The Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist and Flute Talk, Vol. 1 begins with two articles discussing flute fingerings and flute design (written in 1946). The third and fourth articles focus on tone and sound and were written by Robert Cavally (1949) and Robert Willoughby (1950). In perusing the index of article topics, the two most popular topics featured in the Anthology are interviews of famous flutists and articles on tone and sound.
Like my predecessors the topic of sound is top on my list too. When judging competitions, auditioning students or teaching a first lesson, the first thing I listen for is sound, followed by rhythm, musicianship, and technical clarity. My initial impression of these elements occurs after hearing the flutist play for a few seconds. (Included in the topic of sound is excellent intonation.) First impressions are powerful and as the old saying goes “You only get one chance to make a good first impression.”
Sound and Core
Robert Cavally wrote in the 1949 article:
Perhaps the most important single thing about tone is that it should have a core or center. Without this center there can be no certain control of crescendos or of intervals, but with it, no matter how much the core is reduced in size for soft tonal effects, the player will always have this control.
Let’s create a definite picture in our mind. Take a simple lead pencil for example. Its center is hard graphite covered by soft wood. Reduce the graphite to needle size, enlarge and soften the outer coating and you have the first tonal picture you need.
Start with a middle octave G which is about the center (of the range) of the flute and slur down to an F#. Hold both of the notes for four full slow counts. Keep that picture of the pencil in mind and think about whether in order to beautify your tone, you have been eliminating the core entirely. This would make the pencil resemble a tube with a hole in the center.
This type of tone is definitely impractical because it has no intensity and, as I said before cannot be controlled. Eliminate the emptiness, and you have a basis on which to begin. Work for a full tone but do not force it. Always have this feeling that the flute is pulling the tone from you. Match each note in color and intensity.
Many of teachers use Marcel Moyse’s first exercise from De La Sonorite. Besides the rhythmic difference, this exercise is quite similar to Cavally’s in purpose. Moyse starts his exercise on the middle octave B because he thought that was his best note, but goes on to suggest the player should begin on his or her own best note. One day when I was teaching with Michel Debost, he pointed out that no matter where he goes, he hears flutists playing the Moyse exercise without a clue about what they should be listening for. It is an exercise to develop a homogeneous sound throughout the flute’s range. Debost also commented that Moyse intended this exercise to be played with vibrato and most often he hears flutists playing it with a straight tone.
After our conversation, I began asking flutists about the purpose of this exercise. Most said it is a tone-building exercise instead of understanding that it is to develop a homogeneous sound throughout the range. According to the dictionary, homogeneous means of the same kind or consisting of parts, all of the same kind. Synonyms include uniform, identical, unvaried and consistent.
Many high school and early college level flutists produce a tone that is quite lovely in the middle range, but is too edgy (or metallic or strident) in the lower notes. Referencing Cavally’s pencil analogy, for the lower edgy notes, the pencil lead has become too large in proportion to the wooden pencil casing. The objective in creating a homogenous sound throughout the range is to change the core ever so slightly so that the change is not perceived.
A good exercise to experiment with is to finger a low D and overblow to the third partial which will be an A in the middle octave. Alternate playing the overblown low D (which is sounding an A) with the real A fingering. This will show where the lip placement should be in make a ringing second octave sound. This is the reference point for developing a full, rich lower octave sound. Memorize this position of the embouchure, and then play either Cavally’s or Moyse’s tone exercise descending. The small changes in the embouchure should be almost imperceptible. While playing, think about the size of the pencil lead. This lip position directs the air stream higher on the wall on the descent and will keep the tone from having too much edge.
New students may comment that this edgy sound is what they hear on a CD and that they are merely imitating it. This is correct. Experienced flutists know the sound used in making a recording is much cleaner and clearer than the sound a flutist uses in an ensemble on stage. The sound a flutist uses on stage (without a mic) is fuzzier and has a smaller core than the one used with a microphone. This phenomenon is called “playing with a cushion of air.” I first learned about the cushion of air from William Kincaid, Julius Baker, and Joseph Mariano. All three were excellent orchestral flutists who were known for their glorious sounds and incredible projection.
The first step in helping students broaden their outlook on tone production is to help them hear an edgy sound in person. If possible, experiment in a large hall so students can stand next to you, behind you, and in front of you close up and then at a distance. Play two types of sound: one edgy and one full and rich. Students like what they know, and an edgy tone may have been the only sound they have ever heard. For the teacher it takes time and patience to help them learn to hear other possibilities.
Advanced students often come to me wondering why they have not been accepted into one of the top conservatories. After I listen to them play, the answer is usually the same. The lower notes are too edgy and have no variety of colors. I explain that it takes a good teacher many weeks or months to help a student who plays with continuous edge to find a full rich sound. Frankly, changing someone’s edgy sound is a long process and is often met with hostility. Top teachers are busy people and accept students who already have a range of first octave colors.
Playing with an edgy sound does not project or blend. Usually it is the second flute parts in orchestra that are assigned the low range notes. The second clarinet is often assigned notes in the same range. Think about what the clarinet sounds like in the notes just above middle C. The clarinet tone lacks core and is often fuzzy. A strident flute tone will compete with the clarinet rather than blending with it. Unless the musical passage is a solo part, blending is the name of the game when playing in orchestra or band – within the flute section, with the woodwind section, and with the strings. Reducing the amount of core and adding more harmonic partials to the sound ensures the tone projects and also blends with other members of the woodwind section.
As students work to play with a homogeneous sound they may ask if there is ever a place for playing with edge. The answer is yes. When performing solo works, playing with edge can be another trick from your bag of tricks to provide variety.
On the opposite spectrum, there are students whose tone is too airy and needs more core. The answer is simple. Keeping the embouchure hole level and the center of the right-hand keys aligned with the center of the embouchure hole, they should play lower octave notes with the tongue in the ERR position. This will bring the back part of the tongue up and direct the air stream directly into the embouchure hole. You can also instruct them to aim the air towards the left big toe. (For this to work, the flutist must be standing with the left foot in front and the right foot in back.)
Students should learn to easily move from a tone surrounded by a cushion of air into an edgy sound and then back again. The goal is to have flexibility in changing the color.
Checklist for Practicing Core Exercises
by Robert Cavally
Hold flute up (or down)
Right hand thumb, etc.
Deliberately, using syllable “tu”
Do not allow loose air in the mouth.
Full 4 slow counts
Don’t shorten the value of 2nd notes.
Make each note match exactly in amount of tone.
Change direction of air stream over the break.
Put as much snap in lifting the fingers as putting them down.
Not too slow (or too fast)
Cavally instructs, “The above table is not complete, but even this much will make the player more aware of defects. As a general rule tones in the lower octave should be built and in the upper octave cut down to match the center.”