Last year, I wrote “How to Make a Sound on Flute Before Picking Up the Instrument.” In that post, I talked about the fundamentals of making a sound, embouchure, placement, and resistance. At this point, you might be able to make a sound, but it might sound either stifled or a loud, airy horn of some kind. Here are five things to improve your sound quality on flute:
Playing a wind instrument starts from the bottom of the lungs, not from the mouth piece. One of the fundamentals to producing quality sound on flute is your posture. If you are slouching or your right arm is slacking and causing your head to tilt a lot, you are closing off airways that would support your sound. When playing, you should stand with your feet flat, shoulder width apart, and about forty-five degrees to the right of your stand. Your torso and head should face the stand. Your right arm should support your flute so that it is almost, if not parallel, to the floor; that will prevent closing your throat and neck problems, but it will also mean that you might have to build up some endurance in that arm. Sitting is very similar to standing, make sure your legs are at an angle to the stand with your feet flat on the floor and your torso straight and facing the stand. If you are next to other players, angle yourself so that your flute falls behind them, but not bopping them.
2. Air Support
With air support, there are two things to remember: proper breath and steady air stream. Think of your lungs like a balloon. If you fill it up with partial air and release it, the air is short and wimpy. If you fill it up to the point where it feels tense and might pop, that is not good either because it will make your tense and in return, your sound tense. Fill your lungs (balloon) up nice and full, then release with your aperture controlling how much air is coming out (in the balloons’ case, the aperture is two of your fingers controlling how large or small the opening is of the balloon). If you don’t use your aperture, the air is unsteady and all over the place (aka the spitting sound a balloon makes when air releases and your fingers are not controlling it).
Using air support while practicing two exercises will help center your tone and produce the same quality sound on each pitch. The first exercise is long tones; practicing a specific range (low, middle, high) of slow long tones while methodically listening and matching the same quality tone on all notes throughout the range of the instrument and you will gradually improve your sound over time. Harmonics is the second exercise. Starting on a fundamental, like low C, with a lot of air support and the slight movement of your lips moving forward you could produce new notes while still fingering the fundamental. For example, finger low C, then with your air and lips you should get this sequence: low C, middle C, middle G, high E, high G, and high Bb. After doing this exercise and learning to control each note, go back to their original fingerings, and you will notice a fuller, rounded, and more resonate sound.
Embouchure is the general formation of the mouth and its alignment with the tone hole or mouth piece. Aperture is the hole formed between your lips that allow your air stream to escape. Remember the balloon? A larger aperture creates an airy, unsteady tone that is difficult to control. Practice creating different sized apertures, that are not too big or small, by practicing long tones and harmonics. Pairing your aperture with air support will produce a strong, steady, and clear sound.
4. Tone Hole Coverage
Because you do not blow directly into a flute, about 1/3 of your air goes into the flute, that is, if you have the right coverage of your tone hole (the hole of the flute that you blow into). If your tone hole is angled too far away from you, you get an airy sound. If the tone hole is rolled in too close to your aperture, you get a muffled or pinched, flat sound. Also, make sure that your aperture is center of your lips and that it is aligned center with your tone hole. Some people I know struggled with sound quality because of missing this alignment. Practice in front of a mirror to make sure you have the correct coverage and your tone will improve.
5. Open the Throat – “duh”
The first channel leading your air from your lungs to your instrument is the throat. If it is tight or flexed, your sound will be tense, pinched, or small. I remember a master class from middle school when a former symphony player gave us some analogies for opening/relaxing our throats. One was imagining a mandarin or golf ball sized pocket of air in the middle of our throat. The second analogy (my favorite), was saying “duh,” (your voice drops low) like when your respond to someone saying something obvious. If you notice, your throat seems to drop when you say it. That is the openness you should feel when playing. By the way, if you start noticing that you’re yawning a whole lot, you’re doing it right.
For similar and different ideas, check out Rachel Taylor Geier’s post.