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A Flute Masterclass for All Ages

Patricia George | October November 2022

    During the fall term, teaching a series of masterclasses on each instrument strengthens the overall band program and offers specific instruction to students who cannot afford private lessons. Directors may opt to teach the masterclasses themselves, or if the budget allows, hire professionals for each instrument. Some programs schedule masterclasses during teacher in-service days so the masterclasses may extend over a long weekend. Another option is to schedule masterclasses monthly throughout the school year. The curriculum below is appropriate for flutists of any level of advancement.

Headjoint Only
    The goal is to teach students how to make a beautiful sound, how to tongue and how to vibrate. Use the headjoint only for this class. When playing on the headjoint, have students hold the headjoint with the thumbs and index fingers at the crown end and tenon end. Be sure that the left-hand fingers do not block the air stream coming from the embouchure hole.

Shopping List
    You will need soda straws, twist and tie plastic storage bags, a pinwheel, a cleaning rod with a cork placement marker on one end, a tuner, and a cork insertion tool. This tool can be purchased from J.L. Smith in Charlotte, North Carolina or you can make one by drilling a small hole in the center of a round 1/2"x12" dowel rod.

Checking The Cork
    For the best intonation, each student’s headjoint cork should be checked for proper placement. To save time in the masterclass, you should check each flutist’s headjoint before the class begins. If you do not feel comfortable adjusting the crown assembly, take a lesson from a flute technician to learn how to do this safely or follow the directions in the box on the next page. The line on the cleaning rod should be positioned in the center of the embouchure hole.

    If the cork is too loose in the headjoint and will not stay in place when adjusted, remove the cork and place a strip of pipe tape or cellophane tape around the base of the cork and insert it in the headjoint. This quick fix will last until the student can take the headjoint to a technician. Since students will be playing on the headjoint for the entire class, having all the cork assemblies adjusted properly is the first step to good intonation.

Sweet Spot And The Straw
Goal: Find the sweet spot on the headjoint.
    Each headjoint has a “sweet spot” or a place where when blown the sound rings. This varies from one headjoint to the next because each manufacturer has a slightly design and the execution of this design depends on each headjoint cutter. Use a soda straw to find the sweet spot.

    Hold the straw as if you were holding a pencil. Place the bottom edge of the straw on the back edge of the embouchure hole. While moving the straw to the left and right along the back side of the embouchure hole, blow into the straw slowly raising and lowering the angle while listening for any tone changes. When you find the best tone, keep the straw at that angle and then slowly angle the air to the left and right. When you discover where these two places intersect, this is the sweet spot. When playing without the straw, direct the air stream to this place.

Anatomy And Blowing
Goal: Align the head, separate the vocal folds, playing with the embouchure hole level, and releasing the air from the body.

    The flute is played with the head positioned at the bottom of a very small nod. Have stuents nod up and down several times to explore how the head balances on the spine. To separate the vocal folds, ask them to pant several times. Notice that the vocal folds are separated both on the inhale and the exhale. This is what is called an open throat.
    When playing the headjoint (and flute), the embouchure hole should be level and pointed towards the ceiling. The embouchure hole should not be turned back toward the flutist. If it is turned back, then the intonation of the flute will be off. The back edge of the embouchure hole is placed where the skin changes from chin skin to lip skin.
    Ask students to blow several notes. With your hand, feel where each flutist’s air stream is coming out. Place a pinwheel at that spot and instruct the flutist to blow to make the pinwheel spin. This exercise teaches that the air stream has to be strong enough to spin the pinwheel and that the air stream is always moving through the lips. Obviously, if the air stream is not moving, then the pinwheel stops. This exercise helps students learn how to play with fast air, which is the key to a full tone.

