Young flutists that are surrounded non-flutists or are self-taught can develop a wide range of bad habits that take years to unlearn. There are common myths that are just taken as fact by band directors when recruiting or coaching young flute players. In this article, I’ll be clarifying what/if there is any true to these myths as well as sharing resources for more information!
Myth 1: Lip Shape/Size Matters
… NO! The way I have most commonly heard this myth is referred to as the “textbook embouchure” where the lips are fairly even is size (the bottom might be slightly wider) and the embouchure when playing is centered or inline with the nose.
This isn’t the best or the only (obviously) way to produce a good tone on the flute. In fact, people with that “textbook embouchure” may struggle to get a sound out.
In comparison, the lip shape deemed challenging for flute playing is one that is tear drop shaped because of the jut in the top lip, this is also untrue. Accommodations such as forming an “offset embouchure” are common for not just this lip shape, but many others. For more detailed information check out Dr. Cate Hummel’s article.
Anyone who wants to play flute should not be deterred by the shape or ratio of their lips. More factors than just the exterior lips play a role in how easily someone produces a sound on the flute.
Myth 2: Alignment Doesn’t Matter In The Beginning… It Will All Sound The Same
First, Jennifer Cluff has written many articles/FAQ on flute alignment – check these out to answer specific questions.
Alignment is VITAL to setting young flute players up for success,
Balancing the flute properly with the chin, left hand pointer finger, right hand thumb and pinky – helps with the stability of the instrument which creates consistency for students which will improve tone quality and register.
Also, alignment of the flute itself is vital – lining up the center of the embouchure hole with the center of the keys of the body AND the rod of the foot joint with the center of the keys of the body). When the flute is out of alignment, the experienced flutist has to work much harder by contorting to get a focused sound on the flute.
Myth 3: Roll In/Out To Improve Tuning and Tone
NOOOOOOOOOOOO! Below is a representation of how I feel every time I’ve heard that advice during a coaching session before I step in to talk about how meddlesome this is.
For tuning, you should NOT default to adjusting by rolling the flute – this fosters posture and alignment issues. You SHOULD pull/push out the head joint to tune. You can use this saying to remember the direction… “if you have something SHARP in your eye you should PULL it OUT”.
To be clear, this CAN be done, but it SHOULD NOT be the primary or first defense for tuning. Therefore, teaching your band students to do this is unnecessary and causes more trouble than it’s worth.
Jennifer Cluff did an article on this where she states, “Rolling the flute inward only covers the embouchure hole too much with the lower lip and strangles the tone quality, and is not a “cure all” in any way.”
Myth 4: The Flute Embouchure Doesn’t Change For Each Register
FALSE – There are very specific adjustments made to help produce a focused and vibrant tone in each register (typically divided into the low, middle, and high registers). There is an adjustment between the top and bottom lips as well as slight changes inside the mouth (much like singing) that occur with register shifts.
Not once as a flute student did I have an ensemble director that was a flutist (primarily or otherwise). Granted I started playing flute at age 14, but in my hometown’s district even if I had started in beginning band no one was trained in flute… everyone was either a brass specialist or focused on vocal music. Of course, my directors had knowledge about the flute and other woodwind instruments, but I distinctly remember there being a wall – a barrier – with the instruction, when something explained 3, 5, 100 times couldn’t make sense there was this level of frustration on both ends for the director and students.
Here we’ll be looking at factors to consider before starting, Nancy Toff’s “The Flute Book”, free online resources, and common issues.
For band directors, maybe you are trying to learn flute yourself or you have a student that wants to learn flute. Where do you start?
Clearly, not everyone will start in the same place, but some general factors to keep in mind are:
Why do you want to learn?
Before pursuing a teacher or instrument, decide what you want to achieve with flute playing. It can change in the future, but if you are planning to just play for fun that will can save you a lot of money on the instrument and help find a teacher (or colleague) that is on the same track as you.
Commitment – if you are looking to make vast improvements in your flute playing you need to play regularly (especially in the beginning when it may make you lightheaded, feel like you’re not progressing, etc.)
Access to a quality instrument
Your instrument will look different whether or not you are planning to play flute seriously – and budget can play a large role in this
As well as being aware of cost-saving options (such as upgrading just the head joint rather than the entire flute)
Also, knowing where you can get the instrument service is vital to protecting your investment.
Knowledge of the instrument or knowing someone who specialized in that instrument
It’s okay to not know things, but knowing where to look or who to reach out to can prevent developing bad habits in the long run
Like previously mentioned, if you should know what your goals are before finding a teacher. Communication is key.
This book is ESSENTIAL for a band director that wants to connect with their flute section and give them accurate information. This is not a sit down and read type of book (although I did bring this book to jury duty once and made a considerable dent in it…) it is best utilized for a quick pick up, skim over, and then put back until you need it again. Even dog earring or marking frequently used sections can help you consistently give correct information.
