You Wouldn’t Think it Makes Much Difference But……..

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DSC_2349There are a number of seemingly insignificant habits your flute students can get into that make a bigger difference than you might imagine to intonation, tone quality and technique. Some of these are more visibly obvious than others. All of them can negatively impact your flute players, both individually and as a section. Keep an eye and ear out for these things in your flute students for a better sounding section.

  • Pressing the flute too hard against the chin – This makes a big difference. If you can’t move your bottom lip, you are pressing too hard. When the flute is resting on your lip, make sure you can move your lip to be able to say a “W”. If you can’t make the “W” shape, back off on the pressure against your lip. If you can’t move your bottom lip, controlling dynamics and play high notes will be too difficult.
  • Flute too high on the chin – Affects both tone quality and pitch. Sound will be small and probably sharp. If you have to pull the headjoint out more than 5/8″ (1 cm), the flute is probably too high on the bottom lip.
  • Covering too much of the blow hole – There shouldn’t be any more than a 1/3 of the hole covered by the bottom lip. Any more than that and the tone will be dull and likely flat
  • Angle of the lower end of the flute in relation to your head – This means that you get the best sound from your instrument when you can see the lower end of the instrument in your peripheral vision. If you have the end of the flute in line with your right ear, you won’t be able to get maximum resonance from your instrument
  • Balance of the flute in your hands – Position the headjoint on the body so the weight of the rods is more on top. That way your fingers are free to move and you won’t be having to “hold” the flute to prevent it from rotating backwards.
  • Resting right knuckles against the rods – Just bad for the flute and for technique. Bad for the flute because sweat and body oils can work into the mechanism causing binding and even rust. Bad for technique because you can move your fingers much more quickly from the joints at the base of the fingers than from the second joints.
  • Thumb position on right hand – For best technique and hand position, thumb should be under and behind the flute, more or less under the F key. Thumb should never be in front of the flute (check the headjoint alignment and balance) or up under the F# or G key.
  • Thumb position on left hand – For best technique, left thumb should be open in relation to the rest of the hand, straight and relaxed. Let the thumb fall on the key wherever. This can be anywhere from the thumb knuckle to the the tip, depending on size and length of the thumb. Top joint should not be bent. The Bb key arm is intentionally recessed around the B key on flutes to accommodate different size and shape thumbs.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

The Dreaded Nay Palm

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What is the dreaded nay palm? Every band flute player is well familiar with the so-called nay palm. That’s when their band director is always asking them to play quieter because they can’t hear the……you name it, trumpets, low brass, clarinets…… By the way, my old teacher, Thomas Nyfenger coined this expression with more than a little irony. Trust me, every flute player has experienced the nay palm at one time or other.

First a bit of reality. There is no way the flute can ever compete in terms of volume of sound with any other instrument in the band. Never. Even if we have a well developed, mature and characteristic sound are we ever going to be able to overpower any other wind instrument? It’s just simple physics.

Secondly, the flute section usually sits right under the conductor. So the person on the podium will hear the flutes first just because the flutes are sitting right under their nose. Is it possible that it’s not really that the flutes are playing so loudly, but that the other instruments are seated further away? You can get a better sense of the balance of volume of the flutes in relation to the rest of the ensemble by getting further away, like in the auditorium. Then I think you will find that the flutes are generally not loud enough and any flute features in the music get lost in the bigger room.

A while back, I was playing with pick up ensemble that supported a local chorus. Most of the time it was an orchestra and we sat in the traditional orchestra configuration. The conductor never once said anything to me about playing “too loudly” through many oratorios and choral works. Just one time did we have a band rather than an orchestra. Now I was sitting directly under the same conductor and I was repeatedly told I was playing too loudly. I have to conclude it was where I was sitting in relation to him rather than how I played. It was the way I play in either case.

DSC_2847.JPGFor your flute players, the biggest issue with always asking them to play quieter is that they usually develop problematic compensations because they don’t actually know how to play quietly, with a supported sound. Here are some of the most egregious:

  • Pinching and squeezing the aperture
  • Clenching jaw with teeth too close together
  • Barely blowing
  • Closing the throat

All of these are guaranteed to cause pitch and tone problems. Compound that with being told to roll in or out to tune and you wind up with a real mess on your hands. And playing is not so fun or rewarding for the students.

