Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tone Experiments for Advanced Flutists

(click to enlarge cartoon above - then use back button to return here.)

Dear Flutists,
Have you ever actually kept a record of what works for you when you're practicing to improve your flute tone?

For advanced flutists working with a teacher, this dissertation on flute tone makes excellent reading. I found it in a free pdf online, and it's truly helpful. (if the link above doesn't open the pdf, go here, and click on the pdf .)

As the author of the dissertation notes on pages 29-31, there are conflicting instructions aplenty when you read flute "how to" texts. Every flute author seems to leave too much unsaid, and not agree with eachother on almost any of the tone instructions! No wonder there is so much confusion!

Add to that the various levels of tactile sensitivity and listening skills, of each player, and you have myriad half-described tiny feats of accuracy and precision. Then add to that the widely varying ability in students to goal-set, experiment and focus, and then finally, add the fact that flute students and teachers are not always able to be perfectly clear about what it is they are physically doing to improve the tone, and you have "the art of playing the flute" is "Practice Practice Practice".

I mean, gosh, even all the great "how to" texts completely disagree!
See sample below: (click to enlarge - use back button to return here.)

Hilariously wild in the disagreement department: to wit:

So setting ones own flute tone goals, creating ones own embouchure experiments with the help of a teacher, and taking notes, like a scientist, is the best method of self-educating.

Re-reading past note books and self-reminders can be illuminating too. So often embouchure and head-throat instructions are more "thought" then performed. A single idea can make sufficient changes. For example:
I found a book of scales up to high B the other day where a previous flutist had written "blow your throat open" and it saved the day once again. (gets rid of unconscious throat-tightening and keeps air moving quickly.)

And of course, I highly recommend flutists who want to improve their tone to consistently record their lessons and/or take notes while working with their teacher, and then, when practicing at home, take quick notes of which ideas worked and what changes were effective.
It's also incredibly helpful to record yourself and listen back.

A student the other day phoned to say: "I listened back to what I thought was a gorgeous full low register, and suddenly heard that I was too rolled in! Ack!"
(see 3rd comment below).

Well, ha ha. We are not alone.
And there is no faster method to re-creating your embouchure and air-speed successes at will, if you know what they are and have made notes to yourself!

Comments from flute teachers who are interested in this topic are truly welcome!
Best, Jen
Comments (9)
Anonymous Lisa said...

Jen, how do you decide if a new headjoint is a good idea? I don't want to get into a pattern of thinking that the equipment is the problem when really I just need to do the work! But I just wonder about how you know if the headjoint you have will eventually give you the result you want...

Sunday, January 16, 2011 7:56:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Lisa,

It's a simple thing to find out whether your current headjoint is holding you back.
Have your flute teacher test it.
If your teacher can make your headjoint sound amazingly good, then the headjoint can be made to sound like that.
Alternately, if you take two headjoints (one you have on "spec" prior to purchase) and play both for your teacher, and then she plays them both back to you; you'll know exactly the difference in between the two. Best, Jen

Sunday, January 16, 2011 8:37:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Flutists, my student just emailed:
Hi Jen
Hey, did you reference me in your latest post?!!! If yes, then I am glad I could help...hahahahaha

So, I took your advice (Roger Mather's Tone-Embouchure book vol 2) and rolled in and rolled out until I found the very best place for all registers and it is totally not where I was, I also noticed upon looking in the mirror that I was so rolled in that the keys were no longer parallel to the floor, they were rolled back. What insight I gained that night.

I have since began to change things (including a little black ink-line written on my flute to help me out) and have instantly noticed a change. Moreover, when I record and play back, I no longer have that airy-breathy sound. It is more clear and pure sounding.

Oh, how quickly one can totally mess up years of work!
So, in a nutshell, thanks again for your wisdom.
You are amazing Jen, you can instantly repair anything that I have accidentally changed in response to my neurotic-flutey mind while I practice!

Dear anonymous student:

So thank YOU!!!

The world's most common unconscious flute flaws:

1. rolling in as you play (without noticing it)

2. trying to "gargoyle" your embouchure but not remembering exactly how you did it when it worked

3. blowing flabby and softly* and with no support, and then super-gargoyling your embouchure to fix everything you hear wrong in the sound. (* (probably because you're pooped, and/or your roomates are complaining)

4. tightening up when you see high notes

If you use a mirror, roll out 1-2 mm, and balance your flute with tactile sensations so it doesn't roll in by the weight of the rods, move your lip centers forward to go to the high register, and always use 10% to 20% faster air then you THINK you need, you can usually improve super-fast.

That's what I've found.

So glad to help. (and you know what I mean when I say "gargoyle"! hahahaha)


Monday, January 17, 2011 11:20:00 AM

Anonymous Lisa said...