Embouchure Development
Goal: Play a smooth octave slur.
    Hold the headjoint with the thumbs and index fingers at the crown end and tenon end. It is possible to play a low A and an octave higher A. Because of the parabolic shape of the headjoint, these two notes will not be in tune. Slur from the low A to the upper A, making the interval as clean and smooth as possible. The orbicularis oris or lip muscle is a broad elliptical muscle that wraps around the opening of the mouth. Use the full muscle to make the aperture (opening in lips) smaller on the ascent and larger on the descent. Some teachers refer to the orbicularis oris as clown lips. Clown lips should be used rather than lipstick lips to achieve a beautiful, clean, simple slur.
    Have students slur several times, low to high, in half notes, mf. Alternate ping pong style with the teacher or one of the students playing a slur followed by the class playing the slur. If the class is small, have students play the slur individually. If someone has difficulty making the slur, have the entire class play the low note while seated and then rise to a standing position for the upper note. The energy that is used to stand is what was missing in the previous attempts. By having the entire class do this exercise, you are sparing the one student of the embarrassment of not achieving the goal. We want to encourage students to be successful.
    Next, close the headjoint end by positioning the right-hand palm over the tenon end opening. Now three pitches are possible, a low, a middle, and a very high one. Explore finding these notes by tonguing and then by slurring.
    Joseph Mariano (legendary flute professor at the Eastman School of Music) taught flutists to increase the air speed just before the skip in order to make the skip sound easy. William Kincaid (the father of American flute playing and professor emeritus of The Curtis Institute) taught to slightly lengthen the note before a slur if the interval was a fourth or more. Generally, when playing slurs on the flute, we play large intervals small and small intervals large.
    Each student should be encouraged to play with a natural face. I prefer to let embouchures evolve rather than giving explicit instructions about what the embouchure should look like to young students. Use this octave work and eventually harmonic work to help a student’s embouchure evolve naturally.
    Generally, for most flutists, the aperture is in the center of the lips. However, those with a tear drop should place the aperture to the left of center. (Remember when looking at a student’s embouchure, the correct placement is on your right.) Placing the aperture on the flutist’s left allows better placement of the right shoulder, so placing the aperture on the flutist’s right should be avoided.

Goal: A perfect attack.

    Have students go outside and spit a handful of rice, one piece at a time. This exercise teaches the movement of the tongue which is more horizontal than vertical. This may be different than what you were taught in a methods class as for many years it was thought that tonguing on the roof of the mouth was preferable to tonguing in the aperture or on the top lip. However, the best flutists from around the world have continued the French tradition of tonguing in the aperture or on the top lip; so most American flutists have now made the change. Sometimes this type of tonguing is called forward or French tonguing.
    The French flutist Jean Pierre Rampal taught students this method of tonguing by having them start with motion with the tongue extended outside the mouth. Once the movement was understood, the tongue is pulled inside the mouth and simply touches on the top lip or in the aperture.
    Say the word thicka for double tonguing several times quickly to achieve the snake-like motion of the tongue. Remember the jaw is dropped with the teeth separated in the front and at the molars. The tongue is placed forward through the teeth.
    Since muscles learn most quickly by chunking (playing a short bit of something followed by a rest), have the students play: T, T, T, rest several times with the tip touching the top lip.
    It is good to remind students that the attack or beginning of the note should not chip but should be clean. Use a tuner, not so much to chart pitch, but to train students to begin the note with an attack that does not go sharp and then falls to the pitch. Playing breath attacks and then adding the tongue is a good way to achieve excellent intonation.
    Most students do not practice tonguing in itself enough. The Minuet of Tonguing exercise is a good way to develop clean articulation. Have students tongue 8 beats of four sixteenth-notes followed by a half-note rest. Repeat this 8 or more times so that the total time tongued exceeds one minute.

Goal: Strength of the beat concept.

    Each masterclass should teach the fundamentals of basic musicianship. Even beginners can begin learning basic musicianship techniques. An idea that you can teach with tonguing is the “strength of the beat” concept. Since you will be practicing tonguing in this class, use the chart below and also teach the strength of the beats. Play quarter notes for simple time and dotted quarter notes for compound meter. For example, in simple meter, play quarters strong, weak, strong weak. Another way of explaining this to students is that the first note is louder than the second note.

Simple Meter (beat divisible by 2)
2/4: strong, weak
3/4: strong, weak, weaker
4/4: strong, weak, less strong, weaker

Compound Meter (beat divisible by 3)
6/8: strong, weak
9/8: strong, weak, weaker
12/8: strong, weak, less strong, weaker

    With each repeat of the exercise, remind students to position their heads at the bottom of a small nod, that the embouchure hole is level, to look/listen for the sweet spot, have the vocal folds separated, and finally to blow always keeping the air moving.

Goal: Explore the tongue and vocal folds to develop control and tonal resonance.

    There are five skills that we can practice on the flute: thi or single tongue, key or the backstroke of double tonguing, HAH or breath attack, tk or tkt, and vibrato. Practice each of these strokes except vibrato on the headjoint on the following rhythms. (thi, thi, thi, rest; key, key, key, rest; hah, hah, hah, rest, t k t rest, tkt t rest) The key syllable should be forward and as high in the mouth as possible.

Goal: Basic vibrato cycle.

