It is exciting to see the development of low flutes, especially the contrabass flute. I purchased my first contrabass flute in 1991 during the N.F.A. Convention in Washington D.C. At the time, I was one of the few contrabass flutists in the world. Now, almost 20 years later, composers are writing works for contrabass flute and there are opportunities to perform with other contrabass flutists. The National Flute Association has even appointed a Low Flutes Committee. If you have decided to explore the contrabass flute, there are several aspects that you should consider from purchasing an instrument to developing your skills.
Selecting a Contrabass Flute
Currently, there are quite a few contrabass flute makers in the world. Online research about the different makers is a good place to start. Compare materials, tubing size, options (trills keys, instrument stand, etc) and artist comments. After you learn some basic information, talk to contrabass and bass flutists. A flute choir director who has contrabass flutes in the ensembles will also have some good insights. Find out what contrabass flutists like about their particular instruments and what they would like to see designed differently. Some instrument makers are willing to work with you.
Next, determine your budget for the instrument. Contrabass flutes can be made from precious metals or more affordable PVC piping. Obviously the two materials sound very different, and there is a wide range of prices. Factors such as durable and quiet key mechanisms, scaling, trills keys, headjoint cut, tube diameter and tube thickness all make a significant difference in the tonal quality of the flute. Some key mechanisms can be quite noisy. Thinner tubing makes a tonal difference and affects the durability of the instrument. All headjoints are cut differently. Instrument makers may include an instrument stand in the price as well. When working with flute makers outside of the U.S. make sure you clarify if the pricing includes shipping and import duty tax. This can add a significant amount to the base price.
Most importantly, try to play as many different types of contrabass flutes as possible. This can be a challenge. Your best option may be to attend local, state, or national flute conventions. Talk with the various contrabass flute makers to determine if there might be a contrabass in your area. If you have never played a contrabass flute, it is wise to have an experienced contrabass flutist test the instrument you are considering.
Pay careful attention to the tonal quality of the instrument in the lower register. If this is good, then notice how well the instrument plays and projects in the middle register, as this is often a very difficult register to manage on contrabass flutes. Some middle registers on contrabass flutes can sound thin and do not project well. Play major scales and check pitch tendencies, and also determine how easily you can move between the lower, middle and upper registers of the instrument. Don’t be afraid of the upper register and certainly don’t discount it. When you become comfortable with your contrabass, you will enjoy the upper register and look forward to repertoire which includes these passages. Check to see how well the instrument articulates, especially in rapid passages. Notice if the key mechanism is quiet and even. It is also important to try slurred intervals or passages.
Instrument Case and Stand
There are quite a few ways to transport a contrabass flute from compact tube cases to protective cargo cases. Some contra flute makers do not have case options while others will help find one that works for you. I suggest a compact case that can also be used with a luggage cart on wheels although I have three different types of cases for my contra flutes: single tube; two compact cases meeting airline carry-on baggage requirements; and a protective cargo case. All can easily be put on wheels for transporting. My mantra for cases is “I’d rather roll than lug.” My rolling cases are my favorites.
I have seen three different types of contrabass flute stands: collapsible carbon fiber stands, custom-made contra stands, home-made modified tripod stands. A contrabass flute is a large instrument to carry so I prefer lighter stands.
One of the most common questions asked about playing the contrabass flute is “How do you have enough air to play that instrument?” It’s not simply a matter of enough air. Breath control is also critical.
Assuming normal lung capacity, most people can improve their breathing by paying careful attention to some basic deep breathing techniques. The goal is to utilize all of your lung capacity well. Flutists, can learn much about breathing from yoga. Be careful not to overdo breathing exercises to avoid dizziness, headaches and nausea. It is best to build upon these techniques over the course of several weeks.
Begin by sitting with good posture, in a relaxed manner. Your stomach, abdomen, chest and shoulders should be relaxed. Align the back of your neck with your spine, again keeping your face and jaw relaxed. Inhale slowly and steadily with your mouth closed, filling the bottom part of your lungs first. Let your diaphragm and rib cage expand out and sideways, keeping your chest and shoulders motionless. Try breathing in for four counts, holding for two counts and exhaling for four counts. To maximize your exhalation, pull in your stomach, just a bit, to push out any remaining air. As your capacity expands, you can increase your inhalation and exhalation counts beyond four to accommodate all of your breath capacity. Repeat this process a few times daily. This should be relaxing and feel comfortable, not forced.
