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Developing Critical Listening

Patricia George | July 2017

    Most students understand the importance of recording them-selves periodically. However, when listening to the playback, a teacher will generally have much better listening skills and a pickier attention to detail than students will on their own. It is worth the time to teach them to listen to recordings as a professional does even though it can be an arduous task.

First and Last Notes
    There is an old saying – make sure the first and last notes are perfect because that is what the audience remembers. There is a lot of truth in that statement. The first note should have an excellent clean attach with the vibrato starting at the beginning of the note (unless the composer indicates something different). When the beginning attack is not clean, brass players refer to this as chipping the front of the note. This is also a good term for flutists to use.
    To ensure a clean attack, place the tongue in the aperture, build up air pressure, and then pull the tongue back to release the air pressure at the allotted time. This is using the tongue in a horizontal plane rather than a vertical one. This type of tonguing also prevents the pitch from being very sharp at the beginning of the note and then settling down as the note continues. Many flutists start the tone with a puff of air before employing the attack because the tongue is touching too far back in the mouth. This produces a hoot sound that is not attractive to listeners.
    The last notes are the final things the audience hears. There are two choices for the final notes: either they end with a big bang, or they taper to nothing. For the big bang, the problem will be tuning, and the notes will probably be sharp. Final notes like this are perfect candidates for alternate fingerings. Notes that are tapered also suffer from pitch problems but rather than being sharp, they are always flat. Marcel Moyse’s De La Sonorite, page 15, exercises 2 and 3 are perfect for working on tapers. Moyse’s instructions begin with the words, “With the tongue out…” which is exactly the use of the tongue described above.
    Another problem with tapers is vibrato. Often the vibrato is not continuous into the final note. Of course, the duration of the final note will determine how much vibrato can be placed on it. Since the diminuendo continues through the final note, there will be a place where the vibrato slows and finally disappears, and the flutist is playing a straight tone. To make beautiful tapers, flutists should practice making the aperture smaller. Checking this movement in a mirror is helpful. Using a coffee stirrer straw in the aperture can help students judge how to grip the smaller air stream that is needed for the taper.
    While the first and last notes of the piece are perhaps the most important, as students becomes more aware of how to play them, they can start to incorporate these ideas into the first and last notes of each phrase.


    When listening to a recording or a live performance, listeners hope the performer will tell a story with the performance. This means that there is a plan for each note and phrase in the piece. Many performers are eurhythmic, meaning they have great, coordinated flow between notes, but do not have a master plan addressing where each phrase is going and how one phrase relates to another. Teachers are happy to have a eurhythmic beginner or intermediate player, but at the next stages students need help to learn how to develop a plan. Marcel Tabuteau’s numbering system was one great performer’s attempt to share his thoughts on voicing a phrase, and then how one phrase relates to another. No matter what system teachers use with students, there should be some discussion about where the climax is in a piece and how the phrases get there.
    One idea is to take two blank sheets of paper and trace the dynamics of the first movement of Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for Flute and Piano. From the dynamic markings on the papers, it is obvious where the climax is and how to get there. This simple exercise shows the power of dynamics. From my experience, students feel like they are playing dynamics, but on listening to a recording they realize that everything sounds mf.

    When playing a solo composition, flutists can do what they wish; however, when playing with others (especially string players), a continuous vibrato is necessary. Remember there are various kinds of shapes and speeds of vibrato to select from. In the Baroque period, vibrato was used to color or intensify certain notes. Things have changed over the years. When I was teaching at the university, my studio overlooked an athletic field. I posed the question, “What if everyone in the school were on the athletic field, and there was one nude person out there. Who would you look at?” I coined the phrase “No Nude Notes” to remind students to keep the vibrato going because if one note has no vibrato, then it is that note that has been given significance.
    Another problem with vibrato is the tendency of flutists to place vibrato on the strong beats and have none on the weak beats. This type of vibrato usage is called every other note vibrato.
    The difficulty of developing a continuous vibrato has to do with separating the air stream from the movement of the fingers. Unfortunately, vibrato often stops when the fingers move. Practicing counted or measured vibrato on each note of a scale is a wonderful exercise to solve this problem. Another option is to ask a violinist to play slow scales with you and notice how the violinist’s left hand moves in a continuous fashion even while changing fingers. This is what flutists want to develop.
    Just as with dynamics, flutists should develop a variety of vibrato speeds and widths. Generally, the softer the passage, the slower and narrower the vibrato cycle. However, Joseph Mariano was a master of doing the opposite in an artistic manner. When I was studying with Julius Baker, he told me how excited the flute world was with the release of the 78 RPM recording of Mariano playing the Griffes Poem (1942). Baker said when he got a copy of the recording, he rerecorded it on a reel to reel tape recorder and then hand threaded the tape through the machine so he could calculate the number of vibrato vibrations Mariano placed on each note of the piece. He also noted the tone color Mariano used throughout. The most amazing part of this story is that this recording was made in one take. You can hear it on Volume 2 of the National Flute Association’s Historic Recordings Series.