Ha! Fair enough!

I guess I'm thinking about different types of sounds and how some headjoints are more suited to some than the others. But your advice still applies!

Monday, January 17, 2011 12:02:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Hi Lisa,
Most professional flutists have at least 2-3 headjoints "extra" that they purchased at one point or other, because it suited their embouchure at the time. Sometimes these flutists will be able to help a student of theirs upgrade by letting them buy one of these old headjoints from the teacher.

Some flutists have got DRAWERS full of headjoints that they bought in the elusive search for a great sound, or neater tonguing, or more projection or more blending; however after about 20 years you usually find one headjoint or two that work well for most of your embouchure techniques, and the rest are rarely used. So feel free to ask around to try other's headjoints; you might stumble upon a cut or a brand that works consistently for you for a few years.
Best, Jen

Monday, January 17, 2011 12:07:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

When I was in fourth year University and still playing a Gemeinhardt (that was starting to bind up in the rods and was about to become "un-repairable...) my University flute teacher sold me a good Sankyo Etude headjoint for about $350. It allowed me to get the tone control and finesse I needed until I finally replaced the whole flute, and I sold the headjoint on to a student who had an Artley/Armstrong/Emerson type of flute with a coarse headjoint.
Everyone was happy with the transfer.
Two years later, when graduating, I got my first $5000 flute which WAY outplayed any flute I'd ever tried before. So that's where my experience lies.
Best, Jen

Monday, January 17, 2011 12:10:00 PM

Blogger MATTHEW TAYLOR said...

Hi Jen
There are many facets to flute playing that we should pay attention to, but none are more important than tone and intonation.

I don't care how fast you can play, how hard the repertoire you learn is. If you don't have a wonderful singing tone with good tuning nobody will want to listen to you.

For me simple beauty has to be achieved before great bravo displays.

I find that to develop a good tone it is helpful to have a similar warm up each day. This can be a touchstone of your best tone. You must hear what you want to sound like in your mind as you play singing in your head. This include when you play scales or exercises. Its no good working on wonderful tone at the start of your practice then sending it on holiday when you work on your technique.

I practice only when I'm feeling well so maintaining consistently a good singing tone can be a challenge.

This is my basic routine for maintaining my tone when having inconsistent practice.

1. warm up flute by playing p-mf in lower register and lower middle. I just improvise little tunes never pushing my sound just at low dynamics keeping relaxed. For a few minuets always singing in my head the little tunes I make up.

2. Once everything feeling relaxed and my sound is producing easily and freely I begin with a low register version of De La Sonorite.

I quite often do this in groups of three. Going down from low register B,Bb,A then Bb,A,Ab etc down to low C. With each group of three I listen repeat until I am satisfied with the sound then I progress down to the next group. After I am satisfied going down to low C I begin goig up from low register B in groups of 3 till I reach middle register B. All this time I am not yet pushing my sound past a beautiful mf sound. Did I mention I was SINGING each group in my head as I was playing.

3. I play some easy melodies in lower and middle register. Maybe some Irish ballads or something even better if its memorised. I try to carry over the best tone I achieved in the exercises to the tunes. Trying to put as much expression into my playing gradually widening my dynamics.

4 To get a great upper register you must first have a great lower register. All the upper register notes are just partials of your lower register notes. So next I go to the lowest not on my flute in this case low C.

I play harmonics from low C. First playing a rich low C.(I can do this now because I'm properly warmed up)

Next I begin playing the harmonics using low C fingering but playing C2,G2,C3,E3,G3,Bb3. The harmonics shouldn't be forced out but finding the right angle of air stream for them to pop out easily. By the way you don't have to go to top Bb every time.
I go up and down a few times singing in my head the next interval I want to hit just before I play it.

4 I play the same intervals but I slur to true fingerings and listen to the sound ring.

For example I play g2 with low C fingering then without stopping the sound slur to the true fingering.
You don,t have to only do this on low C try it using other low notes.

I have blabbered on enough. Most important things I think are don't force sound when not properly warmed up. Otherwise unwanted tension can be with you from the star of each session.
Get a great lower register first don't move to quickly into high register

Always sing in your mind as you play, hearing your most magnificently beautiful sound with every note you play.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011 1:05:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Thanks Matt; this is really worthy stuff! Jen

Tuesday, January 18, 2011 8:24:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was so helpful to be able to read all of these opinions on tone in one document! As as younger intermediate/advanced student, I use the physical flute and Wye's work book(s)along with random rep to learn: it is useful to have several great opinions in one place.

Thanks for posting!

Sunday, January 23, 2011 2:43:00 PM


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