    The vibrato cycle is produced by moving air through the vocal folds or larynx. The space between the vocal folds is called the glottis. For instruction purposes, the vibrato cycle looks like a sine wave. The upper part is the sharper side of the vibrato and the lower part, the flatter part. By opening and closing the vocal folds, the pitch of the vibrato cycle goes from sharp to flat many times.
    To open the vocal folds, say HAH. This places the vocal folds at their widest separation. If you say HAH, HAH, HAH, followed by a rest out loud, then at the place where the comma is in the sentence, the vocal folds will slightly close. This produces the flatter side of the vibrato. This HAH, HAH, HAH stroke was named throat staccato by Georges Barrere early in the 20th century. Brass players often refer to this as a breath attack. There should be no movement of the jaw, chest, or abdomen. If there is movement, then reduce the dynamic to pp.
    In 2/4 time have students play eight notes on the headjoint with HAH, HAH, HAH, rest. This will teach them where the vocal folds are and how to engage the vocal folds to produce a vibrato. Once the HAH’s are a controlled staccato, then alternate playing one group staccato HAH’s and the next group slurred. Repeat this exercise many times until it becomes natural.

Visual Aid
    Place a twist and tie plastic bag on the headjoints securing it with a rubber band. Have students blow into the embouchure hole to fill the bag with air. Then, have them practice the HAH, HAH, HAH, rest exercise both staccato and slurred on the headjoint. If the exercise is done correctly, the bag will bob up and down in time. If students can get a good even bob, then they are on the way to a good vibrato.

Temptation – Long Note Playing Games
    There is not one band director in the world who wants the band to breathe on every bar line. However, beginning flutists will do so. Musical and artistic breathing involves learning to control the air stream in order to play long phrases. The size of a student’s lungs impacts what is possible and what is not. Small students will not be able to take in the three to five liters of air that many professionals do. So, expecting small students to take in more air that what their lungs will hold is not anatomically possible. Holding notes and phrases of longer values will be a challenge to young players so teachers should mark where extra musical breaths may be taken.
    Each instrument in the band requires a different flow of air. The flute and the tuba are the highest flow instruments while the oboe, with its super small bore, takes the least air flow. If a band director decides to challenge a classroom full of young players to a long note playing competition, the playing field is not level because of the different air flow requirements.
    Flutists who are placed in this situation will do almost anything to win the contest, but this type of exercise teaches the wrong lessons. To achieve the goal, flute students will tense up, close the vocal folds (throat) and squeeze the air out. They have learned to play with tension and a poor sound quality. So, avoid long note playing games and opt for the exercise below instead. Not only will it teach students to play naturally on a longer air stream but it will sharpen counting and concentration skills.

A Solution
    The following breathing exercise will help students learn to play long notes in a natural, relaxed fashion. It can be used with the entire band on a concert F. Not only does this exercise teach excellent breath control, but it will reinforce individual counting and concentration. With a metronome set on quarter note = 60, have players extend their legs straight out in front of them and begin tapping both feet in the air to the tick of the metronome. This engages students’ large muscles.
    Starting with a dynamic level of mf, have students begin by playing an F quarter note followed by a quarter rest. On each repetition lengthen the quarter note by one beat still followed by a quarter rest. Very quickly young players will be able to play a long note for eight or more counts. Playing with the legs extended also teaches how much tension should be in the abdomen when playing. This tension is what some call support although support is actually keeping the air flowing consistently while playing.

Headjoint Only – Why?

    Because students come to band with different backgrounds and experience, and may not have had private lessons, they often benefit from starting with work on the headjoing alone. By using the headjoint only at the masterclass, especially with younger students, you can avoid talking about balancing the flute, positioning the hands, standing/
sitting position and fingering. Instead the focus can be on making sure that each student understands how the headjoint works, where to blow, how to tongue and the basics of vibrato before assembling the flute.
    In teaching young musicians, go slowly and go well. Take the time to be sure each student understands the goal and has the tools to be successful. Sloppy playing takes years for a dedicated teacher to fix.      

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Adjusting the Cork Assembly

What to do if the line is too close to the crown end of the embouchure hole:
    •    Unscrew the crown a turn or two.
    •    Place the crown end on a padded surface and gently push the crown in. Be careful to keep your hands away from the embouchure plate.
    •    Continue pushing, checking frequently until the line on the cleaning rod is in the center of the embouchure hole. Gently tighten the crown.

What to do if the line is closer to the tenon end:
    •    Simply turn the crown clockwise until the line on the cleaning rod is in the center of the embouchure hole.