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!
I was working with a student on his upcoming recital and we had a great discussion on listening. So many musicians have a hard time listening to their own recordings; one of the most difficult lessons that a performer must learn is to address our own playing as it really is and not as we want it to be. I would like to suggest this simple technique to help guide the performer through this very important process. That technique is to listen in layers.
The first step is to turn of the performer’s ears and engage the editor’s ears. Think of yourself as a creative writer. When writing a great poem or essay, the first step is to put the ideas on paper, for a performer that is the act of performing. Perform for yourself in your practice space and document the event with a video or audio recorder. Once the performance is concluded, and you go back to listen to your recording, acknowledge that you are no longer the performer, you are now the editor. When you are in the editing phase, listen in layers and use a rubric to guide your critique. I am including a sample rubric, feel free to use or adapt it to your own needs.
Layer One: Time
Am I playing with an accurate sense of pulse? When does my pulse lose integrity and when it does, what is the cause? Am I playing the rhythms on the page accurately? Are there certain rhythmic patterns that I tend to play inaccurately?
Layer Two: Pitch
When am I playing out of tune? Is it on certain notes? Is it at a certain point in the phrase? Is it related to the dynamics or articulations?
Layer Three: Technique
Am I playing the correct notes? When I am not playing the correct note what is the cause? Am I hearing the right notes in my head? Is my hand position and posture helping me maximize my technique?
Layer Four: Breathing
Are my breaths full and relaxed? Am I following my breathing plan?
Layer Five: Phrasing
Have I identified where the phrases are in the music? Am I conveying that to the audience? Are problems with the other layers of music detracting from my concept of phrase?
Layer Six: Dynamics
Am I playing the dynamics on the page and can that be heard on the recording? Is my attempt to play with dynamic contrast causing other layers to go haywire?
Layer Seven: Vibrato
How does my vibrato fit the character of the music? Does it enhance or detract from the music? Is it appropriate to the style and mood of that moment? Does it engage the listener and enhance projection?
Layer Eight: Articulation
Am I playing the correct articulations? Do the articulations match the style and mood of the moment? Is the articulation aiding in tonal clarity, projection and stylistic understanding?
Layer Nine: Tone Quality
Is the tone appropriate to the style and mood of the moment? Does the tone quality remain static or is it varied? Is the core sound pleasing to the ear?
Layer Ten: Style and Interpretation
Does the interpretation show an understanding of stylistic practices specific to the time period, geographical location, and language of the particular composer?
flutist, writer, traveler, teacher