“Did you leave the kettle on?” This is a question that is often heard when a flutist begins their practice of the whistle tone. That is because they can be mistaken for the distinctive sound that a tea kettle makes when it’s boiling or even a high-pitched dog whistle.
Sometimes the whistling of tones on the flute happens by accident when flutists taper a note and slow down the air speed. When I studied with Geoffrey Gilbert, he would often warn against getting these wispy sounds at the end of a sustained note, “You must move your lips forward to get the air past the embouchure hole so we don’t hear these sounds.” Here are some ideas to help you create the whistle tone and the benefits of getting this sound on the flute.
Over my career as a piccolo player and flutist, I have found the practice of whistle tones to be a life saver. The benefits I find when I practice whistle tones include relaxation of the lips and the throat, increased control over the tiny muscles in the center part of my embouchure, and increased control of my breath support. Overall, I find that my tone becomes purer, and my embouchure has less tension. I have a better understanding of where my lips need to be to play in the upper register, and my low notes become richer and fuller.
I became fascinated with whistle tones after reading Thomas Nyfenger’s Music and the Flute where he describes how to produce the sound of the whistle tone, “If we begin by fingering third octave A, we find if the embouchure opening used for a sustained mezzoforte can be maintained or held stationary while sending up less and less air – difficult because our old habit is to close the lip opening gradually, as in a diminuendo – the note will ‘fall’ through a number of nebulous, unusable tones and finally result in the emission of a miniature version of the original A. This is a whistle tone.”
Whistle tones are difficult to demonstrate through words. If you have never heard a whistle tone before, look up some examples on YouTube.
My teacher Clement Barone, former piccoloist of the Detroit Symphony, used to tell me, “There is always another way.” We would experiment in lessons with finding new ways to create different sounds. I keep this in mind when practicing and teaching whistle tones. Teaching whistle tones to students for the first time can be a big challenge as they have to learn to think and feel outside of the box.
Here are several ways to go about finding the whistle tone on the flute:
1. Play a low G and back off on the air. Don’t taper the note with the lips, just simply let the air slow until it is almost silent. If you don’t push your lips forward as you would in a diminuendo, you will most likely hear the whistle tone at the end of the sound.
2. Another way to produce whistle tones is by fingering notes in the high register. This is the opposite of the above exercise. Start from silence and try to gently blow across the embouchure plate like you are fogging up a mirror while fingering the top octave G, for example. If you produce a low register tone, then you are blowing too hard. Pretend that you are blowing many octaves lower and super softly. If you can’t get beyond the low register tone, this can be frustrating at first. This is where the experimenting comes into play.
Try slightly separating the lips and relaxing the corners of the embouchure if they are tense. Think of having a tall embouchure and visualizing a little cushion behind the lips so that the lips are not touching the teeth. Roll the flute out to open up the embouchure plate and slowly roll it back in until you find the sound. Drop the jaw and create space between the molars. Release the pressure of the flute on the chin. Try whistling or singing the note first. Change the vowel sound in the mouth.
If at first you don’t succeed, be patient. This is like asking you to touch your toes when you have never ever stretched your hamstrings. It takes flexibility and time. Try this for a few minutes at the end of your practice every day – it may take a week or two to produce the whistle tone.
After years of teaching whistle tones, I find that the primary cause of not being able to produce them is the proximity of the lips to each other. They are usually too tight or close together. For this very reason, practicing whistle tones is a great exercise for intermediate flutists to unhook the corners of their embouchure and begin to support their sound with their air, rather than the lips. When I began playing the piccolo in high school, I often developed a case of piccolo lips and was searching for a way to relax my embouchure to the flute. Whistle tones have always been the answer for me.
With this in mind, I created the following exercise:
1. Begin by opening your mouth completely. Slowly bring your lips together to form the embouchure on the flute, but begin the blowing while the lips are still apart. I call this my horsey face. It is not a pretty look, but if you approach the embouchure with the lips completely apart, you will have no chance of the lips being too close together.
Again, be patient with this, but this one usually helps frustrated students find results quite quickly.
2. While fingering low C, gently blow the whistle tone. This will cause the entire spectrum of the harmonic series to appear. I like to stay with low C for a while and then change to low C#. The different harmonics will flip in and out on their own as the air stream fluctuates, sounding like an improvisation. Try to pick an upper register note and sustain it. You might suddenly notice how the beating of your heart alone can make these very sensitive harmonics change.
Once you can sustain the whistle tone, practice whistle tones for 10 minutes a day. Start on top octave G and ascend to the highest C and then come back down to top octave G#, holding each tone for one complete minute. Practice this in 10 second intervals, six times per note. If you lose the tone, don’t stop. Try to keep blowing and adjust your embouchure with the experiments mentioned above. When you are done, reward yourself by playing a first octave G with a real tone.
Use this chromatic exercise as well. Continue as low as you can go:
William Kincaid, former principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, mentioned using these in the orchestra to quietly find his embouchure before a high register entrance. To discover the correlation, try this exercise:
Whistle tones actually carry quite drastically in the concert hall. Sometimes I will think I am playing a discreet little whistle tone on my piccolo during a rehearsal, and the entire violin section will turn around wondering where that noise is coming from.
When it is after hours in your apartment or hotel room, you can always quietly play whistle tones. I love warming down with my 10-minute exercise while watching the 11 o’clock news, especially if I have an audition or big performance the next day.
Pick a favorite melody and play it on whistle tone:
Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah by Saint-Saëns Using Whistle Tones
Helen Blackburn, flute professor at West Texas A&M University, talks about the Zen of whistle tones. The harder you try, the more you have to surrender. They will get better over time, but don’t overdo it. Whistle tones are healthy for any flutist to practice. If they are impossible at first, I encourage you to experiment and find another way. You may discover a new and improved method for your flute embouchure and tone.