Next, breathe slowly with your mouth open in a yawn position. You should feel cool air deep in your throat as you inhale. Remember to remain relaxed, avoiding the common pitfalls of raised shoulders and clenched teeth. Now it is time focus on breathing through your mouth, not letting any air escape through your nose. Remember all of the building blocks of good breathing; fill the bottom part of your lungs first; keep relaxed with good posture; yawn position allowing cool air deep into your throat.
Refining breath control
Several factors contribute to effective breath control: proper breathing, embouchure size, air speed, and relaxed mouth cavity. Determine the best embouchure placement and size to produce the most clear and beautiful sound. You will need to experiment, finding the sweet spot on your flute. This spot is the exact center area on the far side of your flute’s tone hole where the air stream is split. Depending on the register in which you are playing, your embouchure size and shape will be different. Although the contrabass flute requires a larger embouchure size, if your embouchure is too large, you will lose some of your precious air.
Keep your airspeed steady and fast. Your mouth should be relaxed; think of dark vowels such as uu or aw. Think vertical, not horizontal when forming your relaxed mouth cavity. Bright vowels, such as ee and aa, are too horizontal, causing potential tension in your embouchure and throat. A good mental image is a pear-shaped mouth cavity, with a larger opening toward the back of your throat than at the front of your mouth.
Begin refining your contra intonation by popping octaves on your instrument. Play whole note octaves with your tuner. Once your octaves are stable, then work on playing a fff low note and popping up an octave to a ppp high note. Use this same approach with intervals of a perfect 5th for a great warm up. Develop all registers on your contrabass. You should experiment with alternate fingerings in the upper register to achieve the best results.
Pitch mapping is an extremely helpful tool as you continue to refine your intonation. To do this, simply start on the lowest C (or B) of your flute and play a comfortable long tone. Keep track of your pitch tendency for this particular note by writing it down. Don’t rely upon your memory. Notice whether you are you a little flat or a little sharp. Then go to C# and repeat. Do this for each note of your contrabass, all the way up to high C. You will find that some notes pull a little high, some a little low. Knowing the tendencies of each individual pitch will help you make quick adjustments. This is a wonderful exercise for all of your flutes, as each flute plays differently, based on the scaling of the instrument, the headjoint, and your individual tendencies.
With articulation, I say “live on the edge!” Too often low flutes are afraid to articulate. Crisp articulation is wonderful on the contrabass. Develop a whole palette of articulations from a gentle breath attack to crisp French tonguing. A dropped, forward tongue works well for contrabass. Again, think dark vowels sounds and a pear-shaped mouth cavity. Very small tongue motions are best.
Articulation and focused air stream should work together. When developing articulation, be careful so that your tongue does not interfere with your beautiful, clear sound. Focus of your airstream is critical for a vibrant healthy sound on the contrabass flute and you don’t want your tongue to detract from this. Keeping this in mind, you can use your tongue not only to articulate, but to assist in the focus of the airstream.
Try this exercise. Without your flute, put the palm of your hand in front of your mouth, a few inches from your lips, and say the syllables teh, teh, teh, teh, teh. You should not feel much air on your palm. Do the same thing using the syllables tu, tu, tu, tu, tu, remembering to keep your tongue forward in your mouth. With the syllable tu, you will feel air on the palm of your hand. Focus your embouchure even more to produce a focused airstream bouncing on your palm. Pick up your contrabass and try the same thing, listening for the difference in your tone and articulation with teh, teh, teh, teh, teh and tu, tu, tu, tu, tu.
For short, articulate passages, don’t be afraid to use your tongue to help propel note beginnings, remembering the syllable tu. Once you have mastered this, try achieving the same beautiful focused tone with the syllable ku, ku, ku, ku, ku. This obviously sets you up to double tongue on your contrabass flute. In all articulations, use as little tongue motion as possible to achieve the desired articulation.
Sometimes on contrabass, I use a more percussive attack. This can range from a sound similar to chiff on a pipe organ for bright, Baroque music, to a completely percussive sound in contemporary or jazz music. For this type of articulation, think of brighter, more horizontal vowel sounds. It’s a great time to try tee or tah. Another wonderful exercise is to try and achieve your most beautiful, clear, supported sound with a breath attack.
I like to set-up articulation. Try slightly shortening the note before an articulated note or notes, drawing even more attention and sparkle to it. A little space before an articulated passage can be very effective in many instances. It is important not to begin the articulate notes late, but rather to slightly shorten the rhythmic value of the note before.
