I was sitting in a flute sectional at the Tanglewood Music Center in the summer of 1983. Doriot Dwyer, the principal flute of the Boston Symphony was coaching the flute section on Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and I was playing the piccolo. I had no idea what I was doing.
I remember switching back and forth quickly from flute to piccolo in the third movement and feeling uneasy. At one point I picked up the piccolo to play one of the solos and, after trying to set my embouchure, blew, and nothing came out. Doriot stopped the sectional, looked at me, shook her head, and said, “Well, you clearly don’t know where your sound is coming from. Once you actually figure that out, you won’t have that problem.”
I was so embarrassed and felt about two feet tall. However, this made me really think about what I was doing. In truth, I had spent hours looking into the mirror, trying to find the perfect looking embouchure on the outside of my lips, but I really was not considering what was happening on the inside. When I watched the great players of that time, such as piccoloist Clement Barone or flutist Julius Baker, they did not seem to have a lot of tension in their lips, nor did it look as if their embouchures moved very much at all.
In 1990 I decided to prepare a piccolo audition for the Michigan Opera Theater orchestra. The repertoire included several third flute parts such as Dance of the Mirlitons from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and The Humming Chorus from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (see below). After practicing the difficult high, loud, and fast piccolo excerpts such as Verdi’s La forza del Destino overture, I would pick up my flute to play the Puccini excerpt, which starts on a low D ppp, and no sound would come out of the flute.
Humming Chorus from Madame Butterfly rehearsal # 90
After about 20 minutes of playing long tones and some rest, I could muster out some tone. Unfortunately, it felt horrible and sounded like I was playing a kazoo.
Looking for answers, I asked an experienced doubler how he managed to go from saxophone or clarinet to piccolo so easily. He said, “As soon as I touch the horn to pick it up, I mentally picture what the embouchure looks and feels like on the inside. The act of putting the horn to my lips activates that new embouchure. It is an auto response now, but it took a lot of mental practice.”
I also discussed this with my teacher and predecessor in the Detroit Symphony, Clement Barone. He played in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for 35 years. He used to complain that after squirreling around in the third octave on a Shostakovich symphony and then switching to flute, that the flute embouchure hole felt like blowing across a bathtub. He showed me such a passage in the third flute and piccolo part of Shostakovich Symphony No. 8 and suggested ways to work on making these low notes come out.
With Clem’s help, and through some experimentation on my own, I developed the following exercises to work on the internal aspects of the embouchure change from piccolo to flute and back. I now rarely suffer from piccolo lips, but I still see many players who are terminally tight. I know they suffer from the same severe fatigue I experienced, and they usually can never produce a truly soft sound on either flute or piccolo.
With these three exercises I learned to control my sound by relaxing. At first, I had to do them every day, but now I use them whenever I feel that my lips are getting too tight or that my flexibility is in jeopardy.
Whistle tones became my salvation when I was trying to regain my flute embouchure after high and loud piccolo playing as they are simply not attainable on the flute if the tension in the lips is too great. A whistle tone is made by fingering a third octave note and then blowing a very small amount of air – not even enough to get an actual pitch – against the outer edge of the embouchure hole. It will sound like a tea kettle going off. If you cannot get a sound, your lips are probably too tense.
Playing whistle tones provides a great opportunity to consider what the embouchure looks and feels like from the inside out and ask questions such as: Where does my embouchure begin? What shape is it on the inside where I can’t see? What do I imagine it looks like? Can I change its shape and size on the inside?
Start by fingering a top octave G and blowing a whistle tone. Try to hold the tone steady for nine seconds. If the tone wavers, don’t stop; just keep blowing and try to find the whistle tone. Breathe and repeat nine times.
Continue upwards by half steps to high C and then come back down to the G. When you are done, reward yourself by playing a normally fingered low G in the first octave. I am always amazed at how relaxed my embouchure becomes and how clear the sound is after doing this exercise.
Tip: If you can’t get the whistle tones to sound, start by separating your lips completely and then blowing as you bring your lips closer and closer together. Be patient. It may take several days to make a sound.
Practice Suggestion: Set an alarm for the top of the hour during multi-hour practice sessions. When the alarm goes off, change your location, find a clock with a second hand, and do the ten-minute whistle tone exercise. It is a great break and keeps you in touch with the inside of your lips.
Whistle Tone Warm Up
Just as a string player’s bow starts a string vibrating, the air column initiates the sound on the flute. Ask these questions: Am I using my lips to start the note? My tongue? My throat? How long is my air column and where does it begin? Remember, air is the source of the sound. Keeping the air column long and a moving air stream helps flutists not overuse the lips, tongue and throat to make the sound.
Lie down on the floor with your flute. With the right arm off the floor, blow eight C5 notes using a breath attack. Concentrate on keeping the lips supple with a strong, moving air stream. Take time to recover after each attack. Continue downwards by half steps to low C. If your sound fails at any point, return to C5 and descend again. Eventually you should be able to bark out eight low Cs with minimal tension in the lips.
Put A Cork In It
The following is probably the most difficult of these exercises, but I find it the most effective. Find an old cork that will fit in the end of the footjoint of your flute. If necessary, trim the edges of the cork so it fits easily. Inserting the cork changes the physical acoustic of the flute to a closed ended instrument. With your cork in position, you can now play a low Bb4 in the bass clef. You goal is to finger low B natural to sound a Bb a diminished octave below. This takes extreme control and relaxation. Again, if the sound does not come at first, it may take several days to find success. This will also work with a C foot flute as well. Slur chromatically down from D1. If you cannot get any sound your lips are too close together.
I suggest trying these three exercises in a different order each day until your lips can find a new suppleness and relaxation. Only you can judge how long you need to do this. Sometimes I sit on stage after a taxing symphony and warm down with these exercises before putting the flute away. This especially helps if I have to perform the next morning on flute, so I do not wake up with a case of piccolo lips.
Although I did not win the Michigan Opera Theater orchestra job, the experience forced me to learn what I needed to do to maintain the flexibility of my embouchure in order to move from piccolo to flute easily. Hopefully what I discovered will help you become comfortable making this switch.