Words Matter

Patricia George | January 2020

    The role of teachers is to offer advice and guidance. The clarity and appropriateness of their remarks help students understand concepts quickly and correctly. Selecting the correct word can make a huge difference in a student’s progress.

    Posture is one of the first things addressed in a flute lesson. However, the term often conveys an image of a militaristic pose used in marching band or the image of someone walking around with a book balanced on the head. Both of these ideas imply tension and formality and are not conducive to relaxed playing. A better word to use is alignment. When students focus on alignment, instead of a rigidly held pose, they can envision the head balanced on the spine, the shoulders over the hips, and the hips over the ankles.

Hold the Flute
    Instead of talking about holding the flute with the hands, I refer to it as balancing the flute in the hands. The term holding implies tension, as in “Hold the flute and don’t drop it!” Balancing something is a softer approach, and it relaxes the hands and helps students develop a natural approach towards hand position.

Curve Those Fingers
    This statement is heard in many a band room, however, in the case of the flute, students often curve the left thumb too. The left thumb should be straight and pointed to the ceiling. Curving the left thumb creates tension in the arm. In addition, when students hear the word curved, they sometimes tense their fingers. The fingers should be relaxed, and all movement should come from the third knuckle back from the nail except for the left-hand first finger.
    I prefer  to describe the fingers as gently arched instead. For the right hand, Michel Debost, long-time columnist for Flute Talk and flute professor emeritus at Oberlin Conserv-atory, suggests having students pull a (horizontal) book off a shelf. This puts the fingers in a slightly arched position. Then the flutist exchanges the book for a flute.
    Practicing a half note trills followed by a quarter rest is a good way to work on the correct finger motion. Practice in a mirror keeping the finger tips close to the indentation of the key or open hole. This exercise could be practiced on each note of a scale (using regular fingerings) or on each note of an arpeggio. For advanced flutists, great improvement in technique can be gained by having the fingertip touch the key in exactly the same place on the finger and on the key. I ask students to pretend that the tip of the finger and the center of the key are both magnets and to visualize the magnetic pull between them.

Open Your Throat
    I often ask students the question, “Where is your throat?” I am always surprised at the answers I get. They range from the student opening his mouth and saying Ah while pointing inside the mouth like being checked for strep throat to a student pounding on her sternum. Because people seem to have many different ideas about what the throat is and how it works, I find it is better to tell students to “separate their vocal folds.” Googling vocal folds shows the location in the neck. This is the only place between the lungs and the lips where the air flow may be manipulated. The space between the folds is called the glottis. If the folds are closed abruptly, it produces a glottal stop which is a noisy conclusion to a note whether sung or played. To open the vocal folds, most teachers suggest the feeling of a yawn or saying the word hah. Manipulating the size of the opening is how vibrato is produced. (Start by playing or singing staccato hahs. Once under control simply slur the hahs. To develop a useful, artistic vibrato, this exercise should be practiced in a variety of tempos and vibrato widths (how sharp or how flat). Teachers can also say “Drop the jaw.” This is useful in opening the vocal folds too.

Support the Tone
    It seemed that every guest band clinician I worked with as a student talked about supporting the sound. I always wondered what exactly that meant. What I saw others do was take a breath and then tighten their abdomens. The abdomen was then kept tight throughout the rehearsal. I did not think this was correct, but no one talked about it one way or the other, and indeed knowledge of anatomy was not common among musicians at the time.
    Arnold Jacobs (former tuba of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) was one of the first to advance the theory that teachers and players had to know basic anatomy. The diaphragm is an involuntary muscle that separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity. The key word here is involuntary. Abandon the word diaphragm from your teaching vocabulary.
    To understand how tight the abdomen should be when playing, ask students to sit in a chair with their legs stretched out in front and with their heels off the floor. The hips, knees and ankles should be in a straight line and equidistant from the floor. While in this position, they should play a scale and listen to the sound. Most notice a remarked improvement in the quality of the sound.
    Supporting the tone actually is a misnomer for how the air works. It has three areas to focus on: how much air, how fast or slow the air stream should be, and the angle that the air strikes the blowing edge of the embouchure hole. The first two relate to the dynamic of the phrase, the length of the phrase, the character of the phrase, the type of interval, and the tessitura of the phrase. (High notes require faster air than low notes.) The angle of the air helps create various timbres or colors and to play in tune.
    A common problem with the air system is that flutists forget that the air stream – no matter whether large or small, slow or fast – is always moving. Most students slow or stop the air stream when fingering difficult passages. They often think they have a fingering or tonguing problem when the real problem is keeping the air moving at all times. For example, students usually complain that they cannot tongue the Mendelssohn Scherzo. However, most players have found that when they can slur it in tempo, they can also now tongue it in tempo. For success, flutists should keep the air system separate from the tonguing and fingerings systems. Once these systems get meshed, there are always deficiencies in performance. Keeping the systems separate is easy to talk about but difficult to do. Vibrato speed and continuity also rely on the air system.
    In modern dance one of the warmups is called isolation. In this exercise the dancer only moves one part of the body such as moving a hand up and down while the rest of the body is completely still. Then the dancer may move just the foot from the ankle up and down. The exercise progresses through the body until all of the major joints have been worked. This exercise cleans the overall movement of the choreography. Flutists should do isolation work too.  Fingering a passage without the flute improves coordination. Once a passage can be fingered in time, then add the air. Vibrato can be practiced on one note and then by adding a certain number of pulsations per note while playing a scale. The flutist should listen carefully that the vibrato does not stop or start when changing notes. This isolation concept may be applied to many situations to be sure that fingering, tonguing, and vibrato are not changing the air system in any way.

