If you play an instrument where you have the mouthpiece between your lips or in direct contact with both your lips, the idea that you can move bottom and top lips independently of each other will likely sound foreign to you. For flutists, this is how we control most everything: register changes, pitch control, dynamic control, color changes, you name it. Of course all these things can only happen with good control of the air through breath support first. It is the refinement of the sound we control through the ability to move our lips independently.
Which brings us to the question of how firmly the flute should press against the chin. Why is this important? If you press the flute too hard against your chin, you immobilize your bottom lip and jaw. If you immobilize your bottom lip and jaw, you will have a lot of trouble with everything mentioned above: register changes, pitch control, dynamic control, color changes……High notes become hard to produce, pitch will likely be flat, pitch will fluctuate wildly with dynamic changes and just forget about anything except one basic color.
To characterize the distinct roles each lips have, I’d have to say that the job of the top lip is to make sure the air is aimed at the blowing edge and the bottom lip is in charge of changing the direction of the air to control register and dynamics. Another important consideration is that bottom lip also provides a cushion, so to speak, for the air. The air should be moving across the inside, wet part of the lips, especially with the bottom lip.
Here are several ways you can help your students get acquainted with the independent movement of their lips.
- Without the flute, put your bottom lip in front of your top lip and blow up your nose/your bangs.
- Again, without the flute, put your top lip in front of the bottom and blow down your chin.
- Using your finger as a pretend flute under your lip, shape a flute aperture and move your bottom lip back and forth to experiment with flexibility.
- Using a PneumoPro, shape a flute aperture and practice aiming the air at the different pinwheels by moving your bottom lip. Don’t tip the PneumoPro to aim the air. (Put a coin on the end of the pinwheel arm to make sure the student keeps the PneumoPro level. If you do it correctly, the coin will stay in place as you aim at the different pinwheels.)
If you teach your flute students to move their lips independently, you will soon hear a more characteristic and focused tone from them. This is an essential skill for developing a mature tone and well worth practicing at every level of experience. It is why I use the octave exercise as a warm up with students in sectionals and lessons. This gives us the opportunity to examine steadiness of blowing, smoothness of intervals, dynamic control and a whole host of other issues.
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