Three Essential Skills

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You already know that blowing on a flute has many variables, maybe a bewildering number of variables. In speaking with a flute playing colleague who is also a band director recently, she told me that busy educators are looking for two or three simple steps they can follow to help their students play their instrument easily. So here are three essential things to communicate to your flute students at every stage of their development:

  1. Find the optimum position for the flute on bottom lip. Do this by bringing the flute up from below to about where lip and chin meet. Avoid rolling down from the center. This places the blow hole too high to get a full, characteristic sound. The Legend of Kiss and Roll, Teaching Great Flute Sound, What is Transit Time
  2. IMG_0146Balance the flute in your hands. Turn the headjoint slightly back to align between the key cups and the rods, rather than directly with the key cups. This puts the relatively heavy rods more on top so the flute can rest in your hands. No bracing needed even with all the fingers off the keys (like with C#-Db). It’s All About Balance, Balance and the Right Hand, Balance and the Left Hand
  3. Shape the blowing aperture enough to focus the air stream and experiment with blowing angle. There is a subtle and intricate balance between top and bottom lip that is always adjusting to change registers, dynamics and control pitch, not to mention create different colors. Independence for Lips!, Warm Air, Cold Air

Try these three pointers with your students. Let me know how it works for you.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. 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, workshops and performances, click here.

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Finding the Sweet Spot

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We all know that sports equipment often has a sweet spot. A baseball bat, tennis racket or skis are good examples of sports equipment with a sweet spot. If you make efficient use of the sweet spot, you maximize the response of the equipment. When you hit a baseball or softball with the sweet spot of the bat, the ball travels much farther than if the ball makes contact with another part of the bat. You have more control over the placement, velocity and spin of a tennis ball using the sweet spot of a tennis racket.

The sweet spot of downhill skis are probably most like the blow hole of a flute headjoint than any other sweet spot in sports. Skis for beginner and intermediate skiers generally have a larger sweet spot and therefore are more forgiving of a skier’s technical weaknesses, but you also sacrifice something in terms of finesse and control on the hill with the larger sweet spot. On the other hand, advanced skis have a narrow sweet spot that gives a lot of control in turns and with speed. However, you need to understand how your center of gravity works in tandem with the skis to benefit from the precise response.

Yes, flute headjoints most definitely have a sweet spot. And like skis, beginning flute headjoints are more forgiving of inexperienced players. Professional headjoints tend to require more precise air direction and placement to maximize the response. If your students have windy tone and/or pitch problems, they simply haven’t learned how to direct the air to maximize the response of the headjoint’s sweet spot.

  • We blow down at about a 45 degree angle at the blowing edge, not really across the blow hole at all, as is so commonly believed.
  • Most flute players are directing the air slightly to their right at the blowing edge. Headjoints are cut in such a way to allow for this. The exception to this is someone with a teardrop top lip who plays off to the right of the teardrop, rather than the more common left of the teardrop.
  • How do you know if someone has hit the sweet spot? The sound is focused, full, round, in tune, has depth and resonance.

Every flute player has to discover their own best blowing angle. There really is no One Size Fits All solution, only general guidelines:

  • Rest the inner edge of the blow hole approximately where chin skin and lip skin meet.
  • Allow no more than 1/4 to 1/3 of the blow hole be covered by the bottom lip.
  • Reach over slightly with the top lip to angle the air down at the blowing edge.
  • Shape lips as if to say the letter “W”
  • Blow through the resulting aperture
  • Experiment, experiment, experiment with all of the above until you discover the best combination for you
  • Practice to make it reproducible, so you can do it every time you put the flute on your face

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. 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, workshops and performances, click here.

Troubleshooting Tone and Pitch Issues

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Because there are so many variables involved in flute embouchure, there are an infinite number of problems that students can manifest in their tone quality and intonation. And as instructors it might seem we have to virtually be psychic to deduce the problem and offer solutions to our students. This is because so much is affected by things going on in the body that aren’t obvious from looking at a kid. Over the years I’ve been collecting a laundry list, so to speak, of tone/intonation problems and their solutions. Here are some common ones for beginner to intermediate students.

dsc_0968Problem: Windy, airy tone that is sharp

Solution: The aperture is too large and the blowing angle is too shallow. Blow through a smaller aperture and angle the air down more. You can achieve a steeper blowing angle by putting the flute lower on the bottom lip and reaching over with the top lip more, while maintaining the smaller aperture. The Legend of Kiss and Roll, Independence for Lips!