How can you help your kids? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make sure your students understand the fundamentals of good sound including size and shape of the aperture and placement on the lower lip
  • Experiment with where your flutes sit in relation to the podium to be able to get a better sense of the balance of the ensemble even in the band room
  • Encourage your flute players to blow. Just using sufficient air will ensure better pitch.
  • Teach your flute players about supporting the air column. When you use your core muscles to drive the air, the air is moving fast enough to play more softly without losing pitch control.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

If You Can’t Hear It, It Doesn’t Count

When I was a grad student, my flute professor said to me, “It’s obvious you have a very active inner musical life. The problem is, I can’t hear it.” To say that this was a light bulb moment for me would be a bit of an understatement. This observation really shook me to the core and completely reordered my priorities in my practicing and performing from that time forward. What I realized is that there is a big difference between what I thought I was doing and how it was coming across to my audience. It was when I devised a simple, somewhat tongue-in-cheek rule for myself that has proved to be really useful as a way to monitor my playing and face the truth about how effectively I’m communicating the composer’s intention through my playing. “If you can’t hear it, it doesn’t count.” As I’ve reflected on my “rule”, I’ve discovered there are as many corollaries as there are parameters to playing. There is seemingly an infinite number of things I can hold myself accountable for in my performing including technique, articulation, tone quality, phrasing, inflection, tone color, expression, etc.

When I lead sectional rehearsals and flute choirs, one of the biggest issues I run into all the time is how to handle repeated notes so they sound like repeated notes. They can appear a number of different ways:

  • repeated notes under a slur
  • repeated notes under a slur with either a tenuto or staccato
  • repeated notes marked with tenutos or staccatos
  • repeated notes marked with accents
  • repeated notes marked with no designated articulation

More often than not, repeated notes come across as a sustained note, maybe with barely perceptible bumps for the individual repeated notes. And this is just with one player! Compound that by the 6, 10 or 12 kids in your flute section and I guarantee it sounds like a single, sustained note to your audience. What to do to make the repeated notes sound like distinctly different from each other? Here are a few thoughts to consider:

  • Whether or not there is a slur, repeated notes must be tongued. How else can we delineate the same pitch which is repeated? No tongue, no separate note
  • A so-called breath pulse isn’t a solution either. That’s more like vibrato and when utilized by multiple flute players in a section/ensemble, it basically sounds like nothing but a bumpy long note
  • Along with tonguing the repeated pitch, let up ever so slightly on the blowing at the end of the first note before tonguing the second note. It gives a little more definition. The type of articulation mark determines the length, but there should always be a slight lift for definition.

It takes a special effort to define and delineate repeated notes on the flute because the nature of the flute is to sound legato. Other wind instruments with a legato character include the clarinet and the horn. They face some of the same issues with regard to repeated notes as flute players. As the great French flutist, Marcel Moyse, said, “Play the music, not the flute.” In other words, figure out how to get the flute to meet the demands of the music rather than acquiescing to the nature and inherent weakness of the instrument. You can hear me demonstrate playing repeated notes here.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

A Few Words About Piccolos

There is a lot of variation in types of piccolos available on the market today, maybe more variation than for any other band instrument. There are all metal piccolos, plastic piccolos, combination plastic body with metal head piccolos, wooden piccolos, plasticized wood piccolos…….the list goes on. So how do you know what kind of piccolo to either buy for your instrument inventory or recommend when students decide to buy their own piccolo? 

First of all, there are two basic kinds of bore configurations: conical head/cylindrical body or cylindrical head/conical body. In general, metal piccolos are conical head/cylindrical body and plastic or wood piccolos are cylindrical head/conical body. 

You can make a case that different types of materials the piccolo is made from dictates the type of playing it is designed for. Here’s a quick run down of materials and purpose:

  • Metal – strong, bright sound. Best for marching band and pep band. Somewhat weather resistant, but pads are vulnerable to water damage
  • Metal head/plastic body – somewhat warmer sound, but still strong. Wide application from marching band, to concert band and even orchestra. Somewhat weather resistant, but pads are vulnerable to water damage
  • Traditional plastic body – warmer, rounder tone. Strong enough for outdoor playing but suitable for concert band and orchestra. Somewhat weather resistant, but pads are vulnerable to water damage
  • Guo New Voice and grenaditte piccolos – all the benefits of all plastic piccolos, plus weather proof silicon pads. The grenaditte also has the added benefit of having more wood-like qualities because the material is a plastic/wood composite with grenadilla. Wide range of applications from marching band to concert band to orchestra. 
  • Grenaditte or plastic/wood composites – the sweetness and warmth of wooden piccolos without the need for strict temperature/humidity control. Wide range of applications. Traditional pads that need to be protected from water damage
  • Wood body and head – sweet, warm sound. For indoor use only. Important to protect from extremes of temperature and humidity to avoid cracks. Traditional pads. 