Nancy Toff is a is a reputable flute historian based in New York. You can read a summary of her bio here.
If you’re able to do a quick Google search on free flute resources, you’ve likely come across this website at one point. Like the dangers of other free sheet music sites, the parts can be riddled with errors and inaccuracies. If you are just looking for music to play without regard for musical accuracy, this website is still valuable for the wide range of music it provides at beginning through ‘advanced’ levels.
Common Issues and Questions
How to deal with lightheadedness and what does it mean?
One common saying about the flute is that the majority of the air is wasted: not even going inside the head joint. There is some truth to that statement, but framing flute playing in that way only attributes to this issue of feeling lightheaded after only playing a few notes.
The main reason lightheadedness occurs is because the flute apperture is too wide. A common tool to find the target apperture size is buy using those tiny coffee straws (a value teaching tool… which you can find in a dollar store in packs of 300).
How to control dynamics?
Amy Porter has a short masterclass for dynamics in the lower register that you can watch here.
She is working from Moyse’s De La Sonorite.
#1 Experiment – because the inside of our mouths and the way we form our embouchure and apperture are all slightly different there will always be people that dynamics some to naturally and others who spent months trying to understand dynamic control.
Jennifer Cluff has an article on the basics: the main takeaways are that you are not over-blowing OR pushing. If you keep your smooth air and change (1) the vowel, (2) speed of the air – which can be changed by altering the size of the apperture, and (3) which part of the body you are blowing from (think of it relating to singing – head, chest, etc).
How to create vibrato?
Jolene Harju Madewell has a short video with 6 tips on creating vibrato that you can watch here.
Again experimenting is key! In the video linked above, Jolene immediately jumps into pulsing the air; however, I have had students who start to move their lips, face, body in an unnecessary way to achieve the pulsing and this the start of a bad habit. To help these students bridge the concept of smooth air to pulsed air I will have them tongue or go ‘HA’ (a non-tongue attack) to the same speed and pattern that I want to to pulse at.
A lot of vibrato work is imitating other players. At first, working towards metronomic vibrato to avoid the nervous or sporadic, uneven vibrato – start slow and gradually speed up. Only move up as much as you can without tension – once you feel tension that is your body acknowledging you need to take a break, don’t worry about getting your vibrato fast in the beginning.
How to improve intonation?
Emmanuel Pahud has a short masterclass slip on intonation that you can watch here.
First and foremost, look at your head joint. A few VERY IMPORTANT THINGS:
The head joint SHOULD NOT be pushed all the way in…
The head joint should be pulled out about an inch or so from the body (I tell my students measure in comparison to the width of their thumb) pulled out, but wait there’s more…
The angle of the embouchure hole on the head joint should be INLINE with the center of the keys on the body (minus the offset G keys)
Lastly, DO NOT continuously adjust by pulling out or pushing in. And definitely DO NOT move the flute or the head joint forwards and back. Set everything up, balance the flute, and you are the one that must adjust and experiment.
The flute tendencies are unlike the majority of woodwind instruments. The lower register tends flat, the high register tends very sharp, and open notes (like C) will go flat. Being aware of these general tendencies, as well as using to tuner to gauge your own, will help train your ear to achieve good intonation on the flute.
Generally, for sharp pitches there is too much tension. By lowering the tongue in the mouth and creating more space (changing the vowel) and physically relaxing your body, the pitch will be lowered.
And generally, for flat pitches there needs to be more support. By raising the tongue in the mouth, keeping a steady air stream (spinning the air, NOT blowing harder), adjusting the vowel, and checking in with your body. Poor playing posture can affect intonation more than you might expect.
How to focus tone? In different registers?
James Galway has a short masterclass clip on Articulation and Embouchure that you can watch here.
A focused sound on the flute comes from understanding and control of the embouchure – particularly the top and bottom lip – and apperture. Apperture size was previously discussed, generally for the high register the apperture will be much tiny then the apperture in the lower register.
To improve the embouchure to achieve a focuses sound practicing harmonics is invaluable. Patricia George and Phyllis Avidan Louke’s Flute Scale Book and 101-103 series and Trevor Wye’s Omnibus edition had harmonics on p. 6.
Likewise, practicing 5 note scale patterns such as Taffanel and Gaubert 17 Daily Exercises – available on IMSLP – #1 or 2 (which are 5 note patterns in Major and minor keys) can help focus on specific notes. For example, in the middle register Eb tends to be a very unfocused note, with T&G you can practice improving the Eb from several different notes…
How to improve finger coordination?
KEEP YOUR FINGERS CLOSE TO THE KEYS.
Spider fingers… wandering fingers… if you are a band director you’ve probably seen them all. Students whose fingers just fly high above the flute. What you may not realize is that it takes a great effort to get the fingers back down. It is much easier to lift up than to press down.
