What is the dreaded nay palm? Every band flute player is well familiar with the so-called nay palm. That’s when their band director is always asking them to play quieter because they can’t hear the……you name it, trumpets, low brass, clarinets…… By the way, my old teacher, Thomas Nyfenger coined this expression with more than a little irony. Trust me, every flute player has experienced the nay palm at one time or other.
First a bit of reality. There is no way the flute can ever compete in terms of volume of sound with any other instrument in the band. Never. Even if we have a well developed, mature and characteristic sound are we ever going to be able to overpower any other wind instrument? It’s just simple physics.
Secondly, the flute section usually sits right under the conductor. So the person on the podium will hear the flutes first just because the flutes are sitting right under their nose. Is it possible that it’s not really that the flutes are playing so loudly, but that the other instruments are seated further away? You can get a better sense of the balance of volume of the flutes in relation to the rest of the ensemble by getting further away, like in the auditorium. Then I think you will find that the flutes are generally not loud enough and any flute features in the music get lost in the bigger room.
A while back, I was playing with pick up ensemble that supported a local chorus. Most of the time it was an orchestra and we sat in the traditional orchestra configuration. The conductor never once said anything to me about playing “too loudly” through many oratorios and choral works. Just one time did we have a band rather than an orchestra. Now I was sitting directly under the same conductor and I was repeatedly told I was playing too loudly. I have to conclude it was where I was sitting in relation to him rather than how I played. It was the way I play in either case.
For your flute players, the biggest issue with always asking them to play quieter is that they usually develop problematic compensations because they don’t actually know how to play quietly, with a supported sound. Here are some of the most egregious:
- Pinching and squeezing the aperture
- Clenching jaw with teeth too close together
- Barely blowing
- Closing the throat
All of these are guaranteed to cause pitch and tone problems. Compound that with being told to roll in or out to tune and you wind up with a real mess on your hands. And playing is not so fun or rewarding for the students.
How can you help your kids? Here are a few suggestions:
- Make sure your students understand the fundamentals of good sound including size and shape of the aperture and placement on the lower lip
- Experiment with where your flutes sit in relation to the podium to be able to get a better sense of the balance of the ensemble even in the band room
- Encourage your flute players to blow. Just using sufficient air will ensure better pitch.
- Teach your flute players about supporting the air column. When you use your core muscles to drive the air, the air is moving fast enough to play more softly without losing pitch control.
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