Thursday, February 16, 2017

Clarinetist told me to roll my flutey wrists

Clarinetist says: "Roll your wrists; you're out of tune!"
Dear Jen,
In my concert band rehearsal I was playing along happily when a nearby clarinetist said: “You're out of tune! Roll your wrists!” What does this mean? Why is he telling me that?

“Roll your wrists” derives from a beginner band method which allows the flutist to discover, by holding a long note, and then by deliberately changing the angle of their flute on their chin by very very slowly moving their wrists, whether that long held note they are playing is flat or sharp to a comparison note.

As they slowly, infinitesimally roll their wrists they will hear the flute change pitch and can do some comparison listening as it becomes either more in tune with a comparison pitch, or less so.

As they roll in their flute will go gradually flatter in pitch, and sound more and more "covered" with dark tone.
As they roll out their flute will go sharper in pitch, and sound more and more "airy" with a bright tone.

However “roll your wrists” does not work for anything else except the playing of one long comparison experiment on one long note very very slowly. You cannot roll your wrists while playing the flute in band, and here's my explanation why:

Rolling the flute in and out on your chin changes the tone quality from “too dark and covered" (too rolled in), to "too sharp and airy" (too rolled out.)
At their extremes both of are unattractive flute tone qualities. When we play, we seek the exact middle of the tone spectrum; a balanced sound quality.

 We seek to make the flute mellow and ringing with equal tone quality throughout three octaves. We seek to play in the middle of the pitch; right in tune. We also need to be flexible at the center of the lips, and flexible with our air-speed so we can rise to the right pitch during complex and demanding music. All this takes time and daily practice.

 And I might mention, ha ha, that rolling the wrists while actually playing a phrase of music would be impossible for a clarinet, I imagine. Might affect the old reed embouchure, wot?

On flute:

a) Changing your wrists makes the arms and hands uncomfortable, and the flute feel unstable in the hands. Every finger and every angle is affected. Holding the flute "funny" makes everything feel unstable in the hands. As a result, fingerings may be missed. :>)

b)Wrist rolling disturbs the entire embouchure. The chin plate becomes less and less stable, and you gradually lose all contact with your normal way of forming your lips. Such a sensation is too bizarre to play normally with. So it's not useful when actually playing a phrase.

So it's unlikely an adult flute player is going to roll their flute around and lose all control of it just to find out whether they are individually flat or sharp; it throws everything off about their playing.

Perhaps the person who said “roll your wrists” is not fully knowledgable about the flute but knows just a tiny bit about band-teacher instructions, but not enough to employ the true solution.
Maybe here's what you should do instead:

Solutions: When someone says that you're out of tune:

1. Check your headjoint draw. The amount that it is pulled out is very important and needs to be consistent as you develop. Look at the draw of your headjoint into the barrel of the flute; is the headjoint pulled out the correct amount for your normal tuning?
It should not be pushed all the way in.
A headjoint that is normally pulled out 1/8th to 1/4 of an inch from the barrel is more typical.

 You can find out exactly how much to pull out your headjoint by working with the Tuning CD* over several weeks, and then mark a line, in indelible ink on the flute's tenon where the flute is in tune with the Tuning CD tracks. More in the booklet and links below.

You may find that as you develop, and eventually play with a fuller more professional sound quality that you may eventually pull your headjoint a few millimeters more than you do now, over time.

2. During the rehearsal, if you hear an out of tune portion (or someone mentions it to you) write down the rehearsal number or bar numbers, or put a star or invent a symbol on the music in pencil to show where the "tuning problem" occurred at rehearsal, so that you can remember where it is for when you play the piece again at home. Correct it at home using the Tuning CD.

Then at home:

i) Use the Tuning CD (links below)* to practice the marked passage (bar number or symbol on the music). Match the pitch of every note to the chosen pitch track of the Tuning CD.

After several months work, when you are consistently playing in tune with your normal embouchure and tone, if you haven't already, take a 'shiny-surfaces' permanent black magic marker and draw a line on your flute's headjoint to show where the correct "in tune" position that is set for the current way you play your flute. This mark will wear off, but you can re draw it any time. A mark that shows the correct placement of the headjoint can be used anywhere anytime as a visual reference.

ii) Think about why you might be out of tune. Here are some common reasons:

- If the tone quality is fuzzy or diffuse, the pitch can seem both high and low or indeterminate all at the same time, due to having no “core” to the sound. So improve the centered tone quality of your sound by specifically practicing "Tone" with your teacher's help.

- The flute's top register is always sharp and we must correct it. If you've never corrected sharp high notes before using the upper lip, get help in your flute lessons. We need to blow more deeply downward with the upper lip and open the jaw.

- The flute's lowest register is often flat. Get help in lessons to develop the power, pitch, strength and core-of-sound in your lowest register. Often the low register is confused with playing softly. Tone development starts with learning to play forte all the way down to low C. This is important fundamental stuff and gets rid of "I always play flat when I play low". See Low Longtone Warmups.

- Dynamics can be causing the problem. Without correction on flute:

 Loud equals sharp and soft equals flat.

Eeek. We can't allow it.

To fix:  Reduce your dynamic range to the middle. Play mezzo forte. Play all your music in tune, listening carefully, and slowly at your most fullsome mezzo forte. Concentrate on creating a good centered tone quality. Do this for a week or two before adding dynamics again.
When you add dynamics, do it with the Tuning CD going.

