You would think that releases are an easy thing on flute. After all, you just stop blowing. It seems simple enough, but as we flute players know, there can be a bit more to it than that. There are two basic kinds of releases — short and long — which obviously depend the on tempo and style of what is being played.
Surprisingly, the short release can be fraught with the potential for picking up some really nasty habits for beginners and less experienced students. This can happen very easily if you don’t give the kids some direction about how to release but just ask for a quick release. I’ve identified two main problem releases among flute students: the tongue stop and the jaw drop. In both cases, the higher the note, the more pronounced the effect; neither attractive nor musical. The tongue stop is created by jamming the tongue into the aperture to stop the air. The jaw drop is created by abruptly opening the jaw, which also stops the flow of air.
The best way to do a short release is indeed to just stop blowing. Tongue stays low in the mouth, maintain the shape of the aperture and position of the jaw. Also, let me say that while using the tongue to release may be correct on other wind instruments, it is not correct on flute in most cases. The only cases in which it might be correct would be in certain advanced jazz/popular contexts, and then only in the hands of an already thoroughly trained flutist. Here is a quick demo of correct and incorrect short releases.
Have you ever noticed that in slower and more lyrical contexts, your students let the pitch drop when doing a slow release? Why is that and what can you tell the kids that will help them do that tapered release without sacrificing pitch? The answer to why the pitch can droop is that as you blow less, the speed of the air column is also diminishing somewhat. To compensate, you need to raise the blowing angle either by pushing out your bottom lip a tiny bit or even raising your head slightly. Personally, I’m not a big fan of raising your head, but for some people, this works well. This skill is the same as being able to change the blowing angle to change register (as discussed in The Very First Notes), though a bit more subtle. Here is an exercise your students can do either on their own or in a class setting to learn how to control the pitch in slow, tapered releases:
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