Phrasing on the contrabass flute is quite a bit different from the concert flute. Approach long phrases with well-planned breathing, as you will need to breathe more often. Whenever possible, take as big a breath as you possibly can. Also breathe whenever it makes musical sense, even if you do not need it. Try to find places to breathe before you run out of air. This thoughtful breathing will translate into beautiful phrasing. You will find this air helpful and you will play in a more relaxed manner.
For ending phrases with a soft diminuendo, try using the syllable oohm. This naturally pushes your lower teeth higher, keeps your tongue low, and maintains that pear-shaped mouth cavity.
Contrabass flutists are the foundation for an ensemble and support the rhythmic, pitch and dynamic base of the group. As such, they serve as the rhythm section. Too often, we focus on solo playing or flute technique and neglect to develop a sense of ensemble. Strong ensemble skills can not only improve our solo playing, but also make us much better musicians. An attentive, musical contrabass flutist can help to shape and musically encourage the entire ensemble.
Precise rhythm is critical for all musicians, but even more important for the low voices of an ensemble. You should have not only a precise ability to keep an internal beat, but also be able to play cleanly with those around you. Think of both an internal rhythm and an external ensemble rhythm. Subdividing beats should be as natural as breathing. When counting measures of rests, continue to listen carefully to the ensemble pulse. Hopefully this pulse is the same as the conductor’s pulse, but sometimes not. An attentive contrabass flutist can help keep the rhythmic integrity of the ensemble solid. The flip side is that you can also pull down an entire ensemble. Slight rhythmic inconsistencies in your solo playing can become disastrous in ensemble playing. Your metronome is invaluable for developing and maintaining precise rhythm.
Another technique that is very helpful as a contrabass flutist is to keep the downbeat clean. A lot can happen in a measure. Some voices might be unintentionally broadening lines, while other voices might be racing ahead. Study the score to know how your part fits in rhythmically. Place rhythms very carefully within a measure, and never be late on a downbeat, unless indicated by the conductor. Listen carefully to match your rhythmic line to other voices with parallel rhythms. As the lower voice in the ensemble, you can help in moving along a sluggish line or pulling back on a rushing line.
On a related topic, a contrabass flutist must prepare the beat sooner than on the concert flute. The response time of propelling a focused airstream through that large amount of contrabass tubing takes more time. Think ahead of the beat to play on time.
Everyone loves to hear a finely tuned ensemble and no one wants to hear one that is out of tune. Precise tuning begins from the bottom and that is the contrabass. Once you have developed solid intonation on your contrabass it is important to bring that into ensemble with you. It is so very easy to creep or race out of tune in an ensemble setting, especially when you are playing an inner or lower voice. In an orchestral setting no one ever says “That trombone is sharp.” They say “The piccolo is having a bad day and is out of tune.” The person at the top of the ensemble always gets the blame for poor ensemble intonation, when in fact an inner or lower voice could be the root of the problem. Intonation is an ensemble event. Sometimes ensembles pull sharp; sometimes flat. As a contrabass flutist, listen to the top of the ensemble and try to lock in the pitch at the bottom. Everyone else will have no choice but to fit in between. If you pull sharp, then the ensemble has significant pitch problems, and only encourages everyone to pull sharper.
One very helpful tool I have found for ensemble playing is using a tuner pick-up with my tuner while rehearsing in ensemble. The tuner pick-up is a devise that has a padded clip on one end of a sound cable with a mic jack on the other end. This clip attaches to your instrument (any kind, size or type of instrument). The other end of the sound cable, with the mic jack, plugs into your tuner. It picks up vibrations of your instrument rather than acoustical sound, enabling you to play in ensemble while using your tuner. What you see on the tuner is all you. Obviously you still use your ears, as the whole ensemble might be a little high or low, but the tuner pick-up provides valuable pitch information. A tuner pick-up is inexpensive and can be found at most good music stores.
A good ensemble musician understands what the conductor expects musically from the ensemble. Dynamics, articulations and phrasing are all critical to fine ensemble playing. Since the contrabass is the lower voice of the ensemble, a good listener can easily hear your voice on the bottom. If you carefully play your musical line in the manner that the conductor wants, the ensemble will be able to build from your foundation. If you are inattentive to the musical nuances of your part, the ensemble will suffer.
Every year there are more opportunities for the contrabass flute. During the 2010 N.F.A. convention, there was a low flute workshop, a low flute reading session, and a concert that included a premiere of an exciting new extended work for low flutes, Voices From the Deep by Alexandra Molnar-Suhajda. This wonderful new piece is scored for alto flutes 1, 2 and 3, bass flutes 1 and 2, contrabass flute and optional sub contrabass flute in G, and/or double contrabass flute.