    This word is applied to the idea of beginning a note. It conveys a rather scary, aggressive feeling. Certainly, the beginning of a note should not be fearsome. An alternative may be to refer to the beginning, middle and end of a notes.  The beginning of a note is produced by placing the tongue in the aperture or opening in the lips. Air pressure builds behind the tongue, and then the tongue releases the air. The air stops before repeating again. Many flutists begin phrases using a tongue-less attack which is sometimes called a breath attack. This keeps the pitch of the beginning of the note from being sharper than the middle of the note. The ending of most notes will be tapered slightly. Rather than stopping the air, flutists can continue blowing into the next note without tonguing (which is a slur or legato). 

Other Terms and Ideas
    There are a number of phrases that have been coined by elite pedagogues and players to express ideas involved in performing at an artistic level.

Spinning Orange
    I am not sure where this concept came from, but it has been used by many teachers over the past 75 years. The image is that the flutist has a spinning orange in his mouth, and as he plays the passage, he visualizes the air stream spinning the orange as he plays. Other versions of this utilize an egg or small jacks game ball instead of an orange. Whatever the size of the object, the message is the same – drop the jaw and create more space in the mouth while having an active air stream. This concept has always reminded me of the display at a vacuum cleaner shop where to demonstrate the powerful air system of one machine over another, there is a plastic ball on top of the vacuum. The speed of the ball turning shows how powerful the unit is. The type of sound obtained with this exercise is also called spinning the sound. When teachers say “Spin the sound” they are saying to visualize a spinning top, a spinning wheel, or a spinning vinyl record. The idea is to get the flutist to keep the air moving at all times.

Grip the Air Stream
    William Kincaid, former principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the father of American flute playing, often said this. It was a way for him to get flutists to shape the aperture and define the direction of the air coming from the aperture against the blowing edge of the embouchure hole. This concept works especially well when playing piccolo.

Find the Sweet Spot
    I borrowed this term from my tennis playing days. Finding the sweet spot meant you hit the ball exactly at the spot on the racket where the strings ping, and the ball goes exactly where you have planned. In flute playing it refers to finding the focus in the sound – which may be done in two ways. In one, a student experiments with angling the air on the back edge of the embouchure hole. The player does not move the flute or embouchure hole, only the air. Michel Debost often suggested that students imagine that they are aiming the air to their left elbow funny bone.
    In the second way, the flutist experiments with the placement of the end of the flute. I explain it as if the end of the flute can move north and south (up or down) or east and west (forward or back) while still firmly in the chin. After moving the end up and down, it is obvious where the sound is the most focused or clear. Then the end of the flute is moved forward and back with the same objective. That spot where everything aligns is the sweet spot. Most flutists find a tonal improvement by moving the end of the flute away from the right shoulder. I think this is because of the shaping of the embouchure hole and the advances made by over- and under-cutting.

Down/Up and Forward Flow
    Marcel Tabuteau, former oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, professor at Curtis and creator of the American style of oboe playing, taught a concept of two-note slurs being played strong/
weak or down/up. He and William Kincaid also developed a concept of note grouping to help players understand where notes led to create an artistic musical line. With four sixteenth-note groups, the notes would not be grouped 1,2,3,4, but rather as 2,3,4,1. I looked for a term to explain this idea quickly and decided upon forward flow. According to their pedagogy, in music there are three basic gestures: down/up, forward flow, and single notes. Sometime  Kincaid referred to the single notes as solitaires.
    Whether you teach or not, these words should clarify some common flute concepts and offer useful images to improve your playing. The more articulately flutists speak, the more articulately they will play.