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Why can't I get a good sound out of the flute?

I get this question a lot, so if you're just starting the flute, picking it up again after a long hiatus, or want to improve your tone, then hopefully these tips will help.

Just bear in mind that the flute is unique among wind and brass instruments in that we don't blow into a mouthpiece that automatically shapes our airstream. We make that ourselves with our lip position (embouchure). And since lips are as unique as snowflakes, there isn't one tried and true, set in stone way of creating a tone or forming an embouchure. What works for one person may not work for another. That's why it's easier to help someone get a better sound in person at a lesson, rather than give tips over the Internet, so if you're not one of my students and aren't studying with any teacher, then the key for you is experimentation. Just try all kinds of things to see what improves the sound and what doesn't.

 

Getting a sound, any sound...

  • The aperture of the lips takes more of a slit shape than a round hole.

  • Align the flute on the lower lip so the edge of the hole lines up approximately with the edge of the lower lip.

  • Make a very focused, compact airstream.

  • Blow across the embouchure hole so a little air goes down into the hole and the rest splits across

  • The embouchure should be pretty firm - this is similar to blowing across a bottle, but there needs to be more control and firmness in the lips, and a more centered, compact airstream.

 

My tone is airy.

  • Focus your airstream as much as you can. You want to make a compact, solid stream of air, not one that's fuzzy and diffuse. Think of water shooting out of a garden hose. This is how your air should be. It's got to be so solid that you can feel the sides, top, bottom, and how far the air extends if you feel it with your hand while you blow.

  • Experiment with your embouchure. You can try firming your lips, because if they're too loose, the sound will be airy. (Too tight, and you'll pinch off the sound, though.) It often helps to watch in a mirror as you play and try some different things, so you can see what you're doing if anything really helps.

  • Experiment with the size and shape of your aperture. The hole should be more of a slit rather than a round opening, for most people. This will let you concentrate the air, rather than spewing it all out in all directions.

  • Change the angle of your airstream. Try angling it up or down... see if that makes a difference. Ideally, about one third of the air goes into the flute, and the rest across the hole. This will vary depending on the player, but it's a good starting point. If too much air is shooting across the flute, the sound will be airier.

  • How is the flute resting against your chin? Generally, the edge of the hole lines up with the edge of your lower lip, where the color starts. If too much of the hole is left uncovered, the sound will be harsh and airy. Generally, 1/3 or so of the hole should be covered... this varies from person to person, though, based on the size and shape of their lips. (Too little covered however, and your sound will be pinched and flat... experiment to find a happy medium.)

  • Are you blowing right across the lip plate hole? If the air is shooting off at an angle, the sound will be fuzzy. Check to make sure that the flute is not pulled away from your mouth when you blow, but is lined up with your embouchure so that part of the air (about one third) splits down into the hole and the rest goes across.

  • Is the flute pulled away from your mouth at an angle? Flutists often develop "band posture" due to cramped seating conditions, and if the flute angles sharply away from your mouth, so the air isn't passing evenly across it, then this could be affecting the tone, too. You don't have to hold your flute parallel to the floor, but your head should tilt slightly to follow the angle of the flute so your flute stays evenly placed on your chin. (Too much tilting of the head, and your air won't flow right, though. A tip for posture: if you can talk and sound normal, then it's fine. If you sound constricted or your voice is otherwise affected by the head/neck angle, shoulder placement, etc., then your body is too out of alignment.)

 

I'm having trouble with high notes.

For most flutists, high notes need more work than any other register on the flute, so the more time you log practicing them, the more they'll improve.

How to play them:

  • Have a flexible embouchure. Flute players' embouchures vary subtly almost from note to note. The key is to discover what changes have to be made from the easier middle register up to the difficult higher register. Try to purse your embouchure slightly, as if you're forming the vowel sound "ooo." It's a very slight movement, and it varies with each person, since our lips are all differently shaped, but the general principle is the same. (Changing the position also works for the low register, where your embouchure should take more of an "eee" position.)

  • A lot of flutists equate playing high notes with blowing harder. This leads to the notes either not sounding, squeaking, or falling down the octave. Try blowing the air faster, but not necessarily harder. Watch in a mirror and experiment with your embouchure - what happens if you stretch the embouchure slightly? Relax it? Firm it? Aim the airstream up? Down? By trial and error, you'll find out exactly what works for you.

