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Developing an Embouchure

Patricia George | November 2016

    The embouchure is formed by using facial muscles to shape the lips to direct the air stream on the blowing edge of the headjoint to create a sound. It will be slightly different for each flutist. The variables are numerous including the size and shape of the flutist’s head, size of the mouth, thickness of the lips, size and formation of the teeth, and of course, the shape of the lips. For many years, teachers tried to make students’ embouchures a reflection of their own, but flutists cannot hold an unnatural embouchure without pain for twenty or more years. A better solution is to teach students to play with their natural face.

It’s the Aperture
   The aperture is the opening between the lips. To find the natural shape of the aperture, take a breath, close the lips, and then blow out letting the air escape between the lips. The opening produced is call the aperture. Use a mirror to examine what it looks like.
    In 1967 Roger S. Stevens published his excellent book Artistic Flute: Technique and Study. In Section 1, pages 14-16, Stevens presents 18 photos of professional flutists’ embou-chures. Each is distinctive in its own way. Stevens writes, “The purpose of these illustrations is one of demonstrating the wide variation in embouchures capable of producing a good flute tone. The one thing which is common to all these embouchures…
is a regularity in the shape of the aperture regardless of the irregularity of the lip producing it.”

Off-Sided Aperture
   Many flutists have a teardrop on their top lip. To form an appropriate aperture, they should move the aperture slightly to the left. This works well since the flute is played with the flute off to the right side, with the end moved forward away from the right shoulder. A few flutists with teardrops have moved the aperture to their right. This is less successful because the end of the flute has to be held too close to the right shoulder, and the player’s right shoulder will eventually hurt. The ideal when playing flute is to slightly expand the shoulder blades off the rib cage as if you are giving yourself a big hug.
    When traversos were first made, the embouchure hole was somewhat circular. However, through the years, a lip plate and riser have been added, and the embouchure hole itself has been subjected to under- and over- cutting. Since the embouchure hole is no longer symmetrical, flutists can no longer approach the embouchure hole as if it were.
     When starting beginners, watch carefully when they form their first apertures. If there is a teardrop, place the headjoint slightly to the player’s left. (When looking at the flutist, it will be on your right.) With players of all levels of advancement, check to be sure that the natural aperture is similar in size to the embouchure hole of the flute. Many of the flutes today have slightly longer (from the crown to the body) embouchure holes. If the embouchure hole is too large for the player’s aperture, the flutist may develop a small tremor in the upper lip. The embouchure hole and the aperture should be perfectly matched and aligned. Students with shorter arms have a tendency to bring their arms closer to their bodies which ultimately affects this placement. Check this placement periodically to be sure the alignment is correct.

Placing the Headjoint
    Place the headjoint in the chin rather than on the chin. Generally, the back edge of the embouchure hole (the part closest to the player) should be placed where the texture of the chin skin changes into lip skin. The bottom lip will overlap over the embouchure hole covering between 1/4 to 1/3 of the embouchure hole. The bottom lip remains flexible to execute octave changes, tone color changes, and intonation adjustments. Many flutists place the lip plate too high on the lip. This reduces the amount of flexibility of the bottom lip. However, flutists with unusually thick bottom lips may have to place it higher and find other solutions to the previously mentioned issues.
    The lip plate should be firmly in the chin with more pressure on the player’s left side of the chin than the right. This angle occurs because of the shape of the embouchure hole and the necessity to push the end of the footjoint forward and away from the right shoulder. The headjoint functions best when the embouchure hole is level. While it is easier to play with the embouchure hole tilted back towards the player, the tone will be closed, and intonation will not be true.

Size of Aperture

    The aperture will be closest to an oval shape when playing in the low register. As you go up the register, the aperture becomes smaller. Joseph Mariano, legendary Eastman School of Music professor and soloist, suggested playing everything on an embouchure that is set high, reflecting that you can play low notes on a highly set embouchure, but not high notes on a lower set embouchure. For a generic sound, I prefer setting the aperture size and lip position for the third harmonic partial. To find the third harmonic partial, students should finger a low D (D4 or fundamental) and over-blow an octave (D5) and then on up to A6. Once they reach an A6, they should memorize or map that lip position.

Speed of Air
    The speed of air is very important in making a beautiful sound. An even speed of air will prevent bulbing on a note or making football-shaped notes. Reducing the size of the aperture can increase the speed of the air. William Kincaid and his student John Krell both talked about gripping the air stream. They were suggesting slightly reducing the size of the aperture.

Angle of the Air
    When playing the flute, we vary the angle of the air as it hits on the blowing edge in order to change octaves, change colors, and to improve intonation. The angle of the air is controlled by the aperture as well as the position of the jaw (how open your mouth is) and the tongue. For healthy flute playing we teach the drop the jaw or hang the jaw position to reduce any jaw movement and to prevent the onset of TMJ. The aperture and the air stream should do the work in flute playing.

Embouchure Flexibility
    Once the aperture is formed, the next step is to develop flexibility or the ability to aim the air stream to different locations on the wall. Have students place the left hand palm in front of the face with the knuckles touching the nose. Take a breath, close the lips, and then blow out letting the air escape between the lips. Now with the air stream draw a line from the base of the hand up to the knuckles. Notice how the jaw, lips, and tongue interact to accomplish this. These movements are much larger than are used in artistic flute playing, but it is good to know how much movement is possible.
    Practicing harmonics is an excellent exercise to work on changing the angle of the air. Ask students to pick any note in the low octave, perhaps starting on low D and overblowing up the harmonic series and back down again. They should not roll the flute to accomplish this goal. The embouchure hole should be level and stable. Practicing the harmonic series up and down will help them discover the correct balance between the speed of the air and the angle of the air to get the best results.

Embouchure Strength
    Embouchure strength is defined as being able to hold a note steady (tone color and intonation wise) for a length of time. It does not mean that flutists should have lips of steel, but just the control to be still. Practicing high notes overblown from a low harmonic for 15 to 20 seconds each is an excellent way to develop this skill. Once this is accomplished, ask students to  practice making a crescendo or diminuendo on the note.

P and B Attacks
    Flutists all experience times when they cannot get the aperture small enough. Practicing P and B attacks is an excellent way to improve this skill. Pick any third octave note and start the note with a P or B. This means the note is started with the lips together with no presence of an aperture. When watching in a mirror, it is obvious how small the opening in the lips can be. Many professional flutists begin third octave solos that are marked pp with this attack.

    In my teaching I have changed very few flutists’ embouchures. I prefer through my teaching of various exercises and etudes for students to evolve their own embouchures. They should play with a natural face that is not doing anything that will damage the embouchure in the future. A student with a different mouth shape than me is not a problem. I prefer to diagnose by sound rather than sight. While I do play with the corners down, I have had students who have a natural smiling set of lips when they are not playing the flute. This is the position of the lips that they should base their embouchures on rather than trying to mimic mine. In the case of flute embouchures, it is not a case of right or wrong, but more a case of what works or not.     

Editor’s Note: As the Stevens book is out of print, Canadian flutist Larry Krantz obtained permission to place these photos on his website: