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Playing Flute After Age 40

Dawn Weiss | February 2010

   The legendary flutist, Marcel Moyse, wrote How I Stayed in Shape (Comment j’ai pu maintenir ma forme), a wonderful exercise book that is ideal for aging flutists. In the introduction he states, “For good tone quality all wind instruments depend upon the air column, the quality of the lips… and lip flexibility.” He goes on to say that this flexibility is necessary not only for a beautiful tone, but also for wide interval slurs, flexibility, inflections, the unity of a melodic line, evenness of slurs between notes and groups of notes, good attacks (especially in the extreme registers), and “finally for better control of quality and intonation during crescendi and decrescendi.”
    He says the book was conceived “to assist professional flutists with little practice time at their disposal, those who want to preserve their acquired skills, those who wish to acquire new ones, and finally all those who love the flute without forgetting music.”
    Indeed, I have found How I Stayed in Shape to be a fantastic aid for getting and staying in shape – especially for aging flutists! Up until fairly recently I didn’t consider age to be a deterrent for flutists. After all, my role models were Julius Baker, Jean Pierre Rampal, and Marcel Moyse, all great artists who performed well into old age. Because my generation has a sense of eternal youth, we tend to forget or ignore that we are getting older.
    However, as I work with adult students and talk with colleagues, it is becoming increasingly apparent that age-related issues eventually affect learning and performance for most people. The good news is that when understood, many of these problems can be overcome leaving those past 39 the ability to successfully continue their careers and hobbies.
    A good practice regimen is important to develop and maintain embouchure flexibility and efficient abdominal muscles. An experienced teacher can help you organize a good practice schedule, as well as help you become aware of your body and what it is telling you.
    If you must work alone, playing large interval jumps is a good place to start. I call those exercises sit ups for the lips. Practicing large jumps throughout the extreme ranges of the instrument demands maximum lip movement, which helps with blood flow to that area.
    I believe the most effective interval exercises involve playing perfect intervals, such as octaves, fourths, and fifths. They require large lip movements and also establish an intonation base that is easier to hear. When perfect intervals are in tune with no beats, the tone becomes purer and lip placement tends to be more accurate.
    Some aging problems affect women more than men. Hormone changes can cause the lips to either swell, dry out, or become thin. Hormones can also affect other things, such as mental focus and concentration, dryness in the throat, tightening in the air passageway, and acid reflux.
    Dietary issues and medications can also have adverse results, such as swollen lips, as when eating salty foods, for instance. When you begin taking new medications, notice whether your tone changes significantly. If it does, consult the prescribing physician and ask whether alternative medications are available.
    Older people tend to require extra effort to maintain firm, flexible abdominal muscles and general joint flexibility. Just as in other athletic endeavors, as we age it is harder to bounce back from illnesses and training can take longer.
This may sound daunting, but there are several steps you can take to continue to enjoy playing the flute and avoid injury.

Step 1: Warmup Exercises
    Get out your old scale and arpeggios books – the ones you practiced when you were a teenager. Books such as How I Stayed in Shape are great for jump-starting tone work. There are other books worth looking at as well,  such as Moyse’s widely used Daily Exercises (Exercices Journaliers). It is ideal for both the developing flutist and the aging one. Others include Taffanel et Gaubert’s 17 Big Daily Finger Exercises (17 Grand Exercises Journaliers de Mecanisme) and Andre Maquarre’s Daily Exercises for the Flute.
    Don’t underestimate the value of these wonderful resources. It is easy to become complacent and jump into solo repertoire without adequately warming up. That may work for those who play a lot every day and for the young, but as we age there is a need to encourage the circulation to the lips for maximum flexibility. To keep the embouchure flexible and the brain attentive, alternate your practice material, being sure to focus on different interval combinations and different ranges.

Step 2: Listen to Your Body

    Pay attention to how certain foods or medicines affect your lips. I have discovered that my lips puff up after consuming such simple things as certain teas. I know other musicians who are sensitive to the sodium content in foods and have to be on an extremely low sodium diet for 24 hours prior to morning rehearsals.
    Peanuts and beans tend to dry out my mouth, dairy products interfere with breathing, dairy and pasta seem to make me less alert, and chocolate and sugar can trigger hot flashes. I’ve also discovered that drinking hot liquids directly before playing desensitizes my lips.

Step 3: Play Music You Love
    Play a favorite piece that inspires you. I enjoy music by Bach, Debussy, Faure, Schubert, Reinecke, and Telemann, and I use it to stay in shape, work on tone, and encourage embouchure flexibility. Remember to listen musically as you play. We tend to play music better when we connect with it on an emotional level.
    One of my adult students is recovering from Bell’s palsy. He performs with several local groups but still has less than optimal lip mobility. It seems to help him for me to play a phrase and have him imitate what I have just played. By working in this way his ear focuses on the desired result, and his lips seem to be more responsive.

Step 4: Tone Your Muscles
    Most people don’t realize that playing the flute is an athletic activity, particularly when they are in great physical shape to start with. However, over the past two decades I’ve noticed that teenage students are becoming less and less physically fit. Schools have cut back on daily physical education, and an increasing number of young flute students have sound problems due to flabby abdominal muscles.
    Lack of abdominal support is most obvious in older singers, but it affects all musicians who use air to support the sound. Good muscle tone in the abdominals is essential for the control of pitch, tone color, projection, and the speed and width of vibrato. Having become aware of this problem, singing teachers have developed exercises that keep these muscles taut and firm. If you can’t find a flute teacher near you, a voice teacher might be a good alternative. It is also helpful to add floor exercises that work on the abdominals as part of your daily exercise routine.
    The body is primarily comprised of equal yet opposing muscles. This means that, in order to move a muscle, an opposite muscle must relax. When we demand movement from our bodies, we tend to focus on the muscle we wish to move. However, there is a reciprocal action that is necessary to allow that movement to take place.
    Because of this phenomenon, a hand, shoulder, or facial massage will sometimes do more to improve playing than several hours of practicing. I highly recommend stretching and relaxation exercises, such as yoga, working with a personal trainer, or using a form of physical therapy to help relax muscles that have become too tense.

Step 5: Holistic Resources
    Nutritional support, avoiding allergens, and, possibly a good physical therapist, can all do wonders to alleviate some symptoms of aging. Over the last 40-50 years there have been tremendous strides in the fields of physical therapy, health practices, learning technologies, etc. The options for support with general health, physical movement, and stress reduction are vast and include such techniques as osteopathy, craniofacial and craniosacral therapy, Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, Rolfing, Aston Patterning, Body Talk, Eurythme, homeopathy, acu-puncture, and massage.
    For performance anxiety, vision problems, and learning problems, there are options such as One Brain Integration, Neurolinguistic Program­ming, EMDR, and biofeedback. These holistic approaches may have significant potential in helping aging flutists function better.
    Remember that you are not alone, there are tricks and aids to work through many age-related issues. It is possible to continue to grow musically at any age, and doing so is beneficial for your body and mind. The joy of making music can be healing and personally satisfying. Recent scientific evidence shows that musical activity can actually increase the number of synapses in your brain! Playing the flute may slow the aging process, and be well worth the effort.