One of the biggest concerns for all flutists is, without a doubt, creating a beautiful tone. There is a great deal of mystery and wondering, there are long-held arguments between different camps, and all of this has led to a general state of confusion. Students often come to me with a great deal of trepidation and worry about their own tone and ask for advice on how to improve it. I worried a lot when I was a student and did a lot of exploration, and when it comes down to it, there are certain inescapable principles that must govern flute playing...these principles are rooted within the laws of physics and acoustics. Once we learn to navigate within these predetermined and fundamental truths, we begin to work with the instrument instead of struggle against it.
How is Tone Created?
Flute tone is created by blowing on a sharp edge causing the air inside the tube to vibrate due to the build-up of air pressure. The air inside the tube gains air pressure, and the air outside the tube remains at a lower pressure. This difference in air pressure is unstable and the vibrating air has no choice but to escape the tube at the first possible point. The longer the tube, the slower the frequency of vibration, and that is why we put more fingers down for low notes, and fewer for high note (or push in if we are flat and pull out if we are sharp.)
The Importance of Your Air Stream
Without getting lost in a sea of details, we must ensure that we have a good air stream. The creation of tone is governed by two important variables: Speed and Flow. When you are practicing, your goal is to find the optimal combination of air speed and steady air pressure. The air column originates deep inside our body and travels through the flute and into the world to the point that the air pressure equalizes. Air molecules are set into vibration at the point where the air strikes the lip plate, and once that happens the entire column will vibrate - including that which is inside of the lips.
Create a funnel shape inside your mouth. Do this by relaxing the base of the tongue, opening up the teeth, and allowing the soft palate to rise naturally. When you take in a big breath and fill your mouth with air while in this position, the air speed will be forced to increase as it approaches the embouchure. The embouchure is the smallest point of the funnel, so it must be engaged create a fast air stream.
Point the tip of your tongue toward the small opening. The tongue acts as a wick, allowing the air to travel on it from deep inside your body to the outside world. This allows the funnel to stay intact and keeps the back of the tongue from disrupting the airflow.
Allow the base of the tongue to relax and lay flat. The base of the tongue should be in a neutral resting position. This area of the body must remain neutral and allow air to flow from low in the body.
Take in a full breath and send the air through your flute. Notice that this position requires more air, as you have created a larger resonating cavity. Think of this like yoga for the flute, you have just become more flexible and you must now fill up a bigger space with air than previously. Remember to take in a bigger and more relaxed breath to optimize your tone!
flutist, writer, traveler, teacher