 Listen carefully to be sure you don't go sharp on crescendos or fortissimos. (or flat on soft notes, or last notes when you're running out of air.) Practice dynamics with Tuning CD* at home all the time for reference to just where to place those pianissimos and fortissimos with your air speed and embouchure angle.

Other things you can do at home:

A better way to prepare:

1. Listen to an actual recording of the actual band piece. Lots are on youtube (although not always the best, some are good)  and listen closely. You can use the pause button to clearly distinguish what exactly is going on in the music during the area of the piece where YOUR tuning problem is.

2. If the recording is A-440 (and your band plays at A-440) then you can stand by the computer speakers with your music stand and just play along in tune with the recording. Again, just use pause button to play small sections and if you're into it,  use a software called "slow-downer" if tempo too fast. Make your own in-depth practice tracks using truly great recording Bands!

3. Or better yet: Record your actual own concert band rehearsal and listen to it carefully at home; figure out where the tuning problem is and what it is, by following along with your sheetmusic. This is what I would do. I'm so surprised that we don't all record all our rehearsals for self-correcting and tempos and orchestration etc. But that's just me.

Things you can do during band rehearsal:

 After preparing the marked passage at home with recordings and Tuning CD*, play it in the band rehearsal just as you prepared it. Listen to hear if the tuning problem is still there or not. It may not be you; it could be another instrument, or the clarinet may change from rehearsal to rehearsal.

 If the tuning is still wrong at that part of the piece, ask for clarification (sharp or flat?) and then ask for a quick session of checking tuning with the instrument(s) in question (during break).

Time permitting (perhaps in the break or early before the next rehearsal) play the passage with the person who asked you to change your pitch, and humour the pitch in the direction they are asking for until you blend well with them. Mark this change on your music using up or down arrows (Up = sharper, Down = flatter.)

 If you are consistently sharp in the high register or consistently flat when playing softly with not enough air, (most common in band flutists) then consult your flute teacher for help with those areas specifically.

For high register sharpness the correction is to move your upper lip out and over, to direct the air in a downward angle into the flute. You don't want to roll your wrists, and you don't want to feel as if the flute is in an unnatural position on your chin because you need to move just your upper lip downward, while leaving everything else stable.  Using the upper lip to aim downward is the easiest method to correct sharpness as it can use just the very center of the lips and be non-disruptive to the embouchure.

For flat players, the problem is that they are not moving enough air.
There are lots of ways to coach yourself to learn to move more air. See articles here.

All this may take a year or two to develop fully if you've never worked on it before. Ask your teacher for help so you can get right on it. It's fun work.

Things to remember about flute-clarinet phenomena:

Unless corrected for, just when flutes go sharp, clarinets go flat.
This is a well known phenomenon that is overcome through practice and knowledge.

Examples in Bands if uncorrected:

In a soft dynamic: Clarinet goes sharp. Flute goes flat.

At a loud dynamic: Clarinet goes flat. Flute goes sharp.

So as you can see, the two instruments can easily get into pitch conflicts for understandable reasons.

Flute pitch in general:

Flutes tend to go flat on:

Low notes (correction: use faster air speed, aim at a higher angle)

Soft notes (correction: use faster air speed, aim at a higher angle)

Right hand notes (E and F in the middle and low register; correction as above)

Notes where the thumb is lifted and the flute rolls inward on the chin (high G, middle register C and C#) (Correction: Consult your teacher on how to stabilize the flute when your thumb is off.)

Flutes tend to go sharp on:

High notes (Correction: Aim downward in angle with upper lip over;drop the jaw; drop embouchure tension).

Loud notes (Correction: Ask your teacher how to play forte but stay in tune)

Notes that are naturally sharp on the flute: high G#, high F#, high E etc. (Correction: As above, but also use alternative fingerings where appropriate.)

Other typical problems are:

Flabby Leaps:

 Leaping to a quiet high note from a low note can make you underestimate the air-speed and hit the high note with overly slow air, starting that note flat in pitch. You freak out at the awfulness of the flat high note, and sag further. This is fear of leaping. Very common.  Get help with this from your teacher. You will learn to speed up your air-speed before you leap.

Ran Out of Air:

 Playing when out of breath can make your pitch go flat. Be sure and practice your breathing so you are taking HUGE big breaths where they are needed, and normal breaths everywhere else. Mark the HUGE breaths with a special extra breathing symbol, so you don't get caught short. Write "Save Air" over parts where you expend air too quickly and unnecessarily. Your teacher will help you plan all your breaths.

In general; and believe me I'm not related to this product in any way....
I recommend working with the Tuning CD everyday for warmups, improvisations, slow melodies, high longtones, slowed down sections of pieces and etudes etc. After several months you will absorb the whole of the "Tuning" situation from constantly working with and hearing the pitch and matching it.
And you will have more fun practicing; it's so nice to play in tune with SOMETHING!

*The Tuning CD: LINKS*

Note: you only need the first 12 tracks for the chromatic scale. (the rest of the tracks on this CD are chords you don't need.)

The Tuning CD booklet

More flute tuning articles here.

Wrist rolling ha! Tres middle school-esque, eh? ;>)
Best, Jen