Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Quick Tricks for flute playing

Hi Jen,

I am an intermediate level flutist and rely upon your articles very much as part of my ongoing flute education.  I play in a community band after many years of not playing since high school. 
I was recently told by an advanced flutist of a neat trick for hitting low C, which I occasionally have problems with when I need it.  This trick would most likely have to be used while playing a sustained note.  Anyway, the trick was to finger low C.  Put down all the keys except for the left ring finger. 
Then just as you begin to play low C, smack down the left ring finger.  Low C will blast out solidly. It works every time. 
I am wondering if you know of any other tips or tricks that might make hitting the lowest or highest notes easier?  My most difficult note is high C. I usually have to reach for the gizmo key.
 Anyway, I have not specifically seen a "Tips & Tricks" section in all of your awesome articles. 
I thought if you know some of these sort of tips or tricks, maybe you could compile a list of them within a special section.  I know that I run across very useful suggestions quite often in your articles. Needless to say, I'm continuously working on embouchure, airspeed and direction, etc. to make my flute playing better, but any other useful suggestions that would be a "quick fix" like the low C one would be greatly appreciated.  Keep writing your wonderful blog!  -- D


Dear D,

As I'm listening to Seth Godin's "Akimbo" right now, the episode for this topic would be
 "Juggling and Bicycles" if you scroll down and listen (free) at:

He explains using audio only (!) how to juggle and how to ride a bike. No kidding.

The problem, he explains, is that most often the beginning learner has conceptualized the most difficult way to juggle.

Easy: learn to throw exactly into your other hand.

Hard: learn to catch wild and crazy throws that go in every direction.

But because the inexperienced learner most often thinks that catching is the skill they are supposed to be working on, they wear themselves out doing the whole thing backwards.
If they knew that the practice actually was hours and hours of accurately tossing a single ball to exactly where the catching hand already is, then they would waste less time and have more success.

Same with bicycle learning. The problem is really one of balancing the bike with your body weight from side to side; peddling is added at the beginning for no reason; peddling is easy and the beginner has no problems if they only had to pedal. So the newest way of learning to ride a bike includes providing beginners with special quick-learn bikes that have no pedals and are low enough that your feet are just within easy reach to the ground. With the right slant, and not too much speed, you just coast and can put your feet down anytime, in order to learn to balance while you're coasting. Apparently takes no time at all.
And boy howdy do I know about using training wheels from my own life; I had them for THREE YEARS!  But now I hear that the training wheels are merely a quick trick to ensure that you don't face plant, and thus injure yourself and extinguish your enthusiasm too early in a challenging game.

So what you're asking about "tricks" on the flute, for intermediates is very similar to the above topic. And it takes some thinking about, as to me, tricks are nothing but quick ways to get the student to be non-frustrated, until they have the patience to learn the true skill.

It's as though you're saying: "I'm learning how to mountain climb without an instructor, and someone has given me a good trick that really helps with one of my many situations, and now I'm wondering if there are other random tricks I could use for mountain climbing".

The big answer to this would be: Get an instructor, or else don't ever actually climb any real mountains, because the tricks might put you in danger; they're only for gymnasiums (and in the case of some of the flute tricks, only for loud band-tuttis), not for the incredible intricacy of actual mountains.

I guess that the big caveat for me, is that our lifelong quest for instantaneous "tricks" that help intermediate flutists is a good idea, in theory, but alas, not a noble quest. The noble quest would be to learn the straightforward foundation skills for REAL and really have the real skills to share among all of us.

But it's true that flute tricks can work to reduce frustration in the short term.
Mind, if you only use random tricks, you might misuse them, or over-use them only to find eventually that the tricks themselves are actually holding you back. (I just can't tell you the number of self-taught students I've had to tell to stop using their non-functional tricks so that they can get rid of the new problems that the very trick created! eek!) So tricks of any kind are not advisable unless you have a coach who can tell you when you should NOT use that trick or which tricks are the good ones for your particular frustration.

But for now, if a random trick (and they are rare) keeps you from chewing your own foot off, then go ahead, use a trick to reduce frustration, so that then you're willing to keep learning and moving ahead.

A year or two from now, when you're constantly improving your real skills to the point where you don't need tricks anymore, you too will realize the tricks were not really the true answer.

What's happening is likely that you have played the flute just long enough that you are now approaching the natural "difficulties of the flute" and of course you're hoping for a quick fix.

If you want a long-lasting and true skill-building-block, you would find that in weekly flute lessons.

Because every quick fix has its drawbacks.
For example: Rapidly closing the G key with the left hand, to get a low C to speak only works best when you're playing in a loudish band room, and the noise of the other instruments covers the sound of the whumping or clicking key going downward.

If you were playing a solo for flute alone, on a big resonant stage, tapping the G key to get the C to speak would add percussion to an otherwise smooth piece of music; so it wouldn't be the fix in other circumstances. But right now, you're not playing a flute-alone solo, so it's okay to use the trick.
The real answer is to send the air down to the footjoint, using a mental image that you have to blow all the way down an almost three foot long tube to the lowest pad that is down.
If you send the air down with that in mind, you'll send faster, more direct air.
But that's the fix that I used at University level, so I'm not sure how it works at your level.

But sure, be careful to try and get advice about what's a true quick fix, and what's a trick just to eliminate a typical intermediate flute frustration.

