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Finding the Sound and Refining Technique

Christine Gustafson | February 2020

    Physical exercise such as running and weight training are part of my general routine, and if facilities are available, I recommend swimming. These all help with breathing when playing the flute. A personal trainer is helpful for assessing individual needs and safety issues when working with training equipment.

    Before I begin practice in the morning, I recall the playing of my teachers (Harry Houdeshel, Kenton Terry, Louis Rivière, Wolfgang Schulz, Carol Wincenc and Karl F. Kraber) and imagine what it would feel like to create their sounds. Frequently I listen to recordings or broadcasts of players’ whose sounds I admire. I also plan my practice before I start so that I cover everything I will need in my playing for that day. I also build change and new experiences into my daily plan.

    The first thirty minutes of practice are crucial. My aim is to create the most beautiful sound I can as efficiently as possible. I start with Marcel Moyse’s De La Sonorite first few pages or Trevor Wye’s Practice Book 1, pages 18-19 and concentrate on tone formation and the balance between abdominal support, amount of air, flexibility of embouchure shape, and resonance spaces. Thinking of vowel shapes like the German ü or the French û (saying ee, with the lips shaped for oo) during these long tone studies helps me to create a resonance cavity that aids in controlling color. Next, I take a couple of minutes to practice whistle tones to increase abdominal support while still maintaining a relaxed position in my facial muscles.
    I also check the relationship of the lower lip and embouchure plate. This position should be firm enough to allow for relaxation of the lips with adequate turnout, which affects intonation and allows fingers to relax. Finding a fluid and relaxed balance that is gentle on the embouchure but dependable, frees flutists to make music. I should note that I find it helpful during the first five to ten minutes of my warmup to take frequent, short pauses to give my body a chance to wake up and adjust. I also check my body alignment in a mirror.
    As part of my low-register warmup, I like to play and sing, working downward chromatically from the B natural in the staff, first singing, then playing and finally matching the pitch with my voice. I find this helpful for regulating the amount of air needed to produce a well-controlled sound.
    Harmonics are part of my warmup and help with intonation in the upper range. There are many examples online for visual instructions on how to play harmonics on the flute. I recommend Trevor Wye’s Practice Book 4 for a good routine with clear instructions. I make sure to include some flutter-tonguing in my warmup, which I do from the back of the throat as if gargling and not rolling the R’s.
    Remember when working on any aspect of warming up that your greatest resource is your ears. Most flutists have a sound in mind that they have heard, either in a live performance or in a recording by a wonderful flutist. Throughout my warmup up, I try to match the tone in my imagination with the tone I am producing.

    Once my tone is flowing freely, the other point of focus involves working for relaxed, smooth finger technique that allows me to move flexibly through phrases and to make music. I use some of the chromatic passages from Paul Edmund Davies’ 28 Days Warmup Book, being sure I cover the full range of the flute while making sure my fingers are working well and evenly. Periodically I check my abdominal support, the amount and speed of the air, and the use of the embouchure to develop and maintain control of the sound. I also continue to look into the mirror to check body alignment and make sure that my finger tips are close to the keys.
    To work on the larger intervals, I move on to the arpeggios in Taffanel et Gaubert 17 Big Daily Exercises, No. 10. To work on intonation, it is beneficial to use a tuner drone set on the first note of each measure. Every 10 measures, reset the drone pitch.
    If I have little time, I use the Reichert Daily Exercise No. 1 for agility and evenness of fingers in the keys that are the same as the keys in my concert
literature, using the metronome set at quarter note = 60. Playing these more slowly gives me time to really listen to my sound to be sure the notes are uniformly beautiful and homogeneous in color.
    On days when I have more time, I play the Taffanel et Gaubert 17 Big Daily Exercise, No. 4 scale routine. With these you may vary the articulation using the patterns suggested by T&G or make up your own. Creating a dynamic plan is also beneficial. I often alternate this with playing two- and three-octave major and minor scales.

Melodic Work
    Next, I move on to melodic work, using lyrical passages from repertoire I am playing. With these melodies I strive for lyricism, a beautiful legato, and a ringing, well-made sound. 

Tools and Resources
    As I achieve the sound I want, I frequently check the tuner to be sure I am in tune. Use of a drone during long- tone practice is helpful for centering the sound. The metronome is essential when working on scalar or chromatic passages and functions. Once again, the ears are the most important factors in a warmup. Recording the warmup offers many advantages because it gives immediate and objective feedback.