Ultimately flutists are striving for depth in their playing. What is the value of our skills if they are not applied in a meaningful and satisfying way? You will hopefully entice the public with the beauty of your tone and impress with your mastery of technique, but they will want more – something that stirs the heart; something they can take home and remember. At competitions, the winners are often the players who impress the judges with their depth beyond technique.
Depth, in this context, refers to layers of meaning and emotion. In some styles you may want to heavily inflect the music with emotion, exaggerating things like vibrato, dynamics, and tempo, and in other styles you may withdraw somewhat and manipulate the music to a lesser degree. Varying articulation, which concerns the starting and ending of the notes, can be one of the most subtle, efficient and simple, yet sophisticated ways of adding depth to what you play.
Basically there are only two ways to start notes – by tonguing them or not. Ideally, this is to be considered independently from the length or register of the note. Within these two categories, there are degrees of variation, as well as options in terms of basic style and technique within schools of playing. If practiced regularly, various ways of starting notes can be comfortable and convenient tools that you can use to imply a range of emotional characterizations in the musical phrase.
Usually flutists simply attack notes with a syllable like D or T. Hopefully they develop a habit of avoiding accents unless called for. As an alternative, flutists can start the notes less directly, just by opening the embou-chure aperture as if saying muh, or puh. This provides a more expessive option. Akin to starting a sentence gently when speaking, the air emerges a bit more gradually at the start of the note with this technique, without a sudden rush onto the blowing edge of the flute. Remember that you are not unfocusing the start of the note; ideally you want the note to emerge immediately but rather softly and without accent, at any dynamic, when using this technique.
To learn this technique, you may find it easier at first to experiment with some notes in the low octave, as the tone tends to naturally emerge a bit more slowly in the low register. Play a B4, making sure to hold the instrument with good alignment, and position the embouchure as if preparing to tongue the note. Instead, open the embouchure aperture gently with the start of the air stream without tonguing. Parting the lips rather quickly produces the syllable puh. Learn to slow this action slightly to reduce the immediacy of the note even more. I can not overstate the importance of holding the instrument in correct relation to the aperture. Ascend gradually studying each note. As you go higher more air pressure will be needed for support along with a smaller aperture. Try to make the notes emerge without any extra unpleasant noise. Use a recorder to check whether you are hearing this clearly, and try various dynamics. Do not confuse tone with noise.
Words of Wisdom
Once a famous horn its was asked by a student, “How do you phrase with such complexity and subtlety? It is remarkable!” To which the great artist replied, “Well, let’s see…I start with the first note, and then I move to the second, then the third, and so on.” Simply changing the attack on the first note of a slurred phrase is the most efficient way to show the mood of an entire phrase. It is as if all the other notes are affected by it. With this technique you are trying to highlight a gentle, expressive, or dolce mood with the first note. Listeners will remember this as they hear the next notes.
Try the following phrases. This technique is especially important for beginning a piece, such as Faure’s Fantasie:
Starting with puh provides the rhythmic definition needed to begin exactly on time, but with the right mood. As an added bonus, you can then crescendo a bit to the change of harmony to the dominant in the middle of measure 2.
This kind of attack is also useful for emphasizing a change of dynamic along with a more expressive mood, as in the Dutilleux Sonatine (below) at #12. If you take the composer at his word, you should crescendo a bit into 12, then begin the next phrase subito pp. Using puh helps.
This technique can be used within the context of technical passages as well, as in this excerpt from Busser’s Prelude et Scherzo:
This way of changing mood is not just useful to emphasize a change to piano, but forte, or more appassionata as well. Use puh to make the change to forte cantabile in the following example from Martinu’s First Sonata:
Scales can be expressive, too. Start each scale with the expressive attack as a dolce accompaniment to the piano melody. Try this in the example below from Perhilou’s Ballade.
Learning this single technique for varying articulation can really help you to stand out from the crowd and get underneath the surface of a piece. This helps an audience understand the meaning of the music, and helps you remain true to the spirit of the composer’s wishes beyond the written indications.
Achieve proper alignment between embouchure aperture and instrument. For example, use a mirror to check that you are holding the flute at a proper right angle to your nose. Take care to prevent this angle from being too open, resulting in air striking the blowing edge unevenly or missing it entirely on the right side.