Like flutes and other woodwinds, piccolos need regular maintenance. Yearly maintenance is what is recommended to keep piccolos in top playing shape. Keep in mind, because of the small size, you may not be able to detect mechanical problems as easily as on a flute or other woodwind. The player can certainly hear and feel the problems. It is also extremely critical that the headjoint cork be placed correctly. Even half a millimeter can make a difference in being able to play in tune. The correct distance should be 13mm. A side note is that in my experience, school piccolos are more often than not the worst maintained instruments in the band inventory. They often haven’t been properly serviced in many years. Imagine how disheartening that is for the kids that have to play them. I frequently counsel students to just go buy their own if they want a good experience playing piccolo. 

To “Tut” or Not to “Tut”

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As I frequently tell students, the tongue is used to start a note, rarely, if ever to end a note. So if there is a distinct “T” sound on the release, you are going to have some really nasty sounding note endings. Not to mention big problems single tonguing any faster than moderately slow. All that tongue noise from the tongue flailing around in your mouth isn’t tone. Or as my teacher Tom Nyfenger was wont to say, “Tonguing is the anti-tone”. Related to the tongue stop is the jaw drop release, which will slow you down even further. In both cases, you will get a distinctive popping sound on the release.

If you hear a popping sound on the release, the first thing to determine is how the popping sound is being produced. It’s either going to be because of a “tut” style of tonguing or by dropping the jaw to end the sound. If you discover any other methods of creating this kind of release, please let me know. How are you going to address and correct this habit with your students? The fastest way is to have them do some kind of articulation exercise without tonguing! I use Reichert Seven Daily Exercises #2 (available on IMSLP), but any kind of scale or arpeggio exercise can be used. Start on an easy key like F, rather than a key that goes really low on the flute like D. Play each note with a forceful puff of air without the tongue. Keep the embouchure in position without opening the aperture after every note. If you observe a chewing type motion with the jaw, the student is involving more resources than are necessary. The less motion the better. Direct the students to think of still/poised rather than rigid. Have the students work on placing the air precisely for best tone on each note without the tongue. Learning to do this takes some practice and determination, because it requires real precision of placement for the best sound in every part of the flute. When you reintroduce the tongue, make sure the tongue is only involved in starting the note, not ending it. Also be sure to continue having the strong puff of air with good placement behind the tonguing. There are many additional ways you can vary up the exercise with different rhythmic patterns in all keys. Here’s a link to a video I did on various ways to practice good placement and tonguing.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

Playing Softly Without Pinching

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Once you have confidence that your students know how to blow with a steady air stream in at least two or more octaves of the flute, it’s time to help them develop a dynamic palette from piano to forte, so they can begin to practice and understand balance and style. How many of you have tried teaching your students to play more quietly only to have a host of weird compensating behaviors magically appear, not to mention having the pitch go haywire? Things like:

  • Pinched aperture, shrill tone and sharp pitch
  • Rolling in/covering to much of the blow hole, dull tone and flat pitch
  • Clenched teeth, tight sound lacking resonance, probably sharp
  • Tight throat, strangled, dull tone and probably flat
  • Slow air resulting in flat pitch, trouble placing and controlling high notes, thin, bleating tone

Ok, so the problem with all of these “solutions” is they miss the point that makes the difference and you wind up with all kinds of compensations that just make a poor situation worse. The point is to understand that there is a difference between the quantity of air and the speed of the air. Youngsters and anyone who doesn’t really ‘get’ flute have trouble conceptualizing the difference between air quantity and air speed. In fact, for kids speed and quantity are the same thing. The way I explain it is that until you understand better, air speed and air quantity function like a bad marriage, needy and codependent. One cannot exist without the other, but to the detriment of the both partners.

