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Then and Now

Patricia George | October 2012

    Between the years 1946-1964, 78.3 million babies were born in the United States. These baby boomers enjoyed a childhood filled with abundant educational opportunities including music study. A few became professional musicians but most found employment in other fields. Once their children graduated from high school or college, the boomers returned to music study. In 1996, it was estimated there were 62 million amateur musicians in the United States. Many of these amateurs previously played the flute and have returned to our studios for serious study.
    Summer music centers, that were facing dwindling numbers of school-aged applicants, implemented adult-centered programs for this growing segment of the population. These organizations offered boomers the opportunity to study privately and participate in masterclasses taught by the top flutists in the world. These masterclass programs turned out to be so successful that adults often participated in two or three different programs each summer.
    During the school year, adult students continued their studies at settlement schools and local colleges taking lessons, theory classes, and participating in the ensemble programs. As a group they formed flute choirs, scheduled concerts, bought big flutes, commissioned works, attended flute conventions, and more than a few took their show on the road combining a love of travel with playing the flute.
    In many ways adults are ideal students because they know what they want, have the time and discipline to practice, money to support their passion, and rich life experiences to bring to the subject. They are playing because they love music and the flute.
    One returning student recently asked me, “What happened while I was gone?” This is an excellent question because so much has changed in the flute world, especially in the last 25 years. If you are fortunate to have students who are returning to the flute after a number of years of not playing, you may be asked this question too. Seasoned teachers have lived through this evolution, but younger flutists may not be aware of how much has changed. The following answers and resources may be a good starting point as you work with returning older students.

Flute Design
    In the mid-1980s flute makers began building flutes using a new scale based on the work of Albert Cooper and others. Flute makers offered the option of having a flute built at A=440 or A=442. Several redesigned the placement and shape of the keys to make the instrument more ergonomic in the hands. More flutists ordered professional flutes with the off-set G rather than the inline keys. Rollers were added here and there for technical ease, and the C# trill became an almost standard option. Spring tension was lightened so the flute seemed to play faster and easier.
    There are now specialists, especially those who primarily make headjoints, who are experimenting with the construction of the shape of the lip plate (on both sides of the embouchure hole) and with the actual cut of embouchure hole. The term undercutting came into common usage. Craftsmen experimented with headjoints and bodies made with a variety of materials. It is now possible to order a headjoint made of one material, a chimney or riser of another, the lip plate in yet another to be played on a body and footjoint which could be made of other materials. All and all the last few decades have improved the quality of instruments available to students and professional flutists.
    With the expanded growth of flute choirs around the country, many manufacturers began making big flutes such as alto, bass, contra, and sub-contra. Work on the piccolo continued with the addition of a split E mechanism and C# trill key. Piccolo makers also use a variety of types of wood.

    Even equipment has improved with lightweight, indestructible cases, case covers, and bags/backpacks designed to hold to flutes, music, tuners, metronomes, and music stands. Quartz metronomes replaced the unreliable windup variety and the advent of the portable tuner has made it possible for us to work on intonation at home, not just in the band room. Free or inexpensive apps on smart phones make tuners and metronomes available at the touch of a button. Computer technology even allows students to study with teachers halfway around the world. The list goes on and on.

Anatomy Books
    The legendary Chicago Symphony principal tuba player Arnold Jacobs conducted research into breathing and encouraged players and teachers to study anatomy and use the proper names of body parts when teaching. There are a number of valuable books on anatomy and avoiding injury that adult students may want to read. Barbara Conable’s What Every Musician Needs to Know about the Body (1998), and cellist Janet Horvath’s Playing (less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians (3rd Printing, 2003) are a good place to start. Alan H. D. Watson, a senior lecturer in anatomy and neuroscience at the School of Bioscience, Cardiff University, Wales shared his research in The Biology of Musical Performance and Performance-Related Injury (2009). There are many other fine books on the market now in this genre, along with medical clinics that specialize in treating pain and pain prevention for actors, dancers, and musicians.

Brain Research
    English psychology of music specialist John A. Sloboda published The Musical Mind: The Cognitive Psychology of Music (Oxford, 1986). One chapter discusses how the eye reads and stores information in the short term memory when reading one line of music. This concept led to the advent of practicing in chunks. Other writers followed in this genre and a whole wealth of information is now available.
    From these writings, musicians discovered that to learn something fast and well it helps to divide music into one inch chunks and play in performance tempo followed by a rest, three times a day for five days. Then on the sixth day play the chunks in performance tempo with the chunks connected. It is better for the body and mind to practice in 25 minute segments and then stretch for several minutes before repeating the process. Recent research also encourages musicians to add  physical exercise as part of practicing.
    Researchers Olive Meares and Helen Irlen have researched dyslexic type problems that may occur from reading words and music printed on white paper. Irlen has a set of gel colored overlays to place over the page which helps many students read music accurately. Publishers have experimented with the size and darkness of the font to make music reading easier.