Flute Frustrations*:

Typical frustrations of the intermediate are:

Low register too quiet
Low register hard to tongue or do accents in without squeaking up the octave
High register too shrieky
High register too sharp
Cannot diminuendo in high register without dropping an octave
High E or high F# or G# or high B and C all too hard to get clear and wholesome sounding
Low C key tricky to get to quickly
Switching pinky from D# to C pinky keys hard to do cleanly
Slurring from high E down to A is hard to place
Low C (or low D or any other very low note) hard to tongue clearly or get to speak quickly if it is the very first note of a phrase.

etc. etc.

*for which the real cure is flute lessons**

**and honestly, it's not because I'm trying to get everyone to take lessons and thus teach all the students in the world and make a million dollars, no, quite the opposite. As a flute teacher, all day everyday you are telling people "But EVERYONE who plays the flute encounters this exact problem, so don't be so alone in the world....hey, welcome to the club.....gosh.....we're ALL playing the flute, we should all stick together! Come play with us!"

The above are all known areas of difficulty on the flute for all of us. There are known solutions which aren't quick, but do work over a series of weeks/months/years.

This is WHY people take flute lessons, so that they can truly climb the mountain and obtain the finely honed skills and then set out on their own.
Plus: I've written on many of these topics already on my blog.

See blog index

And, of course, all the quick tricks and tips I know illustrated on two easy pages are here:

Top Ten Secrets of Flute Playing

And some of the typical tricky flutey individual topics are here:

Trick to get your tone back quickly (spit buzzing tones your upper lip position for flute playing) if you're out of shape:

Spit Buzzing by Keith Underwood

Easier loud low notes by doing the Werner Richter octave smear crescendo exercise (sample pdf)

Breathing more easily everyday

Dynamics: Big sounds come before small sounds when developing your flute dynamics:

Problems with throat noises while playing flute

Help! I've suddenly lost my tone:

How to get faster fingers?:

Why is my high register so awful and how can I fix it?

What are the embouchure changes necessary for super-high altissimo notes like C4 (high C)?

Getting High B to "speak": (F#3 fingering plus Trill Key 2)

How can I create loud low notes?

How do I tune my flute?

Low C doesn't sound because keys are a tiny bit bent and my high register is also too shrieky:

But if someone didn't ever take flute lessons, and had a slightly leaky flute, and only practiced once a week for twenty minutes, even these tricks cannot possibly work the first time, or possibly ever, if they are unprepared for that particular skill level, or don't have a coach.

So I'd love to know why taking lessons doesn't appeal to more people who play in community bands. (please use comment button below.)
It's like trying to learn sky diving by yourself in your garage, from looking at photos in a skydiving calendar, at least to me.

Finally: duh duh duh! :>)


Ever since the low B was added to the flute, that extra length of one inch of silver tubing creates a fracture in the sound waves for only one note on the whole rest of the flute. Yes, having a B-foot joint means that your high C has just been destroyed.
That's why the GIZMO is added to the flute; you MUST depress it to get a clear high C. If you had a C-foot joint, you wouldn't need a gizmo because the high C would not have been wrecked by that added inch of silver tubing.

Mind you, if you are fingering a really fast passage, and you have no time to get to the gizmo, you can try to play the high C without the giz, but it will sound muffled and be stiff to blow.
But Galway says he almost never uses the gizmo, and since his embouchure is really precise, that's fine, and it might even be less sharp without the gizmo. But it is definitely stiffer and requires quite a blast of air, which wouldn't work if you had to play high C softly.

However it will come out, if you really need to leave the RH pinky off in a complex passage; and I must ask; why is your band playing pieces with high C in the flute part?! That's a bit colourful for tuning! hahhahaha.

Also, often a good trick: one of the easiest high C fingerings, especially in a scale-run is to play high B and just take off the left thumb, to get high C for free. It's simply a trill-fingering for high C without anything other than opening your thumb while playing B3.

But under normal circs., your best high C will be from using the gizmo.
There are no prizes for un-gizzed C4s unless you're Galway and, of course, whatever works under duress (I'd like the piccolo to take all the high Cs, personally) for your band situation is fine. :>)

Hope this helps, and  comments welcome

Best, Jen
D responded:

Dear Jen,

Thank you so much for your very comprehensive response! I really do understand that I need to learn to "walk" before I can "run." Playing in a community band has allowed me to have access to some really excellent flutists with degrees in music who make everything seem so easy--yet I realize they have already put in the work and continue to build their skills. I look to them as mentors. While I would like to take private lessons, I am retired and on a fixed income, so that is not possible***. My skills have already surpassed that of when I was first chair in high school. I always wondered why I could play high C in high school with no trouble--and now I can't. I had a C foot joint in high school. Thank you for explaining that and for understanding all the issues that an intermediate-level flutist has. I'll be looking closely at everything you have written and all the links you have supplied and will continue to work on my skills as recommended. I appreciate your taking the time to respond to my questions. Your website is just a wealth of information for flutists!  You have no idea how much I appreciate and use your site.-- D
*** Jen replied: Don't forget that flute lessons for barter, or other work-exchange arrangements can be made. Don't give up before you tried. If direct barter with the flute teacher is not feasible, think about another monthly payment you currently make for a hobby you don't enjoy anymore (cable TV? tennis club? psychotherapy night classes?) and make a temporary change to where you put your "fun" money. Could work if you record your lessons and take one year's worth to put you where you want to be. Hope so. :>)