The only way to achieve this is through vigilant observation: record your hands when playing or practice in front of a mirror. Be honest and don’t let yourself slack.
When I was in high school we had the ‘drum closet’.
The ‘drum closet’ was a blackhole where the percussionists liked to hide, but it was also a house for outdated marching band uniform ruins, the marching percussion equipment, and the district’s unused loaner instruments. The ‘drum closet’ was a treasure trove of unused instruments, but it was ungodly hot. Our band room didn’t have AC, so why would the drum closet get such a luxury?
Brass instruments can fair pretty well under those conditions: being locked away for years on end, in the heat and freezing cold; most likely never properly cleaned by their former musicians. I had the privilege in high school of cleaning this ‘drum closet’ to do instrument inventory… I took home a euphonium one holiday break to practice and cleaning the thing- I’ll spare you the gruesome details of what I found inside, but I will tell you whoever played this instrument (which, by the looks of it, must have been at least a decade prior) did not like to rise out their mouth after lunch.
Woodwinds, in contrast, are high maintenance – they have springs/rods, pads, cork… all things that require annual upkeep lest you want to spent an unthinkable amount of money to either replace the instruments beyond repair or make a sad attempt to salvage a horn that has already phoned it in. I will make the argument that at the student-instrument level the flute is the most high maintenance of the woodwind family (only being rivaled by the oboe and bassoon). Most student-clarinets are made of some blend of plastic material, the cork is used to connect the joints which can withstand a little chipping and not impact the instrument’s ability to produce sound, the felt pads are sturdy enough; which leaves only the spring/rods to be the main thing to breakdown from wear-and-tear. And saxophones are the instrument equivalent to cockroaches and could probably withstand a nuclear explosion.
Things to consider about student-flutes:
The cork in the head joint should NEVER be exposed to water. It impacts tuning and can form mold if not replaced or cared for properly. (And for the love of Sir James Galway, do not let your band students play a flute that is missing a crown… and then replace the crown with the color guard’s electrical tape, I speak from experience it does not work).
They rods and springs are extremely fragile. The mechanism on the body is much more small and thin than on the clarinet and the soft metal of the student flutes can easily get damaged if a student grips too tight; knocks the flute on a chair, stand, etc; or tries to mess around with the screws.
Temperature matters… this applies to the other woodwinds as well. But the metal of the flute – as well as other factors – can make the effects of climate more detrimental to the longevity of the pads.
Speaking of temperature effects, the silver plating on flutes will start pitting if not regularly cleaned and maintained. To my knowledge there is no DIY solution to pitting, once that happens it is either replace the flute or have a magical bag of money drop into your repair account and send the instrument out for service.
Alright, we’re through all the perils of up-keeping a flute so how do you actually protect your precious flutes?
During the school year: It depends on your inventory and how many students are actively in the program.
Some districts have only a few spare instruments that rarely get used unless a kid forgets their instrument while other districts are reliant on loaner instruments because the families would not be able to rent a quality instrument.
If you have instruments that are rarely used, make sure you leave them in a space where the temperature can be regulated. Maybe that’s in the back of your office or in the back of the classroom, every school is different. You want to avoid leaving them in an area that fluctuates extreme temperatures or is exposed to extreme temperatures.
Try to rotate instruments. Make sure you’re not letting instruments sit unused. If your program is small, consider having a bright, motivated student become a doubler – that way the instrument is still being used.
If you are in a district that is reliant on school instruments, have a cleaning contract that makes the students aware of how to properly clean the flute. See the next bullet.
During the school year: Cleaning and maintaining instruments when in use.
A cleaning contract for students who are loaning out instruments can be a massive help to saving money in the repair budget. Be proactive, don’t let it sneak up on you! So what should go on a cleaning contract?
When summer break hits: Immediately do instrument inventory and assessment
Don’t let those instruments just sit there in your hot band room or storage closet to fester. As students are bring instruments back to you after graduation ceremonies or after the final concert, use those final days of school to take stock and see what the status of instruments is.
What needs to be sent off for repairs urgently? What can wait?
Find out who is taking instruments home over the summer or for marching band, and do a quick check in on the instrument. (Trade in is necessary!)
Be realistic (not always equal to optimistic), if you have an instrument on its last legs think about the frustration it will cause you next school year. Yes it looks like a flute, but does it sound like one? Especially in the hands of an intermediate student.
Summer break: Alternative storage solutions
In a perfect world, there would be reliable temperature control in public schools at the band director’s disposal. While you may be able to store your percussion and brass equipment in these conditions, communicate with your school and B.O.E. to consider your options for more fragile instruments.
Is there a room in the school (or another school in the district) that will have regulated temperature? Is this room secure or does it get a lot of visitors and foot traffic?
Could the instruments be stored in the school office or in the B.O.E. building for a short period?
As a last resort: Is there an option to take the instruments home?
What kind of solutions have you been using to storage instruments? Share your success or horror stories in the comments!