  • Make sure you've got abdominal support. This vague phrase can mean a lot of different things to different flutists, but having good posture and a firm, supported core helps when you're playing high notes.

  • Make your airstream as focused and compact as possible. If it's too diffuse, it'll be too weak to make the high notes sound. Try changing the size of the aperture you make - it's generally more of a slit than a round hole, so see if making it smaller/bigger makes a difference.

  • Try angling the airstream up or down. Also check to make sure that you're not covering the embouchure hole with your lip too much. If the hole is covered too much, the sound is muffled and it's harder for upper notes to speak. (Roughly 1/3 will probably be covered, if you place the edge of the embouchure hole on the edge of your lip where the color starts.)

  • Check to be sure that you're using all the right fingerings for the high notes. Especially if you haven't been playing long yet, habits can creep in, and using correct fingerings for every note, even when it seems that you can get the same note by just "overblowing" the second octave fingering, will help you get those high notes.

  • If you find it hard to hit a certain high note, use a nearby note that you CAN play well to help you learn the one that's harder. For example, find the highest note you can play well..., say, high G. Use your comfort in this note to help you slur into high A flat. When A flat gets easier, use that to reach high A, and so on. The point of this is that there isn't much change in the embouchure between notes that are right next to each other, so your body unconsciously adapts what's working for the easier note and applies that to the harder note.

  • And there's always the old "perspective" kind of high tone practice. If, for instance, you're having trouble with high G, skip it and go on to A or any higher notes, if posible. After that, go back to G. The more you practice really REALLY high notes, the easier somewhat less high notes seem by comparison. :)

 

What to play

I recommend the Taffanel-Gaubert book of daily exercises, or the Julius Baker version, which is more updated for the modern flute (use this if you have a flute that goes down to a low B). They may seem very technical, depending on how long you've been playing, but these exercises are very versatile. They don't *have* to be technical: you can play them as slowly as you want, and in this case, the slower the better, as the key here is tone work, not finger work.

Another book you may want to try is "Ninety Top Register Studies", by Thomas J. Filas. (You can get these books from fluteworld.com, if your local music store doesn't have any.)

You can also transpose songs and melodies into the third octave. The key here is just to play high notes a lot - the more you do, the more you'll get accustomed to them. Don't get frustrated or worried if you don't see immediate improvement, because for most flutists, high notes are the most difficult region of the flute. It just takes time for them to get easier. Just don't let screechy or non-existent high notes scare you away from practicing them, though.... they will improve, but only if you keep working on them. :)

More than anything else, though, long tones will be your best friend, so see below for how to best work on long tones.

 

Long tones

No matter what you want to improve about your tone, the cure-all for flute tone is to do a lot of tone exercises. (Aren't you glad that doesn't apply when you go to your doctor? "Doctor, it hurts when I do this." "Well, keep doing it, and do it a lot more.")

There's all kinds of ways you can practice your tone, and you can even invent your own exercises, but the common factor any good tone exercise has is that it lets you work on your tone alone, separate from technique, rhythms, vibrato, etc. Plain old long tones are the best way to improve your sound, though... they may not sound fun, but they're really not boring if you're actively listening to yourself and striving to make the note as clear as possible as you play.

I recommend 10-15 minutes of long tones each day. Take a full breath before each note, and hold the note out until you're out of air, then go on to the next one if you like, or repeat the same one. If you have a tuner, you can kill two birds with one stone by keeping the needle or light as steady as possible as you play... but if you're new to the flute, I would bring the tuner in later, when your tone is more under control. In the beginning, it's better to work on the sound without having any other distractions.

It doesn't matter so much how many or few of the notes on the flute you do each day (just remember which ones you've done so you can pick up where you left off the next day)... at this point, the more time you log on long tones, the better your tone will improve.

Just be sure that your practice is thoughtful and you're concentrating as hard on your sound as you would if you were playing a piece. The last thing you want to just zone out on long tones because they're not technically difficult. If, as you play, you find yourself thinking about your geometry homework, the latest episode of your favorite show, or are craving a grilled cheese sandwich, then you won't get any real benefit out of doing long tones. It can be hard to maintain concentration at first, so if you're having difficulties this way, I recommend that you do a few notes, then go to something else and come back to long tones later when you're refreshed.

 

 
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