Problem: Dull tone quality, flat pitch

Solution: There is too much bottom lip covering the blow hole, and the flute is probably too high on the bottom lip. Move the flute lower on the bottom lip and roll out. There shouldn’t be more than 1/3 of the blow hole covered by the bottom lip. Also check alignment of the headjoint and balance of the flute. That alone can cause a student roll in and cover too much of the blow hole. It’s All About Balance

Problem: Strangled or pinched tone, can be flat or sharp depending how high or low the flute is on the bottom lip

Solution: This requires some sleuthing on your part because you have to identify the source of the constriction. There are at least four places I can think of that cause a pinched sound: 1) The lips themselves with a flattened and pinched aperture, 2) clenching the jaw with teeth too close together (common with kids who have braces, especially with rubber bands), 3) the back of the tongue is too high, constricting the airway, and finally, 4) the kid can actually be closing off the throat itself, as in activating the gag reflex. It takes some practice and discernment on your part to tell the difference which of these four constriction points are causing the problem. I can tell you that each one has a distinct quality that identifies it from the others, but it does take carefully listening and practice to recognize each one. Getting the Cart Before the Horse

Problem: Trouble producing third octave notes even with the correct fingerings

Solution: Third octave notes seem scary to kids. To them it seems like the natural thing that in order to control the third octave, they should roll in and pinch. After all, who wants to hear screeching high notes? This is precisely why they are having trouble. The solution, paradoxically, is to open up the blow hole a bit, support the air column more from the body core, and relax the grip of the aperture slightly. The speed of the air column itself will ensure the high note speak with ease. Warm Air, Cold Air

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. 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, workshops and performances, click here.

Flute Go Juice

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dsc_9393We have spent a great deal of virtual ink on this blog exploring flute embouchure, articulation, intonation, technique, dynamics and vibrato. While all of these things are essential to good flute playing, we’re overlooking the elephant in the room, namely blowing. Indeed, if you don’t have good mastery of blowing, you aren’t going to be able to articulate well, play in tune, control dynamics or play with vibrato. All the blah, blah about embouchure is meaningless if you are not moving air through the embouchure into the flute. Technique is worthless without the air behind the fingers.

A few thoughts about blowing as it relates to teaching kids, in no particular order:

  • Beginners – give me a kid with an enthusiastically windy sound any day over a kid that is timidly tweeting little peeps. It is much easier to help the first kid refine their sound and become more precise with how they direct their air than to get that shy kid who is barely making any sound to actually put some air into the instrument.
  • Students who come to the flute from a piano background often have to be cajoled into blowing more. My conjecture about this is that they are used to thinking of the sound being generated by their finger technique. You need to help them understand their fingers make very little sound , but that their go juice on flute is the air stream.
  • Hold off on teaching/expecting dynamics until you are sure the student has sufficient mastery of steady blowing to be able to understand the difference between air speed and air quantity. Getting to this point can take up to a couple years, depending on how much they play in band/practice on their own.
  • Encourage your students to blow freely and refrain from using what my teacher, Tom Nyfenger, called the nay-palm, shushing your young flute players in the front row to hear the brass line behind them. The flutes are not impacting the balance of the ensemble they way you think they are. The reason they sound loud to you is they are sitting right under your baton. This is so incredibly damaging to developing young flute players. The truth is, a flute will never be able to compete in terms of volume of sound with most any other instrument in your ensemble, not a trumpet, a saxophone or even a clarinet. By shushing them and not instructing your flute players how to play more quietly, the kids develop all kinds of negative compensating behaviors such as pinching the aperture, squeezing in the throat, clenching their teeth and just not blowing. The consequence is that the flutes sound terrible and have horrendous intonation problems. These problems are then compounded if you then tell them to roll in or out to fix the pitch. All of these problems with evaporate if you encourage your students to blow in the first place.
  • If your students know how to blow well, learning to play with vibrato, developing lively articulation and meaningful technique is part of a natural progression of acquiring skills. Good blowing and a steady, supported air column facilitate all these skills. You have to have the go juice first.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. 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, workshops and performances, click here.

Building Technique

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There is more to technique than just moving your fingers. In fact, good technique on flute integrates a number skills and types of awareness. This includes:

  • Balance of the flute and hand positions – if the flute isn’t properly balanced, then students develop all kinds of compensating behaviors to keep the flute from rolling back.
  • Blowing – without steady air speed and pressure, the greatest finger technique is not of much use because we won’t hear what is being played.
  • Coordinating fingers and tongue – have you ever heard a student try to play a fast passage while their fingers and tongue are out of phase? Even with decent finger technique, it isn’t very effective to be tonguing behind the ictus of the note.
  • Knowledge of scales and arpeggios in all 12 keys – make it a priority that your students get beyond the keys of F, Bb and Eb. Help them learn to think in sharps for sharp keys and flats for flat keys.