Historical Scholarship
    The recordings of the legendary French flutist, Jean-Pierre Rampal are said to have inspired a rebirth of interest in Baroque music and performance practices in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1966 Edward R. Reilly translated Johann Joachim Quantz’s treatise On Playing the Flute into English. This made Quantz’s ideas about flute pedagogy, flute performance, Baroque practices and ornamentation available to many more flutists. Other books that expanded knowledge about historical performance followed such as The Rules of Musical Interpretation in the Baroque Era by Jean-Claude Veilhan (Leduc, 1977), The Early Flute by John Solum (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1992), W.A. Mozart: On the Performance of the Works for Wind Instruments, Concertos, Divertimentos, Serenades, Chamber Music by Frans Vester (Broekmans en Van Poppel B. V., 1999), and The Early Flute: A Practical Guide by Rachel Brown (Cambridge University Press, 2002).
    Along with these publications, specialized masterclasses flourished. The Baroque Performance Institute at Oberlin began 40 years ago. Its success has led to continued research in the Baroque field. In 2009 The Juilliard School began the Juilliard Historical Performance program offering a Master of Music degree or a Graduate Diploma. Board chairman Bruce Kovner fully endowed the program with a $20,000,000 gift, so participants are able to attend the program tuition free.
    Nancy Toff’s excellent books The Development of the Modern Flute (Oxford, 1986) and The Flute Book: A Complete Guide for Students and Performers (Oxford, 1996) and Michel Debost’s The Simple Flute (Oxford, 2002) offer advice for not only playing the flute but answer almost any question a flutist would have about the flute and flute repertoire.
    Online services offer access to web pages, doctoral dissertations, medical research, and almost anything flute wise. Certainly it is a good time to study the flute.

    Learning band and orchestral excerpts has never been easier. While there were a handful of orchestral excerpt books in the past, Jeanne Baxtresser and Walfrid Kujala added detailed instructions, facsimiles of source material, and practice guides to their excerpt books. Baxtresser recorded a CD to accompany her volume. Complete orchestral flute parts (public domain) are available for purchase from one of the flute specialty shops or may be downloadable from The International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP, IMSLP also has an extensive collection of flute music including etude books, solo repertoire, flute and piano compositions as well as larger ensemble works.

New Techniques (Extended Techniques)
    In addition to flutter tonguing, harmonics, whistle tones, and key clicks, composers are now writing compositions with the techniques of beatboxing, double stops (multiphonics), jet whistles, timbral trills, percussive tonguing effects, and tongue thrusts. For many of these compositions circular breathing skills are required. To become familiar with these styles, adult students might take a look at the ample instructional videos on YouTube.

    The physical approach to playing the flute has changed in the past decades, and may require older students to adjust their posture and the way they position the flute. While Jacques-Martin Hotteterre (1674-1763) wrote, “When in a standing position, one must be firmly fixed on one’s legs, the left foot advanced, the body resting on the right hip, all without strain,” most  flutists participated in marching band in high school and played in a symmetrical position with feet positioned side by side. This position carried over to concert band, where chairs were crowded together side by side with three flutists to a music stand. The old “I’ll put my flute in front and you put yours in back” was a common topic at the beginning of rehearsals. However, with the advent of advanced embouchure hole cutting, flutists found that angling the air to the right of the center of embouchure hole (John Krell, Kincaidiana, P. 72) produced a more ringing sound. This meant that the end of the flute could no longer be back, but had to be forward to produce this angle.
    James Galway (Flute, Schirmer, 1982, p. 67) writes, “I like to stand with my feet slightly apart, the left pointing slightly left, the right pointing slightly right, at the angle of ten-to-two on the face of a clock, and with the right leg braced to carry my weight. My shoulders are not parallel with my hips but swiveled slightly round to the left. I judge the extent of this swivel by aligning the (embouchure) hole with my left foot.” Other flutists suggest a similar stance. Clarinets and oboes are played symmetrically, but the flute, along with many other instruments that are played to one side, must be approached asymmetrically.

Hand Position
    Balancing the flute in the hands also presents a myriad of questions and potential problems. Very few teachers addressed the topic 25 years ago, and if they did, it was something about a three-point system of leverage. However with the rise of more professional orchestras, higher demands were placed on the flutists to rehearse and perform more hours a week. Flutists became injured and played in pain. One of causes of pain in the left wrist was the left thumb. Since few teachers bothered to check the position of the left thumb, flutists were allowed to play with a curved thumb. Playing with a curved left thumb forces the left wrist out of a healthy position. Instead the left thumb should be straight and pointed to the ceiling. Depending on the size of a flutist’s hand, the bottom of the thumb key should be placed close to the crease in the first knuckle.

    “Open your throat!” is a common request from a teacher or band director. The problem with the statement is that no student really seems to know where the throat is. A better comment is “Separate the vocal folds.” The more students learn about anatomy and workings of the vocal folds, the better their flute playing (and singing too) will be. See: for an excellent video of the vocal folds in action when singing.

    The debate continues about where vibrato is produced and about how it should be used. Jochen Gartner’s The Vibrato (Bosse Musik Paperback) is a great resource as is John Wion’s excellent treatise, including sound clips of famous flutists, available on his website: A fleuroscope video (in four parts) of my playing demonstrating vibrato and several other things may be found at:

Tongue Placement
    The debate about where the tongue should be placed when playing continues to be a topic of discussion. The Complete Method (1848) by Soussman/Popp suggests tonguing on the top lip. Over the last 150 years, pedagogues have encouraged flutists to use a variety of syllables (da/ga, dah/gah, doo/goo etc.) touching on the roof of the mouth behind the top teeth. Others suggested tonguing on the bottom of the top teeth. The term “French or forward tonguing” came into usage after listening to the recordings of Jean-Pierre Rampal’s fabulous tonguing on so many recordings, and it was discovered he placed his tongue very forward with the point of contact in the opening between the lips (aperture). If adult students learned to tongue on the roof of the mouth and it works, they should continue to do it. However, if their tonguing is sluggish and fuzzy, then encourage them to experiment with forward tonguing. (See Michel Debost’s article this month.)
    So, to answer’s my student’s question, “Yes, a lot has happened while you have been gone – and just wait until you explore the new compositions that have been written for flute in the last decades.” As teachers, this is a wonderful time to be teaching and sharing these updates with motivated adult students.