High F Sharp, Poetically

Mark Sparks | May 2018

    If the subject comes up, most players will likely admit with very little provocation that they do not always sound lovely on high F#. In fact, some will complain about high F# with no provocation at all. The tone of their complaint may even be slightly confessional; if they admit difficulty, the F# might improve, or at least occasional dispensation may be offered from the rough spirits who guard this note.

Harsh Mistress
    High F# seems universally unappreciated. Never, in my fifty years of acquaintance with the hole-riddled tube, have I heard a flutist exclaim: “I just love that high F# in the second movement of the Mozart G major!” Depending on our mood of the day, sometimes just the presence of the note can elicit faint exasperation, or, as I will reluctantly admit has occasionally issued from my own practice room, an exclamation one would not repeat in the company of one’s mother. But the real problem is not with the F#, it is with ourselves.
    The flute, for all her Sirenic lure and charm is, in the depth of her soul a harsh mistress indeed. She has no patience with the meek, the hurried, or the dishonest. She only responds if approached directly. So, it is best to just admit that we do not love high F#, but its existence is a fact of our Boehm-inherited tradition. It is just human nature to prefer what is easy – and high F# is not easy for anyone.

The Case of Doing Less
    When presented with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, look to serendipity and circumstance. For the discerning player, they point the way to hidden signposts for success. For example, perhaps on some fine day your high F# sounds with ease. The final passage of the Martinu Sonata slow movement is suddenly not a battle to the bitter end, and the final note of the sweet Faure Pavane is like liquid honey. Be grateful, you have been given a gift – a hint. Respond posthaste.
    Those of Homeric disposition may be inclined to reflect thusly on the intricacy of playing: the air sped across the blowing edge with the swiftness of Apollo, while the aim of the column was as true as Cupid’s Arrow, but the action was Zen. You were calm. You did not overthink or overachieve, tensely preparing for the worst. The throat and tongue were at peace, and you released the jaw, notably not over -expanding either the throat or forcing wide the front teeth as you might pry open a pistachio. No rude mashing of the lip plate against the lower lip was evident. The aperture was small, the lips supple yet stable. Fearless as a Kung Fu warrior, you blew with authority. Try it again; this time consciously.

Just Part of the Dish
    A fly in the soup spoils the whole pot, but F# need not ruin the entire lovely third octave. Enjoy the brilliance of the G natural, the powerful high A, and the firm yet pliable texture of the D6. Let these delights inspire you to adopt a kinder view towards the prickly F#.
    F6 stands guardian before the vault of the F#. Feed the gatekeeper, and the vault opens magically. Approach confidently. The key lies in the volume and velocity of air. A fabulous F results in a very fine F#. Give F plenty of fast-moving oxygen, perhaps a degree more than you heretofore imagined, then prior to changing to F#, make a slight crescendo. With this added support, the F# seems to take flight of its own volition. Vibrato takes wing also in the newfound fullness of this note. Inhaling quickly, re-attack the F# joyfully and with vigor.
    There are other approaches to these rarified heights. Practice harmonics, blowing forcefully on the B4 to achieve the F#6, then develop and purify the tone, adding vibrato as well. Bring the note up in pitch as it tends to lie a bit flat as the third partial. Also produce the high F# by overblowing the low F#. You must puff like Boreas, but in time you will find more ease with the tone production. Avoid dizziness by taking occasional rests.

The Right Keys
    Poetic niceties aside, I would be remiss not to discuss fingerings. With high F# there are several options, depending on needs. The standard fingering:
This has a certain purity but can sound sharp and easily shrill. Often, a better option is:
This has a fuller tone quality and lowers the pitch slightly. It is good for blending. One may also vent the E key, 2nd finger right hand, by using only the ring of the key, or venting the open hole. 
    Use the low C# key with this fingering to keep the fullness of the sound in the softer dynamics. 

    For the pianissimo:
    Vent the right-hand keys to achieve different subtleties. The softer dynamics are easily produced, and it helpfully raises the pitch of the note a bit. I recently found this fingering useful in the 4th movement of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite:

    For the fortissimo, one can occasionally overblow the B5. The tone may need some work, but the pitch will never be sharp. This is especially useful when playing in D major, where F#is the third of the root chord and needs to be a bit low in pitch.

Your True F Sharp
    Different flutes display various tendencies regarding the high F#. Today, it is common for flutes and headjoints to favor the low register to a degree, usually with a deleterious effect on the high register, especially the F#. Traditional-style instruments may feature the opposite tendencies, calming the tempestuous F#, but turning your life into a battle for the first octave.
    The high F# will always be a very personal note. Each player will have their own sound and psychology. Approached artistically, with honesty, patience, and poetry, high F# will in time reveal its secrets to you.