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.

A Flexible Embouchure

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Having strength and flexibility in the lips are the most necessary requirements for a good flute embouchure. If you have these, you can generate the necessary resistance to make a strong, characteristic tone. You can shape and direct the air to change register, correct pitch, and shade and color the tone.

In most cases, a having a tear drop top lip will not prevent a student from developing a directed air stream. It’s just a matter of helping the student to learn to shape the aperture to one side or the other of the tear drop, though to the left (toward the crown) is generally more desirable. I have known students who have done either way successfully. However, occasionally there are sometimes cases with the shape or flexibility of the lips where it might be better to steer a student away from the flute because there is some physical limitation. Here’s an example from a parent’s comment left on the post “What do you do with your corners?“.

My daughter is 12 and just learning the flute in band 7. She is having the toughest time getting the flute to make any noise. She has been told not to pucker her lips but isn’t puckering the shape you describe by sucking on a straw? She can only get a tone when puckering but having to blow really hard. She was also born with a cleft palate and after the repair as a baby her palate is shaped differently then a typical palate with a lot of bumps and creases. She also has a overbite. Would any of these issues be making it difficult to make her flute play? She has been trying for about a month with little improvement. Should we keep trying or switch instruments?

And here is my response:

You ask some really good questions. It is going to be difficult to diagnose and make recommendations for your daughter based on a written description. My guess is that because of her cleft palate repair, your daughter might have less flexibility in her top lip than is typical. This might be the cause of her having trouble shaping an aperture with her lips. Having an overbite shouldn’t be an issue. I have an overbite. In fact, I think an overbite might be an advantage to some degree.

It’s hard to say for sure what is going on for this child, though, as I said in my reply, my best guess is that the cleft palate repair has left the girl with less than normal flexibility in her top lip. In this case, it might be a better choice to steer her toward another instrument, even a non-wind instrument. Having said that though, you will occasionally encounter a kid that is so determined to play flute, they will work at developing an embouchure with breathtaking perseverance despite what seems like an insurmountable physical obstacle. In that case I say let them work at it (with proper guidance) and decide for themselves whether they want to persist until they succeed or decide try another instrument.

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.

Teaching High Note Fingerings

How soon do you introduce your flute students to notes in the third octave? If you are using the standard band methods, probably not until the second year, at the earliest. Personally, I think this is a mistake that impacts the students for a long time. When you wait so long to introduce anything higher than C or Db above the staff, the students often wind up equating the third octave with being extremely difficult or even impossible. Another problem I encounter fairly often with young students coming from a band program is that they are trying to play in the third octave with regular first and second octave fingerings, essentially harmonic fingerings (which are more difficult to produce than the real fingerings).

By the time a student can play from low E or F to the C or Db above the staff, they are certainly ready to start learning the third octave fingerings. I introduce them one at a time using the old tried and true Octaves. That way I can show the students how the third octave fingerings are related to the lower and middle octave, as well as how they differ. Here are a couple examples:

  •  D above the staff T023|000Eb compared to middle D T023|123. They left hand is identical in both octaves and the right hand switches from 123 in the middle to 000Eb above the staff
  • Eb above the staff T1234|1234Eb, all your fingers on all the keys vs. middle Eb T023|123E with left first finger and little finger off the keys

It is possible to relate all the third octave fingerings to the fundamental fingerings from the first two octaves, though at the top of the third octave the fingering become more about harmonic fingerings of the note a 5th lower rather than a fundamental fingering (eg. the highest C is essentially a modified F fingering).

Once your flute students have some high register fingerings in hand, it’s important to get them to use the fingerings in the context of music they are playing. This means in band literature, technique class material, solo and ensemble literature and in exercises. Here’s an exercise I made up for practicing adjacent third octave notes in pairs and in groups of three. Feel free to tailor this exercise to the notes your students are learning in as many key signatures as possible. A little of this goes a long way. img_0461

The granddaddy of third octave technical exercises is Top Register Studies for Flute by Thomas Filas. Though not for beginners, these can be used with advanced intermediate and high school students. They are short, melodic, in every key and really help students get comfortable navigating the third octave. This book would be a great tool for a high school technique class.

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.

Some Ideas for Teaching Legato

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One of the most important exercises in my teaching toolbox is playing octaves through as much of the range of the flute as the student knows. As soon as we broach the topic of low and high notes using the same fingering, I introduce the octave exercise, usually within the first month of starting to play. We expand it as the student learns more notes. We start out by tonguing all the notes, but then progress to slurring up and down when the students gain enough breath control to blow continuously through three notes.