    My flute choir, like many flute choirs, has suffered from intonation problems. We have been working on it the old-fashioned way – by listening. However, the level was not what I knew we could achieve. One night I asked how many had tuners, and every hand in the room went up. I asked how many had pickups for their tuners, and I was the only person who had one. We decided that everyone would have one for the next rehearsal. The advantage of a pickup is that it is clipped onto the flute and only picks up your playing. We started with whole-note scales beginning on C5, going up only. The goal was to keep the needle straight up and still. One person said, “the needle is all over the place. I am sharp on one note and then flat on the next.”
    At that point, I decided that we should tune the flutes. First, we checked the placement of the headjoint corks. Then, we played low C, pulling out or pushing in, until that note was in tune. Then we overblew to the next octave making sure the flutes were still in tune. Then we overblew once again to C7 and made sure all three notes were in tune. We then repeated this exercise on C# and D. C5 and C6 are difficult notes to play in tune because once the left thumb is removed there is a chance the flute will roll in because it is not well balanced in the hands. In this case, because of the design of the flute with more weight on the backside of the instrument, the flute rolls towards the flutist, and the note is flat. Learning to balance the flute at the place just above the left knuckle will certainly improve intonation.
    After tuning these three notes and their octaves, we returned to the whole-note scales. Still some were having difficulty keeping the needle still. Then we discussed air speed. Most saw improvement when they simply blew faster air. I said it was like driving a car where one minute you were going 60 mph, the next 45, and then 70. One member said, “That is exactly the way I drive.” Of course, the goal is to drive with cruise control on at all dynamic levels.
    After this exercise, half the flutists played low F for a whole note, and the other half entered playing a third above on count three. We continued up the scale for one octave in thirds and then switched roles. Each week we have added another exercise to tune intervals and eventually chords. At the last concert, several audience members mentioned our improved intonation. For most of the players, they had no idea how sharp they were playing. Keeping the pitch down is our new goal.
    In the May/June 2017 issue of Flute Talk, Sharon Sparrow mentions using the tuner when listening back to recordings. This is an excellent idea. With the use of the recording feature on most phones, recording has become easy and accurate. Using the tuner when playing back recordings shows players which notes or phrases should get more attention.

    Floaters are those notes that float in when flutists are playing an interval larger than a major second in the lower two octaves. Generally, to play a second flutists add or take away a finger.  However, with larger intervals more fingers are involved, and if flutists do not put them down or raise them at the precise time, an extra note is heard – a note that floats in. This is a coordination issue that should be addressed.
    Putting the metronome on the smallest rhythmic unit (sixteenth notes in scales) helps flutists move their fingers in a rhythmic manner. Violinists refer to this as having articulate fingers. This works for flutists as well. Try thinking about touching the key with the same part of the fingertip each time and placing the tip exactly on the same place on the key. This will heighten the awareness to move the fingers in a coordinated, clean manner. The third octave offers more challenges because so many more fingers are involved in moving from one note to the next. Usually teachers tell students to keep their fingers close to the keys; however, in difficult passages lifting them slightly more than usual produces good results. Sometime merely thinking of the fingers being a little more curved rather than arched heightens the awareness and cleans up technique.
    Another possibility is to figure out what fingers can be kept down when going from one note to the next. This will act as an anchor and keep the flute steady. For example, when going from a C#6 to and E6, put the right hand second finger (E) down for the C#. This will not only help the pitch of the C# which is usually sharp, but will make going to the E smoother.
    When listening to the playback with students, mark places where the fingers are not clean. Create an exercise of these fingering combinations. Practice them in the mirror to discover which fingers are moving too fast and which too slowly. G to Bb in the first and second octaves can be a problem if the long fingering for Bb is used. Using the thumb or lever Bb can clean up this problem quickly. When selecting an alternate fingering though, do not compromise sound or intonation.

Rhythmic Notation

    Since most of the music flutists have played in band ends on a strong beat (in 4/4 meter, this would be beat 1 or beat 3), the tendency of students is to end all pieces this way. This can lead to ending a Haydn minuet with a long third beat. When listening and making a list of improvements for students, check to be sure that note durations match what is written and how they should be played.
    This list is a starting point for helping students develop critical listening skills. The goal is for them to learn how to assess their own playing without the assistance of a teacher.