Sunday, February 14, 2016

High B and how to get it to 'speak'

A novice flute student asks:
I can get high B-flat, but I can't seem to get high B yet, any suggestions?

Dear High-B Wisher,

This is a common problem with flute students who are just starting to explore the top register at its highest: the hardest notes to "get" are B natural, C and C#.

In flute lingo they are called B3, C4, and C#4. (the three and four mean third octave, fourth octave).

High B
Yes, they require special care to get; they don't just pop out like high G (G3) does. But they do pop out eventually, with time and patience, and a little relaxing. :>)

But there are some tricks specifically for getting high B.

Firstly, the reason it's difficult is because it's slightly unstable, like high F#. It either underblows, or it squeaks to the other harmonics; can be frustrating at first.
The overtone series make notes like high F# and B difficult for similar reasons (physics, nodes and finger holes, if you ever look into it.) In general, you have to find a specific embouchure that's right in the "sweet spot" for those two notes.

So here's the easiest way to do it:

Firstly, if you are tightening your lips to make a spit-raspberry (pppppzzzppzz!!), that's the wrong technique; you need to use the soft centers of the lips to move forward somewhat like a half-kiss shape. You also need very fast air speed.

So go over that with our private teacher; simply tightening or scrunching the two lips will not allow you to proceed with any ease and without the splat of lip-caused trumpety splat noises. The lips need to be flexible, soft, and variable to use in these experiments.

Secondly, check the fingering chart; many first-timers mis-read or mis-remember the standard fingerings for the very high notes.

A good fingering chart is here:

Write the fingering down a few times.
High B is just like F#3, but it has second trill key instead of right hand ring finger:
High B: the real fingering
1 3| [tr2] opt.4 
High B - the real fingering (RH pinky optional for stability)
(Note: the original person who asked the question wrote back an hour after I posted this; it turns out that they could get B easily by using the above fingering, and taking their right pinky off. So there you go. The student also added that blowing downward more improved their tone, once on high B.)

Thirdly, the easiest way to get high B to speak is to use an alternate fingering that's exactly like F#3.
Use this not as a real fingering, but as an experiment-to-get-the-note fingering.
High F# and then add both trill keys to the above using RH 1 & 2, and a high B will magically pop out!
Right hand 1 on trill key 1. Right hand 2 on trill key 2.

Alternate fingering, High B (flatter in pitch) from high F# plus two trill keys.

Does your high B pop out using the above fingering, overblowing from F#3?
If not see more experiments below.
This alternate fingering also works great if you ever need a flatter-pitched high B on a long note. :>)

Fourthly, there's an experimental way to under-blow a high note fingering to get a "ghost undertone" that is secretly below the note you're looking for.
Play the real high B fingering.
Now blow softly, openly and hollowly, to make any lower "ghost" note come out with the high B fingering. Try all low notes; find out what sounds you can get without blowing hard.
You should hear an unstable, out-of-tune, ghostly note that's in a lower octave; like an out-of-tune F# in the middle octave.

Hold the ghost-undertone steady and find the center of the sound it makes.

Then, just as you would blow up an octave, take a breath, play the ghost tone, and then overblow the ghost-undertone up to the high octave with the exact same fingering and the high B will likely pop out perfectly.

Why does this work?

Because it gets rid of any tight-lipped scrunching you may have been doing before. (!)
Your lips are more open and more centered; you're not trying so hard; you're not shoving your jaw forward, etc. You're just playing low then high on the same fingering.

Try it; works like a dream for most students. :>)

If the above experiments don't work, it could be that you need to look in a mirror when you form your high embouchure. Maybe your flute is slanted and not parallel to your lips.....

And looking in the mirror, if you are doing anything tight or tense, like squeezing or pressing your lips together, pulling your lip corners back, rolling your flute inward, suddenly bobbling your flute when your fingers change, or blowing out of the side of your lips instead of out of the center, or mis-aiming at the center of the flute's splitting edge, all of these will alway prevent the highest notes from speaking easily.

This problem of finding the highest notes (B, C, C# and D4) challenging is very typical of students everywhere; it's just one of the challenges of learning the flute. You might want to take a look at the blog post just two before this one, where I talk about high D. There's something to learn there too.

But it really is smart to get your private teacher's help on this right at the start, rather than develop some weird way of getting high B to strain itself out, and then straining to get it as a permanent strain-thing.

Teachers help eliminate excess tension in their students by noticing what the student is doing to prevent themselves from getting a note, and then letting the student know where to relax, and where to focus.
It's much easier with a coach to help spot you.

General high note information is here:

Hope this helps.
Best, Jen

Comments (5)
Blogger jen said...

Here's a comment from the student who originally asked the question: Thanks to you too! Jen
Hi Jennifer: Many thanks for such a detailed and lengthy response. I seem to have made a break through this evening during my practice session.

I have visited your website many times. The information you have made available has really impacted my playing and types of experiments I've engaged in to get the best tone I can manage.

Great news! Best, Jen

Monday, February 15, 2016 9:22:00 AM

Blogger John G. said...

I've never seen (or perhaps just never noticed) recommendations for bending notes on a flute. I was self-taught at an early age (8 years old) and didn't learn the real fingerings for second and third registers until in my middle school and high school years. So I always pushed and bent notes. Got two state "firsts" in solo competition doing it that way and had a very strong lip out of all this. I still push and bend, but at age 80 perhaps not quite so well as when in my 20s. And I don't have a venue for performance so it doesn't matter if I'm a bit off. Matters just to me as I play in my family room.

Monday, February 15, 2016 9:19:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Dear John,

I have one really big reaction to this; why don't people put fingering charts in the flute case (or with the flute) when they give the flute to a child?? I realize it was 70 years ago, but it still happens today.

We have the technology to put a man on the moon (or to land a rocket on a moving comet for that matter), but for some reason thousands of children have flutes but not a fingering chart or a "how to care for the flute" card in any of the flute cases.


Someone should take on this project and make sure that no more 8 yr olds play three octaves on the flute with low octave fingerings. It's just crazy.

Please someone, make this your life's work; that's what I think.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016 11:39:00 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

This is super helpful! I'm section leader at school right now and I'm definitely going to show this to the other players!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 9:54:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Great news, thanks Acacia!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 10:41:00 AM


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