Get your flute students technical exercises just for them, or at least for woodwinds rather than brass. The venerable band technique books are either more focused on brass skills like lip slurs and/or are limited in scope in their technical exercises for flute. There are many excellent technique books specifically for flute that target the developing flute player, including books by Trevor Wye (The Practice Books) and Patricia George and Phyllis Avidan Louke (The Flute Scale Book). There are also great scale and arpeggio exercises in all keys and different patterns and note values (quarter, eighth, sixteenth notes) in the PC/Mac version of Smart Music. In Smart Music, you can assign scale exercises for assessment, set it to loop through the circle of fifths and change articulation patterns.

Tone work is a vital part of technical practice. Please note that brass style lip slurs and Remington exercises may be useful in an ensemble setting, they are not particularly helpful in developing characteristic flute tone. For developing flute tone there is no better exercise than practicing octaves slowly. Students can focus on directing the air properly and pay attention filling the space between the notes with steady air. I recommend waiting until high school to introduce the Moyse long tones. The younger kids usually don’t have the maturity to understand how to explore tone, focus and continuity with the Moyse long tones.

The important thing is to help your students develop good home practice habits that include regular tone and technical work. If kids are practicing 30-40 minutes a day, 10-15 minutes focusing on technique will make a huge difference in their skill set.

If you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. 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, workshops and performances, click here.

Top 10 Posts of 2016 on Dr. Cate’s Flute Tips

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Thank you for reading this blog! There has been a 44% increase in readership over that of 2015 thanks to you. Most of the articles in the top 10 for 2016 are, not surprisingly about different facets of flute embouchure. If you are used to relating to a mouthpiece of some kind, it is no wonder the range of variables that make up a good flute embouchure can be baffling. Perhaps the closest equivalent in instrumental music is with all the variables involved in playing string instruments, with the bow and with the left hand.

Without further ado, here are the top 10 posts of 2016 on Dr. Cate’s Flute Tips:

  1. Teaching your Students to Play with Vibrato
  2. Flute Embouchure and a Teardrop Top Lip
  3. To Roll or Not to Roll: That is the Question
  4. Intonation and Dynamic Control
  5. Helping Your Students Adjust to Playing With Braces
  6. About the Third Octave
  7. Teaching Great Flute Sound
  8. Solutions for Common Third Octave Problems
  9. The Legend of “Kiss and Roll”
  10. Our Lips are our Mouthpiece

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. 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, workshops and performances, click here.dsc_7981

Shaping a Flute Aperture

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It seems to me that understanding how to shape a flute aperture with your lips is likely the biggest mystery for non-flutists who teach beginning flute players. Surprisingly, this is one of the simplest concepts to grasp if you know the trick. The trick is to shape your lips as if you are saying the sound of the letter “W”, as in “what” or “wonderful”. Notice a few things when you do this:

  • Your awareness is focused on the middle of your lips, almost as if you are gripping a drinking straw
  • The corners take care of themselves and seal themselves. No attention needed
  • Your lips naturally form an elliptical opening
  • The perimeter of the resulting aperture is actually rather firm

For yourself and your students, try starting out without a flute headjoint. Put an index finger under your lip and say, “what” or “water” a number of times. Then shorten it and say “waaaa”. Then just shape your lips for the “W” sound and blow through the resulting opening. Voila! Flute aperture 101.The next step is to shape your lips and tongue behind the teeth where gum and teeth meet on the top while blowing through the aperture, “too, too, too……”, keeping a steady air stream. Finally, go through the above process with a flute headjoint on your chin.

dsc_9565Of course there is more to getting a characteristic sound than just shaping the aperture. And there are seemingly more variables than specific immutable features to making a good sound. Pretty much the headjoint itself is the only constant. People, their lips, size of their teeth and oral cavity are unique to themselves. Remember to:

  • Bring the flute up to the bottom lip from below to rest where the chin and lip meet. Adjust up a little for a very full bottom lip, adjust down for a thin bottom lip. Avoid the so-called kiss and roll because this puts the flute too high on the bottom lip for everyone. It’s a one size fits all solution that fits no one. The sound will be thin, light and probably sharp.
  • Keep the blow hole open approximately two thirds. This is easier to do if the flute is a little lower on the chin than higher for most people. Having any more of the bottom lip in the blow hole than 1/3 will make a stuffy, dull and flat sound.
  • The corners will take care of themselves, provided your lips are shaped as if to make the “W” sound. Really! Try for yourself.
  • Roll your bottom lip (not the flute!) out a little to go up the octave or raise the pitch. Reach over a little with your top lip to play low notes or lower the pitch.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. 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, workshops and performances, click here.

Midwest Clinic

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If you are coming to the Midwest Clinic later this week, be sure to look me up. I will be around the Jupiter booth and throughout the exhibit hall Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. If you have a question you would like to ask me in person or a suggestion for a topic for me to blog about, you can contact me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. I would love to talk about flute pedagogy with you or just say hello. 

