward angle of blowing, the 4th octave is 1/4 blow hole coverage (lower lip uncovers the blow hole), the angle is almost horizontal, and the lip opening is quite wide.
Do you have the Mather books? This is very easy to look up.
Best, Jen

Saturday, April 21, 2012 12:16:00 AM

Blogger Julie said...

Hi Jen,

Thanks so much for discussing the use of the throat for good tone production. After watching Robert Dick's video, I realized that on good days I AM using my throat in much this same way....I just hadn't quite realized what I was doing and why I was doing it. It was happening at more of a subconscious level, and, as a result, I wasn't experiencing the consistency that I wanted.

I love being more in control of that!

I am a part-time flute teacher, and I am wondering at what point you would recommend introducing this concept to a student? It seems like it would be appropriate for some of my high school age students, although I think some of them will be too embarrassed to try it!


Monday, April 23, 2012 2:54:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Hi Julie,
When to introduce "singing while playing". That's an excellent question. Some students are shy about it, but are willing to try it first at home, after the lesson. Others have no shyness as long as the teacher does it first. I try and introduce it as a "funk" sound from Rock n'Roll a la Jethro Tull, or nowadays, beat-boxing. In this way it's attractive from age 10 or 11 and up. Mostly I teach it to 13 yrs. of age and up, especially if the student is motivated and can see the usefulness right away for:
a) making groovin rock funk sounds
b) improving their air/throat/tone quality in three minutes for instantly satisfying tone improvements.
So I would introduce it to all students as soon as needed (in their 2nd or 3rd year of lessons) and don't mind that they feel embarrassed. Some of the most embarrassed students have come back the next week having mastered it.
Don't be shy. Make a stompin' rock-funk fool of yourself, and they'll have a laugh at the same time, that's my motto. hahhahaa. :>)
Best, Jen

Monday, April 23, 2012 3:38:00 PM


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