Flute Tips

Jim Walker | November 2019

Individual Sound
    The sound you make on your instrument is as unique as your image in the mirror. The development of a beautiful sound begins with listening to yourself and making progress on your instrument depends on a willingness to experiment. Compare your tone to other musically pleasing sounds and try to imitate and match them. While you are practicing, record yourself and then play back these sessions, listening carefully to find ways to improve. Set your standards high to develop and expressive sound.

Lip Flexibility
    Playing the flute is comparable to playing a bugle; it requires a strong, well-supported air stream, which is the foundation of playing any wind instrument. Lip flexibility and strength are equally important to the quality of sound. If you are to achieve smooth, controlled intervals and extremes of dynamics, the lips need to move. Avoid simply under- or over-blowing to make changes in sound. You should try to play with an even, focused sound throughout the range of the flute and find the best lip placement for each note while controlling the breath.

    Using vibrato is one of the most important aspects of making music expressive and personal. Both speed and intensity or depth and width of the vibrations should be practiced with the aid of a metronome to develop technical control of the vibrato mechanism. Begin incorporating vibrato as soon as you have developed a good tone on your flute. Pulse two, three, or four vibrations to each half note at the metronomic marking of M.M = 72 until your vibrato is under control; then play more freely by changing its speed and intensity as dictated by the style of the music. An unchanging or inflexible vibrato makes music dull and boring. Vibrato will augment the flute sound, but it has to be controlled.

    Dynamics are the personality of the music, and that personality can be either dull or interesting. Although this is an important musical element, flutists often fail to use a wide dynamic range. Developing variety in dynamics is as important as tone color and vibrato to the technique and sound, but most students play only forte to mezzoforte because they have not learned proper lip strength and flexibility for other dynamic levels. Common pitfalls are playing flat in piano passages that are written in the low register and playing sharp in fortissimo third register passages. If you have a tendency to play flat in piano passages, direct the airstream higher and use more breath support. If you play sharp in forte passages, try to relax both the jaw and the embouchure while aiming the air-stream lower.

    Learning facility of technique is only the first step towards developing excellence in musicianship, but it is the foundation. Using this foundation to express your own ideas and feelings will help you make beautiful music. Every good player spends hours practicing scales and arpeggios.

The Instrument
    Your flute should be in great condition, even if it is a student model, and many excellent brands are available. Not everyone can afford a top-of-the-line professional model, but you should buy the best one within your budget. Compare different headjoints when you select your flute, and check for consistency in the quality of manufacturing. No matter what instrument you buy, improper care and maintenance will waste your money.

The Teacher
    Every student should try to get the most information from his or her teacher. You should go into each lesson prepared to show your teacher that you have done your homework by practicing. In return, teachers will work hard for you, giving you their best ideas to help you improve. After each lesson think objectively about those new ideas, then practice them so that in your next lesson you can show you deserve more ideas.

Musical Influences
    Take every opportunity to hear and see other good players, not just flutists. Go to every masterclass or summer camp you can. Listen to recordings and talk about music with fellow musicians. There are many ideas waiting to be discovered; all that it takes is an open mind and a desire to develop them.

    The only way to succeed is by putting in hours of practice; there is no shortcut. Developing a good work ethic towards studying your instrument is one of the most important aspects of becoming a musician. Mastering an instrument requires discipline, but that skill will carry over into other life pursuits as well.

Have Fun
    If you are not having fun, then you are missing the point. Too often players become preoccupied with the mechanical and emotional demands of their instruments and forget to find the joy in music. Life is too short to waste precious time on something that is painful to pursue. Although practicing can be painful at times, try to keep the difficulty in perspective so that you can always have fun.

    Attitude and drive are more important than talent. Some students are gifted but do not meet their potential because they lack the drive. Sometimes you need to fake a good attitude towards hard work, but before long you will naturally adopt it as you see the results.