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.
- 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.
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