Diagnosing the tone problems we hear with our flute students is one of the thorniest issues we face as teachers. And hand in hand with tone problems are intonation problems. If the sound is not good, chances are that the intonation won’t be good either. The fundamental question is to ask is what is the student doing with their playing apparatus (lips, oral cavity, throat, breathing) that is making it sound the way it does. I have explored this question by trying to create the sound the student is making for myself. Doing this have given me a lot of insight into why a student is having the problems they are having because I’m essentially recreating what they are doing. I learned this trick from my teacher, Thomas Nyfenger, who could imitate anyone, good or bad. Let’s examine the each of the areas of the playing apparatus listed above.
Lips – essentially our lips function as our mouthpiece, shaping and directing the air at the blowing edge, assisting in creating sufficient resistance to make a characteristic flute sound. Lips cannot provide support to the air column. Many students squeeze their lips rather than use their supporting muscles.
- If the sound is reedy, thin, sharp or strident, chances are that the student is pulling their corners, stretching the lips laterally and/or flattening the blowing aperture. It is often a combination of all of these.
- If the sound is wooly, flat and unfocused, it means the aperture is too large and the student isn’t gripping the airstream firmly enough.
- If the sound is sweet, clear and small, the student has the flute too high on their bottom lip. This can be caused by being taught the kiss-and-roll when they started.
Oral cavity – while it is necessary for the flute to rest (not press) against the bottom teeth with the lip in between, it is important to relax the jaw and open the oral cavity as much as possible. It functions as a resonating chamber, along with the sinuses, nose, throat and chest (ask the singers). If you’ve explored all the possible lip issues and the tone is still small and tight, experiment with opening the oral cavity more.
Throat – needs to be open, with the base of the tongue relaxed for the most resonant sound. Squeezing the throat or tensing the base of the tongue will muffle the sound. Students will frequently squeeze here rather than engage their supporting muscles. I like the analogy of imagining that I am on the verge of a yawn. The tongue is down and relaxed and the throat is wide open. Throat is merely a conduit for the air column. Keep all the physical structures of the throat out of the way.
Breathing – If everything else is out of the way, then the torso with its abdominal and intercostal muscles are free to support and pressurize the air column. I really like the idea of allowing ourselves to breath naturally, deeply and freely rather than over-analyzing the breathing mechanism. The truth is, kids rarely understand the difference between the quantity of air and the speed of the air. If the air is moving sufficiently fast enough, the sound will be good and it will be in tune, provided that they are playing on a flute with a good scale (note that some of the older brands still have not updated their scale, especially in the beginner level instruments). Sitting up or standing tall with good open posture is critical to being able to use the air effectively.
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