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.

Building Technique

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There is more to technique than just moving your fingers. In fact, good technique on flute integrates a number skills and types of awareness. This includes:

  • Balance of the flute and hand positions – if the flute isn’t properly balanced, then students develop all kinds of compensating behaviors to keep the flute from rolling back.
  • Blowing – without steady air speed and pressure, the greatest finger technique is not of much use because we won’t hear what is being played.
  • Coordinating fingers and tongue – have you ever heard a student try to play a fast passage while their fingers and tongue are out of phase? Even with decent finger technique, it isn’t very effective to be tonguing behind the ictus of the note.
  • Knowledge of scales and arpeggios in all 12 keys – make it a priority that your students get beyond the keys of F, Bb and Eb. Help them learn to think in sharps for sharp keys and flats for flat keys.

Get your flute students technical exercises just for them, or at least for woodwinds rather than brass. The venerable band technique books are either more focused on brass skills like lip slurs and/or are limited in scope in their technical exercises for flute. There are many excellent technique books specifically for flute that target the developing flute player, including books by Trevor Wye (The Practice Books) and Patricia George and Phyllis Avidan Louke (The Flute Scale Book). There are also great scale and arpeggio exercises in all keys and different patterns and note values (quarter, eighth, sixteenth notes) in the PC/Mac version of Smart Music. In Smart Music, you can assign scale exercises for assessment, set it to loop through the circle of fifths and change articulation patterns.

Tone work is a vital part of technical practice. Please note that brass style lip slurs and Remington exercises may be useful in an ensemble setting, they are not particularly helpful in developing characteristic flute tone. For developing flute tone there is no better exercise than practicing octaves slowly. Students can focus on directing the air properly and pay attention filling the space between the notes with steady air. I recommend waiting until high school to introduce the Moyse long tones. The younger kids usually don’t have the maturity to understand how to explore tone, focus and continuity with the Moyse long tones.

The important thing is to help your students develop good home practice habits that include regular tone and technical work. If kids are practicing 30-40 minutes a day, 10-15 minutes focusing on technique will make a huge difference in their skill set.

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.

Top 10 Posts of 2016 on Dr. Cate’s Flute Tips

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Thank you for reading this blog! There has been a 44% increase in readership over that of 2015 thanks to you. Most of the articles in the top 10 for 2016 are, not surprisingly about different facets of flute embouchure. If you are used to relating to a mouthpiece of some kind, it is no wonder the range of variables that make up a good flute embouchure can be baffling. Perhaps the closest equivalent in instrumental music is with all the variables involved in playing string instruments, with the bow and with the left hand.

Without further ado, here are the top 10 posts of 2016 on Dr. Cate’s Flute Tips:

  1. Teaching your Students to Play with Vibrato
  2. Flute Embouchure and a Teardrop Top Lip
  3. To Roll or Not to Roll: That is the Question
  4. Intonation and Dynamic Control
  5. Helping Your Students Adjust to Playing With Braces
  6. About the Third Octave
  7. Teaching Great Flute Sound
  8. Solutions for Common Third Octave Problems
  9. The Legend of “Kiss and Roll”
  10. Our Lips are our Mouthpiece

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.dsc_7981

Shaping a Flute Aperture

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It seems to me that understanding how to shape a flute aperture with your lips is likely the biggest mystery for non-flutists who teach beginning flute players. Surprisingly, this is one of the simplest concepts to grasp if you know the trick. The trick is to shape your lips as if you are saying the sound of the letter “W”, as in “what” or “wonderful”. Notice a few things when you do this:

  • Your awareness is focused on the middle of your lips, almost as if you are gripping a drinking straw
  • The corners take care of themselves and seal themselves. No attention needed
  • Your lips naturally form an elliptical opening
  • The perimeter of the resulting aperture is actually rather firm

For yourself and your students, try starting out without a flute headjoint. Put an index finger under your lip and say, “what” or “water” a number of times. Then shorten it and say “waaaa”. Then just shape your lips for the “W” sound and blow through the resulting opening. Voila! Flute aperture 101.The next step is to shape your lips and tongue behind the teeth where gum and teeth meet on the top while blowing through the aperture, “too, too, too……”, keeping a steady air stream. Finally, go through the above process with a flute headjoint on your chin.

dsc_9565Of course there is more to getting a characteristic sound than just shaping the aperture. And there are seemingly more variables than specific immutable features to making a good sound. Pretty much the headjoint itself is the only constant. People, their lips, size of their teeth and oral cavity are unique to themselves. Remember to:

  • Bring the flute up to the bottom lip from below to rest where the chin and lip meet. Adjust up a little for a very full bottom lip, adjust down for a thin bottom lip. Avoid the so-called kiss and roll because this puts the flute too high on the bottom lip for everyone. It’s a one size fits all solution that fits no one. The sound will be thin, light and probably sharp.
  • Keep the blow hole open approximately two thirds. This is easier to do if the flute is a little lower on the chin than higher for most people. Having any more of the bottom lip in the blow hole than 1/3 will make a stuffy, dull and flat sound.
  • The corners will take care of themselves, provided your lips are shaped as if to make the “W” sound. Really! Try for yourself.
  • Roll your bottom lip (not the flute!) out a little to go up the octave or raise the pitch. Reach over a little with your top lip to play low notes or lower the pitch.

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.

Midwest Clinic

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If you are coming to the Midwest Clinic later this week, be sure to look me up. I will be around the Jupiter booth and throughout the exhibit hall Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. If you have a question you would like to ask me in person or a suggestion for a topic for me to blog about, you can contact me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. I would love to talk about flute pedagogy with you or just say hello. 

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.

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