In order for a player to be able to control dynamics and pitch, air speed and air quantity need to get a divorce and be able to operate as separate entities. The speed of the air stream has to be maintained (supported) while the quantity of air determines the relative volume of the sound. You need to maintain the air speed/pressure using the abdominal muscles while decreasing the quantity of air you are blowing. Here are a couple other concepts to incorporate into the mix to get good dynamic and pitch control:

  • Maintain the oval shape of the aperture without flattening it out
  • Maintain the position of the flute on your lip without rolling in or out
  • The less air you blow, the more you need to raise the blowing angle towards more straight across the blow hole to maintain pitch
  • Keep back teeth apart and mouth cavity open
  • Keep a relaxed and open throat. Think of how your throat feels right on the edge of yawning
  • Keep the speed of the air, just less air

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

Three Essential Skills

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You already know that blowing on a flute has many variables, maybe a bewildering number of variables. In speaking with a flute playing colleague who is also a band director recently, she told me that busy educators are looking for two or three simple steps they can follow to help their students play their instrument easily. So here are three essential things to communicate to your flute students at every stage of their development:

  1. Find the optimum position for the flute on bottom lip. Do this by bringing the flute up from below to about where lip and chin meet. Avoid rolling down from the center. This places the blow hole too high to get a full, characteristic sound. The Legend of Kiss and Roll, Teaching Great Flute Sound, What is Transit Time
  2. IMG_0146Balance the flute in your hands. Turn the headjoint slightly back to align between the key cups and the rods, rather than directly with the key cups. This puts the relatively heavy rods more on top so the flute can rest in your hands. No bracing needed even with all the fingers off the keys (like with C#-Db). It’s All About Balance, Balance and the Right Hand, Balance and the Left Hand
  3. Shape the blowing aperture enough to focus the air stream and experiment with blowing angle. There is a subtle and intricate balance between top and bottom lip that is always adjusting to change registers, dynamics and control pitch, not to mention create different colors. Independence for Lips!, Warm Air, Cold Air

Try these three pointers with your students. Let me know how it works for you.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

Finding the Sweet Spot

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We all know that sports equipment often has a sweet spot. A baseball bat, tennis racket or skis are good examples of sports equipment with a sweet spot. If you make efficient use of the sweet spot, you maximize the response of the equipment. When you hit a baseball or softball with the sweet spot of the bat, the ball travels much farther than if the ball makes contact with another part of the bat. You have more control over the placement, velocity and spin of a tennis ball using the sweet spot of a tennis racket.

The sweet spot of downhill skis are probably most like the blow hole of a flute headjoint than any other sweet spot in sports. Skis for beginner and intermediate skiers generally have a larger sweet spot and therefore are more forgiving of a skier’s technical weaknesses, but you also sacrifice something in terms of finesse and control on the hill with the larger sweet spot. On the other hand, advanced skis have a narrow sweet spot that gives a lot of control in turns and with speed. However, you need to understand how your center of gravity works in tandem with the skis to benefit from the precise response.

Yes, flute headjoints most definitely have a sweet spot. And like skis, beginning flute headjoints are more forgiving of inexperienced players. Professional headjoints tend to require more precise air direction and placement to maximize the response. If your students have windy tone and/or pitch problems, they simply haven’t learned how to direct the air to maximize the response of the headjoint’s sweet spot.

  • We blow down at about a 45 degree angle at the blowing edge, not really across the blow hole at all, as is so commonly believed.
  • Most flute players are directing the air slightly to their right at the blowing edge. Headjoints are cut in such a way to allow for this. The exception to this is someone with a teardrop top lip who plays off to the right of the teardrop, rather than the more common left of the teardrop.
  • How do you know if someone has hit the sweet spot? The sound is focused, full, round, in tune, has depth and resonance.

Every flute player has to discover their own best blowing angle. There really is no One Size Fits All solution, only general guidelines:

  • Rest the inner edge of the blow hole approximately where chin skin and lip skin meet.
  • Allow no more than 1/4 to 1/3 of the blow hole be covered by the bottom lip.
  • Reach over slightly with the top lip to angle the air down at the blowing edge.
  • Shape lips as if to say the letter “W”
  • Blow through the resulting aperture
  • Experiment, experiment, experiment with all of the above until you discover the best combination for you
  • Practice to make it reproducible, so you can do it every time you put the flute on your face

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

Troubleshooting Tone and Pitch Issues

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Because there are so many variables involved in flute embouchure, there are an infinite number of problems that students can manifest in their tone quality and intonation. And as instructors it might seem we have to virtually be psychic to deduce the problem and offer solutions to our students. This is because so much is affected by things going on in the body that aren’t obvious from looking at a kid. Over the years I’ve been collecting a laundry list, so to speak, of tone/intonation problems and their solutions. Here are some common ones for beginner to intermediate students.

dsc_0968Problem: Windy, airy tone that is sharp

Solution: The aperture is too large and the blowing angle is too shallow. Blow through a smaller aperture and angle the air down more. You can achieve a steeper blowing angle by putting the flute lower on the bottom lip and reaching over with the top lip more, while maintaining the smaller aperture. The Legend of Kiss and Roll, Independence for Lips!