I also model the exercise out with them by playing each octave first and having the student play it back to me. What’s great about doing it this way, is the student learns to blow through intervals almost unconsciously. It just becomes how they naturally play. You can play octaves in a group or one-on-one.

img_0764If students start doing octaves early on in their development, it isn’t necessary to spend a lot of additional time helping them transition to playing in a more legato style. As they mature, the types of exercises change, but they are already well poised to understand that the air moves between the notes and not just on them. By the time kids are in high school, they are ready for Moyse style long tones because they are already in the habit of listening to and evaluating their tone. By playing half steps slowly, it is possible to really focus in on the connection between the notes, as well as issues of the blowing angle, quality and focus of the tone, size and shape of the blowing aperture, along with the smoothness of the fingering combinations.

There is a long precedent for adapting a melody that inspires you in order to work on expression, blowing through intervals, tuning, tone color and other facets of interpretation. The 20th century flutist, Marcel Moyse, wrote an entire compilation of his favorite melodies (Tone Development Through Interpretation) from opera arias, flute repertoire, string and piano repertoire to explore all aspects of his playing. He used these melodies in his woodwind seminars with not only flutists, but every other wind instrument. You can use popular melodies as you find in the play-along anthologies available from popular movies and artists. Examples of good contemporary melodies to practice blowing through the line and through intervals include the Titanic love theme, Hedwig’s theme from Harry Potter, Over the Rainbow, Let it Go from Frozen, Princess Leia’s theme from Star Wars. Any melody that has long lines, sweeping intervals and has an strong emotional appeal makes a good choice for working on legato blowing. 

To make a legato exercise from a melody, take one or two phrases. Play it in the written key. Then modulate either up or down a half step and play the phrase again in the new key. Modulate again in the same direction and play it in that key, and so on. The response of the instrument changes as you move through the different keys. The student learns to be consistent in their blowing and legato regardless of the key or interval. It’s important to keep the phrase short in order to have an easy basis for comparison from one key to the next. Once you have created an expression exercise on one melody that speaks to you, it is easy to find other tunes that can likewise be adapted in the same way.

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

Tuning Tendencies of the Flute

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Only this week I came across a chart on a high school band website listing notes on the flute that have tuning problems with recommended fingerings for correcting pitch. It is taken from a Guide to the Understanding and Correction of Intonation Problems, Al Fabrizio, Meredith Music Publications, 1994. In looking through the chart, I realized that the advice it was giving was based on the old scale flutes that were available back in the early and mid-1990s. The scale of instruments has changed since that time. A LOT.

When the modern flute was invented, the schematic of the placement of tone holes was based on a lower pitch than we play at today. “Normal” pitch in the mid-1800’s, according to Theobold Boehm, was A=435. Therefore, the schematic he created for the flute was for an instrument that played in tune at A=435. Over the rest of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, pitch has climbed to A=440 and even A=442 or in extreme cases A=444. For a really long time, the solution for getting a flute up to pitch was to make a shorter headjoint, by several millimeters over what would play in tune at A=435. The consequence of this practice was that the low register of the flute would be flat and the third octave would be sharp. The open C# would be hair-raisingly sharp. In order to have a hope of playing these flutes with short headjoints in tune,  all kinds of compensating fingerings were created to correct the pitch. This included things like adding right hand fingers to lower the pitch of the C# and half-holing right hand keys. Student flutes with this older scale were widely available until fairly recently. Think old mainline American student brands, especially Armstrong, Gemeinhardt, Bundy, Artley, etc.

Fortunately, there has been a revolution in flute making brewing from the mid-20th century started by flute makers and players including Albert Cooper, Eldred Spell, Trevor Wye, William Bennett and even James Galway to bring the schematic of the flute up to modern pitch. Most every flute made today, by every reputable manufacturer, at every price point, has a scale that has its basis in the work of these pioneering flute makers and players. Many of the old compensating fingerings are unnecessary and even undesirable with a modern scale. The first and second octaves are now in tune, and only minor adjustments are needed in the third octave.

The C# is still an issue, but not because it isn’t in tune. It is more because it is the shortest tube and therefore the most bendable pitch. It also reveals the player’s expertise in focusing and directing the air correctly. If the C# sounds high, it means that the blowing angle is too shallow. It is absolutely true that if you can fix the pitch and tone quality of the C#, you will vastly improve the tone and intonation on the rest of the flute. More on tone, tuning and C# in another post.

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