There have been many times flute students have come to me with a woolly, unfocused tone in the low register and a tight, pinched sound in the third octave. They report that they can’t play high notes easily and they don’t like playing low notes because they can’t play very loud or control the tone quality. It is clear the kids are lacking the information they need to acquire the skills to make an full, even and characteristic tone. On further questioning I discover that the kids have been told in school that they should use a looser embouchure on the low notes and gradually tighten the embouchure as they go higher. And then I discover that their band director is a brass player.
By no stretch of the imagination would I claim to be expert on brass embouchures, either high or low. It is my understanding that tighter higher, looser lower is pretty much how it works, as well as a lot of attention on what one does with the corners of the mouth, especially for high brass. However, when it comes to a flute embouchure we can safely say this just doesn’t work. The other major issue is that our lips, as flute players, have to function as our mouthpiece.
I’m not a fan of the so-called “warm air – low, cold air – high” analogy either because I don’t think it is particularly helpful. Warm air low implies a more open, relaxed aperture in the low register and encourages pinching in the third octave.
What can you share with your students to help them develop a mature and characteristic tone?
- The size of the aperture stays the same from octave to octave. The aperture should be about the same size and shape as the opening in an oboe reed.
- Changing the direction of the air is what is needed to change octaves. Top and bottom lips move independently of each other to change the direction of the air. Reach forward more with the top lip to blow down, push the bottom lip forward to aim higher.
- If anything, one needs a firmer aperture (so one has some resistance) to play with a strong sound in the low register and a more relaxed aperture (provided there is sufficient air speed) in the third octave.
- Remember, it’s not about the corners. It is about how one shapes the aperture and moves the air.
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