Problem: Dull tone quality, flat pitch

Solution: There is too much bottom lip covering the blow hole, and the flute is probably too high on the bottom lip. Move the flute lower on the bottom lip and roll out. There shouldn’t be more than 1/3 of the blow hole covered by the bottom lip. Also check alignment of the headjoint and balance of the flute. That alone can cause a student roll in and cover too much of the blow hole. It’s All About Balance

Problem: Strangled or pinched tone, can be flat or sharp depending how high or low the flute is on the bottom lip

Solution: This requires some sleuthing on your part because you have to identify the source of the constriction. There are at least four places I can think of that cause a pinched sound: 1) The lips themselves with a flattened and pinched aperture, 2) clenching the jaw with teeth too close together (common with kids who have braces, especially with rubber bands), 3) the back of the tongue is too high, constricting the airway, and finally, 4) the kid can actually be closing off the throat itself, as in activating the gag reflex. It takes some practice and discernment on your part to tell the difference which of these four constriction points are causing the problem. I can tell you that each one has a distinct quality that identifies it from the others, but it does take carefully listening and practice to recognize each one. Getting the Cart Before the Horse

Problem: Trouble producing third octave notes even with the correct fingerings

Solution: Third octave notes seem scary to kids. To them it seems like the natural thing that in order to control the third octave, they should roll in and pinch. After all, who wants to hear screeching high notes? This is precisely why they are having trouble. The solution, paradoxically, is to open up the blow hole a bit, support the air column more from the body core, and relax the grip of the aperture slightly. The speed of the air column itself will ensure the high note speak with ease. Warm Air, Cold Air

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

Flute Go Juice

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dsc_9393We have spent a great deal of virtual ink on this blog exploring flute embouchure, articulation, intonation, technique, dynamics and vibrato. While all of these things are essential to good flute playing, we’re overlooking the elephant in the room, namely blowing. Indeed, if you don’t have good mastery of blowing, you aren’t going to be able to articulate well, play in tune, control dynamics or play with vibrato. All the blah, blah about embouchure is meaningless if you are not moving air through the embouchure into the flute. Technique is worthless without the air behind the fingers.

A few thoughts about blowing as it relates to teaching kids, in no particular order:

  • Beginners – give me a kid with an enthusiastically windy sound any day over a kid that is timidly tweeting little peeps. It is much easier to help the first kid refine their sound and become more precise with how they direct their air than to get that shy kid who is barely making any sound to actually put some air into the instrument.
  • Students who come to the flute from a piano background often have to be cajoled into blowing more. My conjecture about this is that they are used to thinking of the sound being generated by their finger technique. You need to help them understand their fingers make very little sound , but that their go juice on flute is the air stream.
  • Hold off on teaching/expecting dynamics until you are sure the student has sufficient mastery of steady blowing to be able to understand the difference between air speed and air quantity. Getting to this point can take up to a couple years, depending on how much they play in band/practice on their own.
  • Encourage your students to blow freely and refrain from using what my teacher, Tom Nyfenger, called the nay-palm, shushing your young flute players in the front row to hear the brass line behind them. The flutes are not impacting the balance of the ensemble they way you think they are. The reason they sound loud to you is they are sitting right under your baton. This is so incredibly damaging to developing young flute players. The truth is, a flute will never be able to compete in terms of volume of sound with most any other instrument in your ensemble, not a trumpet, a saxophone or even a clarinet. By shushing them and not instructing your flute players how to play more quietly, the kids develop all kinds of negative compensating behaviors such as pinching the aperture, squeezing in the throat, clenching their teeth and just not blowing. The consequence is that the flutes sound terrible and have horrendous intonation problems. These problems are then compounded if you then tell them to roll in or out to fix the pitch. All of these problems with evaporate if you encourage your students to blow in the first place.
  • If your students know how to blow well, learning to play with vibrato, developing lively articulation and meaningful technique is part of a natural progression of acquiring skills. Good blowing and a steady, supported air column facilitate all these skills. You have to have the go juice first.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.