Thursday, March 15, 2012

Help I'm 30 cents flat all the time

Tuning Question:
I've tried two different flutes of my own, and several of my teacher's, trying to figure out why I play 20-30 cents flat.
I play flat even though I push the headjoint all the way in, and play with enough air support.
My teacher can't figure it out.
I've had a year off from lessons, and I'm thinking my embouchure has changed somehow.
Can anyone suggest what I'm doing wrong?

If your teacher can play your two flutes in tune (with the headjoints pulled out a little --- up to 1/4 inch), then your tuning problems are
likely caused by your lower lip which may be over-covering the blow hole.
Having the blow hole more than 1/2 covered with the lip causes flatness in pitch in the lower two octaves especially. If you also roll the flute inward too much as you play, the pitch will become incredibly flat.

In general, overcovering the blow hole with the lower lip means that:

1. Too much of the lower lip is protruding into the blow hole; and/or
2. The flute's chin plate is slightly too low on the chin
allowing the lower lip flesh to protrude too far to overcover the blow hole and/or
3. The upper lip is pulled far down, ( and you are aiming the air downward, (which normally works only if the blow hole is uncovered more)
4. Most importantly: The flute is too rolled in while playing (and the tone is thin, and
edgy, and the pitch is flat)

If you sit down and put your flute in front of you, and put your right thumb over the
blow hole so that it covers 1/4, then 1/3rd, then 1/2, then 3/4s of the blow hole, and then reach around, and place the LEFT hand on the keys (T123), and lightly thump the G key closed (finger an A, then close the G key without blowing.) you will hear the pitch change with each incremental covering of the blow hole with the thumb. See picture.

Click on jpeg to enlarge (use back button to return here).

Your thumb on the blow hole is imitating your lower lip.
If you have too much lower lip covering the blow hole, the G will get
flatter and flatter in pitch, just as it does when your right thumb is covering
more and more of the blow hole.

You can easily see and hear the results of this experiment on your
pitch and tone quality.
A previous article in Flutetalk Magazine (sorry, can't remember the author) explained that matching the actual pitch of a low G with the pitch that occurs with a key-slap and the right thumb covering a portion of the blow hole indicates exactly how much lower lip coverage you need to play a flute in tune on a given pitch.
I'll try and dig that article up. :>)

Now let's get scientific: all flute players should try out these experiments:

How to play 30 cents Flat on Purpose:

If you put the electronic tuner on, and push your headjoint in all the way, and deliberately try to play 30 cents flat, you will find that you are doing the following:

To play very flat:

- place the pressure of the lip plate below the lower lip low enough so that the lower lip protrudes forward into the blow hole of the flute

- roll the headjoint inward bit by bit, with the hands, so the lower lip is covering 2/3 to 3/4 of the blow hole

- blow more and more downward in angle by pulling the upper lip downward

- hold the flute low on the chin to allow even more lower lip flesh to cover the blow hole

- create the shortest air-reed length from lip aperture to splitting edge by adjusting the three items above (rolling inward makes the air travel the shortest distance).

As you play 30 cents flat you'll find that you:

- can adjust the air-speed no faster than 60 miles-per-hour* (mezzo forte volume)or else the notes will squeak, and thus have only one dynamic and tone colour

- keeping jaw open, teeth apart, and throat open, you'll create the "darkest" tone colour possible, as well as the lowest in pitch.

and finally, you'll note that you can actually:

- play all three octaves from low to high using the same angle/air speed/blow hole coverage, even though the tone is thin and "dark". You may accidentally have found out that you barely change any of the above to play higher notes although your flute tone throughout sounds equally "edgy", non-projecting, lacking in sparkle, and comes across as very "dark" in quality. This may be possible, but it is not the sound flutists really need to develop.

But it is quite possible to play this flat this on demand, if you are trying to keep the tuner 30 cents flat and don't notice or mind the darkness or pitch of the lack of variability in dynamics. It's a common enough error, when returning to the flute after a hiatus.

