Teacher’s Studio: Tips for Flute Choir Players and Directors

Patricia George | April 2019

    A community flute choir is usually composed of players from different educational backgrounds and levels of advancement. Learning to play together well relies on the leadership of the director and the efforts of the players. The following are suggestions for directors and flutists that will help them improve their skills and create enjoyable musical experiences for all.

Placing the Chairs
    Similar to developments in the history of symphony orchestras and wind ensembles, flute choir directors have experimented with different seating charts as the ensemble has evolved. Because flute choirs come in a variety of sizes and with different instrumentation, directors will have to determine what works best for their ensembles. The basic considerations should be for players to have room to play comfortably, see one another and the conductor, have like parts together, and most importantly have the lower flutes in the back row. This is important for intonation. 
    Players hear intonation from the bass up. If low instruments are in the front of the group, their sound travels to the back wall of the hall and back again to the ensemble before it is heard. This is called reflected sound. When these instruments are in the back of the ensemble, the other players will hear the low pitches as they occur with no delays, and tuning will be better. 
    For the piccolo there are similar considerations. Placing the piccolo in the back row means that the bodies and clothing of the players in the front rows will dampen some of the sound, and the first flutes, who often double with the piccolo, will be able to hear the piccolo sound as it happens rather than with reflected sound.  It has the added benefit of making piccoloists feel more protected and confident playing in the top octave. 
    For groups with 8 to 10 players or fewer, standing in a semicircle often works well as players should all be able to see each other. With larger groups, especially those with 20 or more players, a good seating chart will resemble the chair placement of the first two or three rows of the string section of an orchestra.  

Seeting for a Small Ensembe

Seating for a Large Ensemble

    Players may change seats from one piece to the next if they are playing a different part or different flute. The chairs and stands should remain in place, and only the flutists move. 
    Some flute choirs rehearse sitting down and then perform standing. Be sure to practice the performance set-up in advance to check for any problems with balance, visibility, and space. In addition, when the ensemble performs standing, make sure flutists place their left foot in front and the right foot in back. Emmanuel Pahud mentioned in a Chicago Flute Club masterclass that the left foot should be at 12:00 and the right foot at 2:00. 
    A general rule to follow is that with fewer than eight players, standing is fine. However, if there are several rows of flutists, sitting is preferable as it may be difficult for all to see the conductor when standing. 

Music Stands
    All players should have their own music stand so they have sufficient space to play comfortably. Often less experienced players are comforted by raising music stands up high which shields them from the audience. Unfortunately, this also prevents them from making eye contact with the director and other players. Professional string quartets often use special music stands that go lower than the traditional black metal stands. This allows them to see more of the other players’ bodies in order to have good ensemble playing. These stands work well for flute choirs as well, but if this is not in the budget, keep stands low enough for good eye contact.
    Another helpful accessory is a shelf that attaches to the stand to hold a pencil and tuner. These shelves are well worth the cost to prevent the inevitable dropped pencils with each page turn. Depending on the lighting in the rehearsal or performance room, a stand light may be helpful. 

Watching the Conductor
    There is an old saying, “players who breathe together, play together.” This is certainly true for flute choirs. During each rehearsal warmup, the conductor and players should practice breathing together and then playing the first note of a scale. 
    Each member of the group should be able to conduct the basic patterns, including 4/4, 3/4, 5/4, 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8. Being able to produce the appropriate hand motions will give them a better understanding of where each beat falls. Because the patterns look different from a performer’s perspective, have them conduct in front of a mirror to see what the gestures will look like when they are playing. Spend some extra time discussing the time signatures of 32 and 68 as they are confusing for many players. 
    Each of the six main articulation marks – detache, staccato, marcato, tenuto, accent and portato – should be practiced as a group with the conductor on a scale. The goal is for every player in the ensemble to approach a note in the same way and with the same note length. (See “Playing Quarter Notes Expressively” The Teacher’s Studio, Flute Talk January 2019)
    The conductor also helps the ensemble with balance and blending. Unless there is a solo, players should blend and balance with others on the same part. The balance between melody and accompaniment is often difficult. Players usually know that the melody should be more prominent but have trouble hearing the correct balance. Usually, the melody is just fine, but the accompaniment is too heavy. I once saw an orchestral conductor ask the concertmaster to play a phrase. Then he added the associate concertmaster, telling them that they should sound like one violin in tone and volume. One by one he added another violinist until all sixteen were playing together but sounding as one instrument. This is a good exercise for flutists who are generally less accustomed than string players to playing in large sections. Playing a solo line is different than playing a tutti section with many others. 
    Playing with varied dynamics is a curse for most ensembles. Research has shown that the difference in dynamics has to be 20% or more to be recognized. With an even distribution between six standard dynamics, each time players change from one dynamic to the next, they are only making an adjustment of about 16.6%. To be perceived as a change by an audience, players must actually make a greater difference between similar dynamics.  
    Other conducting indications include accelerandos, retards, fermatas, and cut offs for final chords. These should be discussed, and if the solution is an unusual one, players should mark the instructions, in pencil, in their parts. 

