Question: Lately my embouchure has been feeling extra tight and lacks flexibility. What are some tips to overcome this?
Answer: Many flutists experience tightness in the embouchure at some point. This tightness can severely hamper flexibility of the lips, leading to problems with tone, intonation, dynamics, technique, and a host of other issues. A good first step in correcting this problem is to observe your embouchure as you play. Look for evidence of these signs:
• Corners strongly pulled back or up
• Thinned lips and/or a smiling embouchure
• A very small opening between your lips (aperture)
• Embouchure plate rolled too far inward or lip covering too much
• Lip plate placed too high on the lower lip
If you see any of these issues as you study yourself in the mirror, you will want to start to work on rebuilding an embouchure that will serve you better as you play the flute. It takes a bit of work, but the result is a stronger, flexible, and more accurate embouchure. Focus on the following ideas to help reduce negative tension in the embouchure.
Start with a low register E. Gently push the lips forward and slur up one octave to the next E, and without changing fingers, continue to the B above. This will be an octave and a fifth. Next, slur back down, i.e., B – E – E. Using the same pattern, ascend by half-steps with the last sequence being C# – G#. Use a mirror and watch for tiny lip movements to assist in slurring seamlessly from one note to the next. Avoid simply blowing harder or using any large jaw movement. Other good sources for harmonic exercises can be found in Flute 102: Mastering the Basics by Patricia George and Phyllis Avidan Louke, Robert Dick’s Tone Development Through Extended Techniques, Trevor Wye’s Practice Book for Flute, vol.1, Tone, and many other sources online.
Pitch bending or bending tones are useful in developing the frown and lip pout. The embouchure becomes stronger and more capable of correcting intonation problems. Using a C or C# in the middle register, make a severe frowny face and use the upper lip to help direct the airstream down as you bend the tone lower. Try to make more distance between the upper lip and the nose. Keep the aperture as small as possible and use a tuner to have a visual check on how much the pitch is changing. To bend higher, push the lower lip forward and aim the airstream towards the nose. While bending, the flute and arms should remain still. Look in a mirror and have fun with this as you will be making some seriously funny faces. Trevor Wye’s Practice Book for Flute, vol. 1, Tone includes a page on pitch bending.
Playing with cheeks puffed and no tongue attacks
Inflate the cheeks and space above the lips as you puff or poo on a third octave D, thinking about releasing tension outward. Take the flute off the face and place it back on, releasing any tension each time you puff. Work further up by half steps into the high register, off-on, off-on, puffing out the embouchure tightness. Using no tongue attacks helps focus the air directly from the body, eliminating another possible source for tension. An added benefit of practicing this exercise is that incorporating air in the cheeks, in your revamped embouchure, will help create a wonderful warmth and resonance in the tone. Walfrid Kujala’s book, The Flutist’s Progress, is a good source for more information on playing with air in the cheeks.
Scrunch the area above the lip and try to touch the upper lip to the nose. After each scrunch, do no-tongue attacks with the lip plate coming off the face and back on the lip as you play various notes. Use a mirror as you do this; it looks ridiculous but will help to strengthen the little muscles near the center of the lips which control the embouchure.
These refer to playing more than one note at a time. Finger a high register D and find the lower C, which will be less stable and have a diffused quality. Keeping the air stable, tune your throat by separately singing each note, becoming aware of how the throat feels. Next, play each note separately and then layered together. Try also an F with both trill keys added in the middle register. You can find many more examples of multiphonics online.
Begin with a high register G. Lips should form a small, forward aperture shaped as if you were whistling. Imagine warm, slow air passing over the inner wet part of the lower lip as you blow gently across the outer edge of the hole. This will be somewhat like the gentle air used to fog a mirror. A steady, relaxed air column will produce a kind of ghostly tone or whistle. Strive to keep the air controlled and branch out to other high notes in the upper register. A good exercise is to begin on high B and gently work down the flute chromatically. Stay calm and patient with this as it takes consistent practice to gain control. This will build incredible airstream control and help ease tension out of the embouchure.
Singing and playing
This helps banish tension from the throat and creates an open, resonant sound, allowing for a more relaxed embouchure. Play a middle register D and sustain it. Next, begin to hum the same pitch in whatever register is comfortable and then switch back and forth between playing and humming. Repeat this process using singing instead of humming. Notice the resonance in the throat and how it feels. Steady work on this throat tuning will result in stronger singing and playing. Eventually work up to throat tuning and singing a drone pitch and changing notes on the flute. Find much more information in Robert Dick’s Tone Development Through Extended Techniques and his YouTube tutorials.
As you proceed to work through these ideas, be sure to use a mirror, looking for the following features. A good embouchure should have the corners of the mouth pulled down, as if pouting or frowning. The lower lip pours over the lip plate, allowing the airstream to come across the inner wet part of the lip. The edge of the lip plate should be placed just under the lower lip where the lip begins, generally covering about one-third of the lip plate. The upper lip serves to help direct the airstream as both lips gently grip around it. The aperture is a small oval shape, and the teeth are apart. The focus should be on easing the tension away from the corners of the lips and using the center of the lips.
Making changes to the embouchure can take time, so be patient and just keep working to incorporate these ideas into your practice routine. It does not matter how long it takes to accomplish a goal as long as you reach it. Even if you only explore one or two of the ideas, they will have a positive effect over time. The muscles involved with the embouchure will become stronger, resulting in significant gains in flexibility and ease of playing.