Many band directors over the years have asked me this. The first time I heard this, the question surprised me. My internal reaction was, “What do my corners have to do with anything?” The first word out of my mouth was, “Nothing.” So why would I have this response? The answer gets to the very heart of how flute embouchure is fundamentally different from embouchures that involve a mouthpiece of some type. Keep in mind that the flute has a headjoint with just a hole to relate to rather than a mouthpiece (see Our Lips Are Our Mouthpiece from several weeks ago.)
The entire point of the flute embouchure is to direct the air at the blowing edge with precision to elicit the vibration of the tube. This directing of the air at the blowing edge creates a phenomenon called the air-reed. The airstream actually oscillates back and forth like a reed on this blowing edge, which generates the sound.
If you engage the corners by using your cheek muscles, it causes a host of problems that affect the quality of flute tone including:
- You limit the ability of your top and bottom lips to move independently of each other, which restricts control of register, dynamic and intonation
- You stretch the lips, which limits the ability to control how the airstream is directed, resulting in too shallow a blowing angle and generally breathy tone.
- You diminish the fleshy cushion of your bottom lip against which the air needs to travel, creating an edgy, thin tone.
Basically, the skills that are an advantage on other wind instruments are an impediment to good tone on flute. So what to do instead?
- Forget about the corners. Let the corners take care of themselves. Focus on shaping the aperture in the middle or close to the middle for off-center embouchures. Cheeks should be relaxed and corners of the mouth soft.
- Pay attention to shaping a small, firm aperture with the middle of the lips, about the same size and shape as the opening in an oboe reed. A good analogy is how our lips grip a straw to drink. When drinking through a straw, you need to have a firm seal around the straw to draw the liquid into your mouth. Flutists are gripping the air stream and directing it at the blowing edge. (I know, this is a tough concept because you can’t see the air stream. You have to imagine this.)
- Maintain flexibility and be able to extend the top lip to direct the air down for low notes or loud dynamics and extend the bottom lip to raise the air stream to change octaves or raise pitch at softer dynamic levels.
If you find these entries helpful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back next week for another flute tip. Your comments and questions are always welcome. Find me on Facebook or email me at email@example.com. For information about clinics and workshops click here.
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Jack Ronald Wise said:
Another one nailed. Good explanation, Cate.
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Rebecca Maxwell said:
My daughter is 12 and just learning the flute in band 7. She is having the toughest time getting the flute to make any noise. She has been told not to pucker her lips but isn’t puckering the shape you describe by sucking on a straw? She can only get a tone when puckering but having to blow really hard. She was also born with a cleft palate and after the repair as a baby her palate is shaped differently then a typical pallete with a lot of bumps and creases. She also has a overbite. Would any of these issues be making. It difficult to make her flute play? She has been trying for about a month with little improvement. Should we keeo trying or switch instruments? Thank you for any advice. Your posts are very interesting. I am glad I stumbled on to them.
Dr. Cate Hummel said:
You ask some really good questions. It is going to be difficult to diagnose and make recommendations for your daughter based on a written description. My guess is that because of her cleft palate repair, your daughter might have less flexibility in her top lip than is typical. This might be the cause of her having trouble shaping an aperture with her lips. Having an overbite shouldn’t be an issue. I have an overbite. In fact, I think an overbite might be an advantage to some degree. If you would like me to evaluate this further, I suggest you contact me so we could set up a lesson via Skype or Facetime. If I can see what is going on, perhaps I can make some recommendations that would help your daughter make a sound. It is also possible that playing a different instrument might be the best choice. I can’t say until I see more. firstname.lastname@example.org
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