Ensemble Technique
    A primary goal of good ensemble technique is for everyone to play together in terms of timing. Because lower flutes have a slow response, flute choirs tend to drag. I encourage low flute players to blow on the G#, D#, C#, C, B and trill key pads, so there is a bit of moisture on the pad. Since these keys are either closed or open all of the time, they have a tendency to dry out. Adding a bit of moisture to a pad means it will seat more quickly, and the response will be a split second sooner which prevents dragging. 
    There is often a problem of starting late on the first note of a group of faster notes, such as sixteenths. There are two common reasons for this. First, players often do not subdivide rests and as a result do not enter at the proper tempo and then take a few notes to reach it. Another reason is that many flute choir members have limited practice time, and their fingers can be slow to get moving, especially for those who may have been away from the instrument for many years or who have developed flexibility issues.
    To improve initiation of notes, trill on a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth rest on each note of a one- or two-octave scale. Tell players to think about getting the fingers going as if they are playing on the quicker side of accuracy. I repeat this exercise every fifteen minutes during rehearsals because it solves so many problems and definitely gets the blood circulating in the hands. Players can add this exercise to their home practice using a metronome.

Clean Fingering Technique
    There are two kinds of technique: slow and fast. In many ways slow technique is more difficult than fast because it takes more control to move a finger very slowly than quickly. For example, play an E and slur to a G. Is the interval clean or do you hear a bit of an F on the way to the G? Now multiply that extra sound by 10 or 20 players, and you can imagine how the ensemble sound suffers. Players can practice wiggles between these two notes to clean up fingering issues. There are many other tough fingerings on the flute that need special attention – top octave F# to G# is the worst. 
    For fast technique, the secret is to have a thorough knowledge of the 24 major and melodic minor scales, scales in thirds and sixths, seventh chords and broken sevenths, and major, minor, diminished and augmented arpeggios. The better each player in an ensemble can play these, the better the group will play faster repertoire. 
    My flute choir is composed of flutists from a variety of backgrounds. When we started eight years ago, most were fluent in Bb, Eb, and Ab, but if we ventured out of these keys, it was rough going, and intonation was atrocious. Now after 30 minutes of working around the circle of fifths at the beginning of each rehearsal, they can play well in any key, and ensemble intonation is greatly improved. The work was very painful so some of the players told me, but now all are glad they put in the work. 

    There is some question as to whether flute choirs should play with vibrato. The answer is yes, but there is an appropriate speed and width for every passage to maintain a unified group sound. On lower notes the vibrato should be slower, but as the range goes higher vibrato becomes faster. Low flutes vibrate slower than C flutes or piccolo.
    Generally, the initiation of the vibrato is the challenge. It often sounds as if a note starts, and a player thinks, “Am I on the right note?” and then begins the vibrato. Just like in orchestral playing, vibrato should start at the beginning of the note. To practice this, play a vibrating pizzicato on each note of a scale followed by a silence. (See Marcel Moyse’s De La Sonorite, p. 15 for a discussion on the vibrating pizzicato.)
    A general rule is that the first person on a part (I always mark who is the leader for each part) selects the vibrato type, and it is up to the others doubling that part to match the vibrato speed and type. Melody lines are played with a more prominent vibrato, while accompaniment lines have less. 


    Check cork assembly placement periodically at the beginning of rehearsals. Then carefully assemble the C flutes so that the center of the right-hand keys (D, E, F) is in the center of the embouchure hole. When playing, the embouchure hole and keys should be level and face the ceiling. Most flutes are built to a scale where the headjoint should be pulled out 1/4". Check this measurement with a ruler as most flutists pull out about 1/8" rather than 1/4".
    For low flutes, how much the headjoint should be pulled out varies between manufacturers. Use a tuner to check the octaves of low C, C#, and D until each is in tune. This is a baseline for exploration of exactly how each flute should be set up 

    If there are YouTube recordings of repertoire you are polishing, encourage ensemble members to listen to them. Once every concert cycle it is good to record the group and then send the file to members to review. Levels of perception vary greatly within most groups based on experience and even players physical location in the ensemble. This is a great way to get everyone more on the same page. At the next rehearsal, discuss observations and figure out strategies to address problems. 

    While time for daily practice can be limited for busy members of a community ensemble, even a small amount of regular work can make a big difference. Many find that a set time each day reminds them to practice. If everyone in the group practices at least five days a week, the overall group sound will improve immensely. 
    During rehearsals, the conductor should make specific suggestions about how to practice problem sections or to improve playing skills. This can be especially helpful for those who do not have a private teacher or are returning to the instrument after many years away.  
    Playing in a flute choir can be one of the most rewarding experiences in music-making. Cherish the time spent rehearsing with the group and practicing alone. If each person does just a little bit more, the sky is the limit.       

    The Flute Talk December 2018 issue included extensive coverage on selecting repertoire (Sara Nichols) with a collection of over 20 flute choir programs that flute choirs have recently performed. http://theinstrumentalist.com/articles/FluteTalk/December-2018/Selecting-Repertoire/