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. 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, workshops and performances, click here.

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Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

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The number one observation I hear from band directors about teaching flute is, “Flute is my weakest instrument.” This isn’t surprising because the major difference between other winds/brass and the flute is there isn’t a mouthpiece  on the flute. It’s just a hole we relate to. There are seemly an infinite number of variables to learn to define relating to placement on the chin, blowing angle, blowing speed, shape of the lips, use of the lips and facial muscles. If all this is bewildering for you, the band instructor, to conceptualize, how much harder it becomes for you to try to explain flute embouchure to a kid.

So let’s distill flute embouchure down to its basic elements. Come to the flute with an open mind, without preconception, if at all possible. Let go of whatever you know about embouchure on any other instrument, brass or reeds. To make a successful flute embouchure, you have to take it for itself, on its own terms.

  • Bring the flute up to your chin from below. Let the inside edge of the blow hole rest where chin and lip meet. Adjust up for a fuller bottom lip or down for a thinner bottom lip. Experiment to find the place that gives the fullest sound. There simply isn’t a one size fits all solution to this one, just a general guideline.
  • Shape the aperture with the middle of your lips. Imagine how your lips would wrap around a small straw or an oboe reed. It isn’t necessary to think about the corners at all. They will seal themselves. Pay attention to the size and shape of aperture you make with your lips.
  • Direct the air up and down by rolling your bottom lip out a little to go higher, reaching over a little with your top lip to aim the air lower.
  • Maintain the size and shape of the aperture regardless of register or dynamic. How you angle the air as described above determines register and controls pitch. You can control color and dynamics by adjusting the firmness of the edge of the aperture.

Here are a few things you may tell your students about flute embouchure based on your reference as a brass or reed play that don’t work well: Kiss ‘n Roll, Tighter Higher-Looser Lower, Tight Corners, Warm Air/Cold Air, To Roll or Not to Roll. This is why it is so important to take flute for itself rather than trying to relate it to any other embouchure. All of these issues are a result of trying to fabricate a relationship between brass or reed embouchures and a flute embouchure. Remember, Our Lips are our Mouthpiece. The lips of a flutist have to do for us what everyone else’s mouthpieces do for them.

If you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. 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, workshops and performances, click here.

The Sequential Nature of Flute Fingerings

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dsc_7941What is the home scale of the flute? Has this changed as the flute evolved into its modern form? How does this relate to traditional band keys? What effect does learning band keys first on flute have on understanding the sequential nature of flute fingerings?

Historically, the flute has been built with the D major scale being its home key, i.e. starting with all keys closed (minus the foot joint) and lifting one finger at a time in sequential order. With the advent of the modern keyed flute in the mid-1800’s and the addition of the foot joint, you could make a case for the C major scale becoming the home key of the flute today because that is the scale we play by lifting up each finger in direct order from bottom to top on our modern, Boehm system flutes.

I have to say I’m not a big fan of teaching Bb before B natural, despite band pedagogy being so heavily weighted toward flat keys to accommodate the transposing instruments. The main reason for this is I think that teaching Bb first creates an obstacle for kids grasping the idea that the nature of fingering on the flute is sequential, fingers lifting or closing keys in order to go up and down the instrument. And this is despite the fact that I advocate teaching the 1 and 1 Bb before teaching the thumb Bb, as I’ve outlined before. You could teach thumb Bb to maintain the sequential nature of the scale, but then you can cause other problems down the road when it comes to teaching any scale with adjacent Bb and B, regardless of enharmonic spelling (especially the keys of Gb/F# major, B major and chromatic scales). You don’t want kids getting into the habit of sliding their thumb between the B and Bb. That is a really damaging habit to good technique in the long run.

Despite the fact that the major band methods start kids with middle F, Eb and D, I vehemently disagree with this. Good flute tone is based on building from the low octave and up. The middle octave is an overtone, a harmonic of the first octave. You really can’t equate it to what works for brass instruments where you need to start in the middle of the series and work outward. The other problem is that Eb and D are ridiculously hard for beginners. They are some of the longest notes, in terms of length of tube to activate, on the flute.

A better formula for building a successful flute section is to teach B, A, G in the low register. Then add C, being sure to work on balancing the instrument. Then add low F and E. After that, teach E, F and G in the middle octave, relating them to the low E, F and G using octaves. Finally fill in the D, Eb and Bb. By the time the kids get to the D and Eb in the middle register, they have a good grasp of how to move enough air to really activate the tube and playing these notes isn’t nearly as difficult as trying to start from there.

If you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. 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, workshops and performances, click here.