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Top 10 Flute Q & A

Patricia George | December 2023 January 2024

1. How do I fix intonation in the flute section?
Check the placement of the cork in the headjoint using the line on the cleaning rod. The line should align in the center of the embouchure hole. If the line is closer to the crown end, then unscrew the crown and push the crown towards the tenon end until the line is in the center. Then screw the crown back on. If the line is too close to the tenon end, simply tighten the crown until the line is in the proper place.

Pull the headjoint from the body about ¼ inch as a starting point. When assembling the flute, the embouchure hole and the keys should be level and when playing, pointed to the ceiling. If the keys and embouchure hole are rolled back towards the player, the tone will be small, tight, and flat. If the keys and embouchure hole are rolled away from the player, the tone will be airy and sharp.

Play a second octave D, mf. This is a good tuning note to start with because the flute is stationary in the student’s hands.

Have students download a tuning app or purchase a tuner. Most students attack the note so vigorously that the beginning of the note is sharp, and then as the note progresses, the pitch settles. Alternate starting the tone with a HAH attack and then the TU attack. The HAH attack usually is on pitch, while the TU is a bit sharp. Also use the tuner to play the “keep the needle still game.” Keeping the needle still means that students are gaining control of the air stream. Even air is the key.

2. How do I teach vibrato?
Vibrato is the slight variation of the pitch that is produced in the larynx, not in the abdomen or diaphragm. With the right hand on the barrel, start with a B in the first octave playing breath attacks (HAH staccatos) HAH, HAH, HAH rest, mp. Be sure there is no movement in the jaw, chest, or abdomen. Once students can play these staccato (no touching of the notes), then have them alternate the HAH staccatos with the slurred HAHs. HAH, HAH, HAH rest followed by the slurred HAH, AH, AH rest.

Practice vibrato pulsations on each note of a scale starting with two pulsations on each note slurred, then three, and finally four. Beginning band books, hymnals, and scales are good material for practicing vibrato cycles. Practicing four vibrato cycles to a quarter note also teaches students how to subdivide beats. There are some excellent videos on YouTube of the role of the vocal folds in vibrato production. Flutists produce vibrato the same way that sopranos do.

3. What about double tonguing?
The first step in achieving a great double tonguing is to master single tonguing. Just to review, the tip of the tongue is placed in the aperture, the air builds, the tongue is pulled back and the tone is released. Beginning students are taught this concept by spitting one grain of boiled rice off the tip of the tongue. In France, fig seeds are used. This type of tonguing produces an in tune attack. Once the flutist can play four sixteenths single tongued at quarter = 120 or so, double tonguing is introduced. For many years teachers taught a Da, Ga or Du, Gu attack but that was before we understood the anatomy of the tongue. The goal now is to have the second syllable as far forward as possible in the mouth – perhaps using the TU or THI, KEY syllables. With this type of usage of the tip of the tongue, flutists are able to double tongue even faster than the Da, Ga type of stroke, and there is little fatigue in doing it.

Since muscles learn in chunks (playing something of short duration followed by a rest), have flutists practice T, K, T rest on each note of a scale. Then T, K, T, K, T rest. For triple tonguing, I prefer T, K, T, and then T, K, T, because of the strength of the beat rule. Once learned many flutists understand that the air stream only needs to be snagged, not totally gone through. With this type of tonguing, there is almost no limit as to how fast a flutist can tongue.

4. Which B flat fingering is best?
The answer relates to what type of passage a student is playing. For example, the lever is often the best choice for chromatic passages while the thumb Bb works well for playing in flat keys – except when there is a Gb in the key signature. The Gb will squeak if the left thumb is on the Bb key. The flutist should stop and analyze which Bb is the best for each passage. Personally, I use the long fingering (Thumb 1 0 0 0/1 0 0 4) most of the time because my first teacher thought it balanced the flute better in the hands. I also like the set up of the left hand when the left thumb is in the B natural position rather than the Bb position. For trill fingerings I usually use the Thumb Bb. The one thing to avoid is having the thumb move back and forth in a passage.

5. What are the most common fingering mistakes?
The most common mistake is leaving the left first finger down on the second octave D and Eb. Leaving the left first finger down produces a note that lacks clarity. The second incorrect fingering happens more with doublers (saxophone/flute) – using the middle F# fingering. In the 1980s many flute manufacturers began experimentation with the flute scale. When this happened, there were small adjustments of key placement which affect how flutists finger a top F#. Flutists are now better in tune when using the middle F# fingering in the top octave and the fourth finger in the lower two octaves. (RH: top octave: 0 2 0 4. RH: octaves one and two: 0 0 3 4).

6. How do you start a flute choir?
One of the goals of playing in a flute choir is to learn how to play chamber music without a conductor. I have found that starting with a duet with half the flute section playing first and the other half playing second is far better than having one on a part until the students learn the basics of ensemble playing. Also, playing a duet with many players on each part helps weaker counters strengthen their counting skills.

Teach how to start a piece by having students get in playing position and watching the leader take a breath to start the first note. All lift the end of their flutes together for the upbeat and move the end of the flute down on the first note of the composition. This teaches students to breathe together. Next work on cut-offs with one flutist signaling by making a small circle with the end of the flute to cut off the note. After this is mastered, work on tapering the ends of the last note of the phrase.

Discuss who has the melody and who has the accompaniment. Melody is played louder than accompaniment. Work on looking around while playing to use the eyes to communicate tempo including ritards, fermatas, etc. A good duet to start with is the two-movement Beethoven duo found in the Rubank Vol. 2 Flute Duet book. After several duets have been mastered, move on to trios and quartets before progressing on to flute choir music. There is a lot of repertoire for five and six C flutes. Eventually add in alto and bass flutes.

7. When breathing, do you open the mouth by dropping the jaw or by rocking the head back away from the embouchure plate?
Do not rock the head back when breathing. The goal is to balance the head on the spine. If the head is rocked back, then that balance is no longer present and tension is produced.

8. Should taking a big breath be the goal?
Rampal, the famous French flutist, said in a masterclass in Nice that he never was able to control a big breath. Instead, he used many sip breaths. A sip breath is named after the type of breath taken when taking a sip of a beverage with a straw. James Caldwell, legendary Oberlin oboe professor, thought that the tone was better with notes where the air hadn’t been in the body long and advocated the sip breaths.

In teaching breathing, we have focused on the inhale far too long. The key to expressive playing is in the exhale. Learning to control the exhale is the goal to expressive playing.

9. How do I prevent sloppy fingers in beginning and intermediate level flutists?
The problem occurs in the study of beginning method books. In order to keep the class playing together, flutists play too slowly for the first several years. When playing slowly, the fingers tend to become stiff and unresponsive. The answer is to have students play a cluster or chunk of trills each time they learn a new fingering. For example, once B and A are learned then practice trilling from A to B and B to A (prep for playing Baroque and Classic era music) in small chunks followed by a rest. Once they have learned three notes (B, A, G), then practice playing all three notes up and down slurred like playing a Pan flute. One of my favorite groups of notes for swishing up and down are C, B, A, G, F, E, and then E, F, G, A, B, C. This exercise helps players develop intuition as to which note might come next. It also teaches students how to play many notes on one blow of air.

10. How many flutists should share a music stand?
Ideally, there should be one flutist to one music stand because of the asymmetrical nature of playing the flute. In a pinch, no more than two should share a stand. Remember in setting up a flute ensemble or in band, the flutists’ chairs should be turned 45 degrees to the right with the goal of an alignment of the aperture/embouchure hole, left elbow, left big toe to the center of the music stand. This type of alignment is excellent for all instrumentalists who play an instrument off to the side.