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And the unintended consequences

There is no question that developing a wide dynamic palette and intelligent use of vibrato are essential skills for any aspiring flute player. Dynamics and vibrato add dimension and polish to the playing of individuals and within a flute section. However, I advocate waiting a bit before introducing these skills with your youngest players. Why? Because it is so critical for beginning flute players to master good embouchure and blowing skills first. Keep in mind that flutists don’t have a mouthpiece per se. We are relating to a simple hole that sits under our bottom lip. Our lips are our mouthpiece. Lips need to be trained to provide proper resistance, as we have discussed in other entries on this blog. And strong, supported blowing is an issue for any wind instrument beginner. Give your students the opportunity to solidify these skills before you introduce dynamics and vibrato.

When you ask your flute students to play with dynamics before they have mastered the basics of blowing and embouchure, the consequences can be quite dire, even to the point of them quitting altogether. Short of quitting, kids get into all kinds of compensating behaviors in order to do what you are asking of them. The kids resort to various kinds of constriction of the air stream, all of which sound really bad. They include pinching or biting down on the aperture (think about the sound of letting the air out a balloon while stretching the opening of the balloon), clenching of the teeth (also a tight and constrained sound, in extreme cases can lead to TMJ problems), and closing the throat. Once kids form the habit of constricting the air to play more quietly, it is a huge task (and often unsuccessful) to convince them that there is a better way to control their dynamics by controlling the amount of air and the blowing angle. Kids are smart. If it sounds bad and feels bad (which is how any kind of constriction feels), why continue? It is discouraging and frustrating for them. They will find other outlets for their creativity that are more rewarding.

There are similar problems that occur when you try to start kids playing with vibrato too soon. It has been shown that flute vibrato emanates from the epiglottis, the flap of tissue that blocks our wind pipe for us to swallow. It pulses but doesn’t completely close off the wind pipe when we play the flute. Again, it is absolutely essential for a student to develop a strong, steady, supported air column before introducing vibrato. If they don’t, the vibrato will be the most noticeable thing about their tone and it will not be possible to control the speed or amplitude of the pulse. Too heavy a vibrato is definitely worse than playing with a straight but supported air column. Teaching vibrato too soon is also a distraction and discouragement to ever learning steady blowing. Why set kids up for failure and disappointment?

Teach your students to blow and how to develop a flexible, sensitive embouchure first. This can take a year to two years of playing. Then adding in dynamic control and vibrato is a relatively simple job. In fact, there’s a good chance that these skills will just magically appear in your flute players if they are well grounded in the basics of sound production and musical phrasing.

If you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly for more flute tips. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics and workshops click here.