I just tried this using an A-442 flute, and pushed in the headjoint all the way.
So try it yourself on your own flute to see/hear and note what you did to achieve 30 cent flatness of pitch.

To reverse the procedure and play 30 cents sharper you could:

- raise the pressure of the flute's lip plate on the chin so it's progressively higher and higher (think of changing a milimeter at a time to really hear the incremental changes)

- roll the flute's blow hole outward a milimeter at a time to uncover more the blow hole

- aim the airstream more horizontally by not pulling down the upper lip, but aiming the airsteam directly forward and horizontal to the floor.

To play 30 cents sharper than A-440 you can then:

- reposition the chin plate so that it actually pushes the lower lip upward along the lower front teeth.

- trap the lower lip with the lip plate, so that lip is thin and unable to more forward (this is a very common error for those who play with a sharp and thin sound quality)

- raise your upper lip further, so that it is no longer aiming downward at all.

- raise your lower teeth so the jaw is closed (say "eee"). This speeds up the air and makes a thin, sharp sound quality.

- speed up the air to create a windy sound (to 80-90 miles per hour* will make you really sharp on a low note especially)

- create the longest possible distance between the lip aperture and the splitting edge by rolling the blow hole outward even more.

The trick for any flute student who has tuning problems is to learn all the steps between these two sharp and flat extremes, and to find the middle position between them.

Note: * miles per hour air speeds are "imaginary" airspeeds that you can use as memory aids.*

Once you start a series of embouchure experiments, learn all the changes, and then gradually settle into steady, high-quality tone production and listening for the optimal quality of flute tone, after several weeks/months, you will gradually become more consistent in your judgements, and then be able to easily match tuning drones such as found on The Tuning CD.

Consistent tone quality on the flute is important to obtain before you decide how far out the headjoint needs to be pulled out in order to get the octaves in tune.
Flutists can use three octaves of the pitch "D" to tune the headjoint's draw.
Otherwise you can virtually set the headjoint at any position and accidentally play up to 30 cents flat or sharp on any note in any octave.

And as you develop your tone quality and consistency of embouchure, you may well find that the headjoint position may gradually change over time. The larger your dynamic range, and the more flexible the lip centers are, the more rolled out the blow hole can be.
Over time you will find that you can increase tone variability as well as your dynamic range and shaping of the tone.

Instead of rolling the flute inward, you will learn to move the center of the lips forward and at various angles of blowing for pitch adjustments, all while refraining from "rolling in" to get a dark and edgy tone. The lips are much more flexible than using the wrists to roll the headjoint in or out while playing.

A good flute teacher would guide you through these steps of embouchure development.

In one of your flute lessons you could both experiment the two extremes shown above, and then the teacher can "coach you" as you as you experiment with the two extremes of pitch and how to find the middle point with the best tone.
You can also mark your headjoint's position with permanent marker (removes with alcohol) so that you can experiment for several days in a row at the same position to discover what you were unconsciously doing with your lips and flute placement to alter the tuning.

You can read about three stages of tone development for flute students here.

Tuning Articles for Flute are here.

It's truly helpful to work with the Tuning CD, ($9 as mp3 downloads) as the embouchure develops more quickly when the ears are directing the sound quality instead of a visual, electronic tuner.

And there are also many self-varifiable embouchure experiments in this in "The Art of Playing the Flute" by Roger Mather.

Best, Jen
Comments (2)
Blogger Jamey said...

Thanks for another thoughtful post. My problem is not tuning. I actually have a decent ear! I wonder how one is taught phrasing. Too many people do it well for it not to be teachable. Any thoughts? Thanks for your contributions.

Friday, March 16, 2012 5:32:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Hi Jamey,
To save me writing the entire encyclopedia of flutey phrasing, can you give me more information first?
What aspect of phrasing is easy for you, and which are hard?
Is it contemporary music that is challenging? Or Classical/Baroque/Romantic?
More info. would be great.
Maybe I can write a whole blog post on it if I have more to go on.
Such a large topic.
Best, Jen

Friday, March 16, 2012 7:19:00 PM


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