Do you ever feel as if getting your flute section to play in tune is like herding cats? Have you ever told your flute students to roll the flute in or out to adjust the pitch? Me and my flute teaching colleagues are all holding our ears and crying, “Noooooo!” Why the extreme reaction, you might ask? The answer is because rolling in and out to change the pitch is a chewing gum/rubber band solution for the issues of pitch awareness. It really doesn’t address the underlying issues of embouchure formation and pitch awareness. The student might be more in tune for the moment, but they won’t really learn what “in tune” really means and rolling in/out has a really negative impact on tone quality. And the next time they play the same passage, you are back to where you started because it will be just as out of tune as it was before you asked them to roll in or out the first time.
What are the tone problems caused by rolling in and out? If you roll in, you wind up covering the blow hole too much. This will make it flatter, but it also makes the tone dull, small, lifeless and impossible to play with any kind of dynamic range. If you roll out, the pitch will be somewhat sharper, but the tone will be thin, weak, won’t project and makes it impossible to play with any dynamic range.
It is essential to understand that correcting pitch problems means correcting embouchure and placement issues. Embouchure flexibility, dynamic and pitch control are basically one issue. As developing flutists, we all have to learn consistency in where we put the flute on our bottom lip/chin and how we direct the air. The best place to put the flute is where you can get the most resonance from the flute. This is different for each person because of the endless variation in size of lips, teeth and oral cavity. The only way to achieve a good, in tune sound is through experimenting with blowing angle, how much to open or cover the blow hole and teaching students lip independence. When students are not energizing the air column sufficiently (supporting), you see all kinds of compensating behaviors including pulling corners, pinching the aperture, closing the throat, clenching the teeth. All these behaviors cause pitch problems.
Here are some general guidelines for pitch and dynamic control:
- To raise the pitch, push the bottom lip forward to raise the airstream, while making sure the top lip is directing the air at the blowing edge.
- To play more softly and in tune, raise the air stream
- To lower the pitch, reach over with the top lip to direct the air down more
- To play more loudly and stay in tune, blow down more
- Be sure to blow with an energized air column (support) at every dynamic level.
- Stay relaxed in the throat, jaw, cheeks and use a focused air stream through the aperture in the lips.
Try this exercise with your students individually and in sectionals. Use a tuner and maintain the pitch with crescendo and diminuendo using the guidelines above.
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