Flute teachers strive to provide the best possible guidance for their students. However, with new discoveries and improvements to pedagogy, teaching methods should continuously evolve as we learn more about how the flute works, how the body should be used for healthy practice and performance, and discover more about performance practice from early to contemporary music.
When students attend outside events such as masterclasses, summer festivals, and band clinics, they sometimes return with ideas that do not reflect the current pedagogical thought – or that have been imparted by a teacher who is not a flutist. I tell students to go and try everything. When they come home, they can sort out what works and what does not. Here are a few things students may hear that teachers should be aware of and correct later.
Kiss the embouchure hole and then roll the headjoint out.
This trick has been used for a long time, especially by teachers who do not play the flute. The problem with this is that it places the flute too high on the lip. Better to take the time and place the headjoint on each child individually since the thickness of lips varies from one student to the next. Use a mirror so students can practice this placement at home. The aperture should be in the center of the lips or on the student’s left side (if the lip has a teardrop shape). Placing the headjoint in the chin rather than on the chin gets better results.
Tongue on the roof of the mouth
Many of the older band methods suggest this; however, professional players only tongue on the roof of the mouth to achieve a specific type of attack or color. Since the late 1840s flutists in Europe have tongued on the top lip or in the aperture. This produces an attach that is clear and does not go sharp in pitch. It is also possible to tongue much faster with the forward position than on the roof of the mouth. Many teachers teach this stroke or movement by having students spit a grain of rice. This coordinates the tongue with the air stream. For double tonguing, try the syllable key, keeping the key as close to the front teeth as possible. The best results are had when the student drops the jaw, placing an equal amount of space between the back teeth as the front.
The embouchure plate should be loose on the chin.
In The Simple Flute, Michel Debost wrote, “If the embouchure plate is not stable, there can be no reliability in articulation.” This is so true. I am reminded of going to the county fair and trying to shoot a moving target duck in order to win a stuffed animal. It would be much easier to shoot a still duck than one that is moving. I often think about this when tonguing and am directing the air across a very small point on the blowing edge of the embouchure hole. If the embouchure hole is moving, I have less chance of making a clean attack.
The flute should be parallel to the floor with the elbows held high and in marching band stand with the feet together side by side and the flute parallel to the shoulders.
This concept is probably left over from military bands whose job was to encourage soldiers into battle. Practicing four hours a day and playing two-hour concerts did not enter into their picture. Since the flute is an asymmetrically-held instrument, flutists should assume the foot position of someone who is fencer or someone serving a volleyball with the left foot in front and the right foot in back. Many players describe this as the 12:00/2:00 position. With the feet in this position, the body is facing 45 degrees to the right. The player turns the head to the left and brings the flute into position. The goal of alignment is nose, embouchure hole, crook in the left elbow to the center of the music stand. The flutist should stand approximately 30 inches back from the music stand and while playing, continually move the music to the center of the music stand for best results. The arms should be hung. The goal is to balance the flute in the hands and only the fingers should move.
In concert band, the director seats three flutists per music stand. This leads to the discussion of “I will put the end of my flute behind you, and you put yours in front of me etc.”
The problem with this relates to the previous question. In an ideal situation, all flutists should have their own stand. Depending on the set up the band, there may be several rows of flutists so each can play in a healthy position.
Play with a bent left-hand thumb.
The thumb should be straight and point to the ceiling. Playing with the thumb bent creates tension in the arm. Generally, the crease in the left thumb at the first joint back from the nail will coincide with the bottom of the left-hand keys.
Use the middle F# all the time.
Middle F# may be easier to finger but the intonation and tone color will suffer. Encourage students to practice the correct fingering. However, if the flute was made with the new scale (sometime after the mid-1980s), playing the F# in the top octave is better in tune with the middle F# fingering.
Just blow harder to get the high notes.
The top notes are the last ones flutists learn so of course students are not as proficient with the fingerings as they are with the lower two octaves. A little practice playing them each day will help the situation improve quickly. Rather than blowing harder, demonstrate how the aperture (hole in the lips) becomes smaller as the fingerings go up and larger as the notes go down. Collect three straws: one coffee stirrer, one soda straw, and one milkshake straw. Have students place each straw in the aperture one after another so they can feel what to squeeze in the embouchure to make the aperture smaller. The coffee stirrer is for the top octave, the soda is for the second octave, and the milkshake straw is for the lower octave. The air speed is increased slightly as the notes ascend.
Breathe from your diaphragm.
The diaphragm is an involuntary muscle separating the lungs from abdomen. It is attaches to the base of the sternum, the lower parts of the rib cage and the spine. The movement of the diaphragm is controlled by the brain. In managing your air when playing the flute, remember your brain is your best friend. When you run uphill, you do not say “Ok brain, I am going to run uphill. Please increase my breathing speed.” When you recline, your brain tells the body to go into sleeping mode. It is all so simple. We exhale. We inhale. The speed of the breath is subconsciously taken care of in the magnificent human brain. So, when playing the flute, let your brain organize your breathing.
One of the tenets of tuba professor and legendary Chicago Symphony member Arnold Jacob was to sing the phrase in your head the way that you want to play it and then let your brain provide the air. Joseph Mariano, the legendary Eastman School of Music flute professor, called this “playing on the air.” At one of my first lessons with William Kincaid, I asked him about breathing and he replied, “Yes, I do it.” Excellent advice.
Vibrato is produced in the diaphragm.
Vibrato is produced as the vocal folds open and close on the exhalation of the breath. In order to explore a controlled opening and partial closing of the vocal folds, on a third line B, play HAH, HAH, HAH very staccato and quietly. The initial H sound will open or separate the vocal folds (top of vibrato cycle) and the silence in the separation of the staccato will produce a minor closing of the folds (bottom of vibrato cycle). Play three HAHs followed by a rest to MM = 60 staccato, then have the student slur the HAHs. This provides a basic vibrato. Videos of this process may be found by googling Patricia George XRAY.
Open your throat.
I have asked many a student to point to his throat. They all point to somewhere different. When teachers refer to opening the throat, they should say instead “Separate the vocal folds.” Starting the note with HAH or a breath attack does this.
Support the sound.
Often when teachers say this, students tighten their abdominal muscles and leave them tightened for the entire rehearsal. It is better to talk about blowing the air out rather than taking the air in. As in the Arnold Jacob quote before, think about singing the phrase and let the brain take care of the rest.
We are going to have a long- tone playing competition.
This is a helpful comment only if your goal is teaching tension. Since the flute is the instrument with the highest flow of air (with the tuba following closely behind) students with small lung capacity do not have a chance of winning this competition. What they will do is squeeze the vocal folds together tightly to make what air they have last as long as possible. This is particularly unfair when comparing students on different instruments. The oboe has the slowest flow so they can last forever. Long-tone playing tests are not a level playing field.
A good exercise is to have flutists (or entire band) play an easy note such as D5 for one count with the metronome set at q =60. After the note, rest for one count. Repeat, increasing the length of the played note by one count until the flutist is playing a note for 12 to 16 counts with a one count rest between each note. This exercise is amazing in how gently it teaches students to use their air for a longer period of time.
Students gain a great deal from exposure to different teachers, methods, and experiences. They can return from a summer program with fresh enthusiasm and energy that can inspire their teachers as well as themselves. Take the time to go over what they have learned as they return to lessons this fall and discuss what works and what should be adjusted. The lessons they learn from this will give them a better understanding of how the flute works and improve their playing.