In this post we’ll be looking at exercises that can be used for the individual flute student – particularly useful during remote/hybrid instruction. The levels of student have been split into 3 sub sections; since this is directed towards students enrolled in traditional band programs there is a standard of Western musical literacy that is expected:

  • Beginning: Minimal musical literacy and/or minimal or developing flute sound production and technique.
  • Intermediate: Basic musical literacy (limited range, clefs, note names, etc) and/or developing flute tone, musicianship, and technique.
  • Advanced: Established musical literacy (full range, all basic music reading, articulations, dynamics, etc.) and/or developing flute tone, vibrato, musicianship, technique, etc.

These are just generalized levels – not necessary for students in a specific grade level; supplementing materials for material to be more age appropriate such as having a beginning high school student may be necessary…


Beginning

  • Drone – Matching just ONE pitch. Whether that be a B (Bb) A or G.

There are apps (ie. Tonal energy), physical drone/tuners (ie. KORG), or downloads that keep it interesting.. that students can use to match pitch.

Provide directed questions to optimize student achievement: Is that note higher or lower than the drone? [Reset] Play your note in 3 different spots in your room/house, which would sounded the best?

  • Listening/Rhythm – Depending on the level of musical literacy of the student there may be more set up on your end for them to be successful.

Either create or find rhythm cells [isolated patterns] for whichever level the student is at; one example is this Talking Rhythm: Counting 101. If the student is developing musical literacy you could provide them with a sample of the rhythm to read alongside the recording.

If the student is young or struggling to grasp certain patterns; varying instruction such as providing words for rhythms/telling stories with a set of familiar rhythms; or making a game out of rhythm call and response could successful.

  • Air/Breathing – Air direction is just as important as breathing well, especially for beginners.

A very “Suzuki Flute” concept is spitting rice this is invaluable because it achieves many skills: routine, tongue position, air direction, and air volume/force. Likewise it requires less explaining and more letting the student figure out how to do, definitely worth looking into for long term success.

A simple game you could have beginning flute student’s do is have them figure out “how old they are in flute years”. This can be done on the head joint or on any one pitch; basically, the student will time (either count or have someone count for them) how long they can hold a pitch and see if they can match/exceed their current age.


Intermediate

  • Drone – Depending on the student you could have them match anywhere from a Perfect 5th or a full octave (you could also break this up into several weeks on the first tetrachord and second tetrachord).

You can use the same directed questions from the Beginner drone warmup. You could also ask which notes against the drone sounded better/worse; if any of the intervals reminded them of songs they know. Try to engage them in active listening, extending to connecting music they know to the music they play.

  • Listening – Building student’s ear training you can provide them short excerpts (2-4 measures) to learn by ear.

There are books (ie. Funky Flute series) that include CDs that has a limited range that would be suitable for chunking, combined with range and simple rhythms for beginning-intermediate students. [Optionally, you could record a short excerpt on a keyboard for all instrument groups to work on by ear].

  • Rhythm/Musical Literacy – Both without and with the flute – it’s important for the students to be able to reproduce the rhythms/read away from the instrument so they can have an easier time transferring knowledge that is most likely very foreign to them.

Building upon common rhythm patterns; adding in rests would be the next step. Again recording rhythm cells/using words to represent rhythms/movements to go along with rhythms students can engage with music in a multiple ways.

  • Air/Breathing – Reviewing and maintaining solid breathing is the foundation to air support and developing a good tone.

You can continue to build on the beginning flute warmups such as the “How Old Are You In Flute Years?”. While also encouraging a more refined, focused tone. Listening should be incorporated in tone production – by presenting the students with a clear model to emulate they are less likely to get that airy/wide sound.

For fast passages – or passages that require a lot of articulation – your first spot to check may be the fingers. HOWEVER having the students turn their head joint upside down (still in playing position) so that the student’s air gets caught in the lip plate and creates a snake/hissing sound; when students are having issues with their air they can actually HEAR the difference between achieving or not achieving the hissing sound.


Advanced

  • Drone – Expanding the intermediate warmup, you can have the students practice scales or pieces with a drone of the tonic.

The important thing is active engagement/listening. Having the students close their eyes – taking away one of their senses to focus on listening – can be useful early on as a way to get student feedback. The students can play a scale against the drone and have them only move to the next note after getting the one before it in tune with the drone.

Advanced students can also work on vibrato width against a drone. John Wion‘s website is fantastic because it has examples of famous flute player’s vibrato in notable works at tempo as well as slowed down.

  • Listening – Some advanced students will continue to struggle with ear training so keeping them on the chunked excerpts from intermediate warmups is not doing a disservice to them.

However, for students with a more keen ear you can provide extensions for them with either longer excerpts – even better if it’s a piece they have interest in learning on their own. You can have them compile a list of performers/recordings to reference and work on learning the piece by ear.

  • Rhythm/Musical Literacy – Again, it is still important to build this skill with and without the flute.

More advanced students can develop their literacy in music theory. Reviewing the Circle of Fifths and looking at chords and their functions.

The rhythm cells can still be useful for advanced students for reviewing learned rhythms as well as learning more complex ones as well as polyrhythms.

  • Air/Breathing – Reviewing and maintaining solid breathing is the foundation to air support and developing a good tone.

You can continue that fast and/or articulated passage practice strategy with the flipped head joint.

Also, at this point the students will be developing their independence in self assessment/student direction so standard flute tone exercises such as the famous Marcel Moyse long tone exercise from De La Sonorite can be used routinely.


What type of warmups have you been utilizing with your flute students? Do you use any of these? Anything I missed? Let me know in the comments!

This fall I completed the first book in the Suzuki flute method, as a classically trained flutist I had some tools in my belt prior to taking this course. After taking the course, I recognized some of the limitations in engaging young students, such as the younger siblings (anywhere from 3+) of students in beginning band (generally ages 9-10) . In this post I will be sharing a combination of methods that can be used to support new flute students of any age.


Spitting Rice

Starting with a Suzuki method technique…

This is a relatively inexpensive tool since one bag of rice can go a long way. The largest benefit of this method is that the student is directing the instruction: you don’t need to lecture them or walk them through the hows and whys. Simply modeling and having them copy you is enough to get them started.

Furthermore, this tool can be build on for the students as the advance: making a game out of spitting rice at a target/picture will inadvertently teach the students how to direct their air without a long explanation. Plus, the students get to navigate what works for them with minimal exposition from the teacher,

Mimicking Sounds (“mm” “pah” “poo”)

Sounds that engage the lips particularly using fricatives which are a hard constant sound (for example, a common choir warmup is singing with a “ffffff” or “zzzz” or “vvvvvv” sound).

You can find a variety of online content that reference about their preferred sounds; some work better depending on the individual – generally the “mmm” like M&M, “pah” with an emphasis on the pop ‘h’ at the end of the sound, and “poo” with an emphasis on the ‘ew’ ending sound are successful for forming the flute embouchure shape.

Breathing; Organizing Air

For early wind students learning how to organize and control their air is most likely a completely new concept. Isolating this skill before introducing the instrument can help avoid headaches and bad habits later on when the students have to worry about assembling and holding their instrument, forming the embouchure, and having enough air to play.

The system used for teaching breathing really depend on the student’s level – regardless of age. Some students are ready for an exposition on understanding inhaling and exhaling, while other students would just rather observe and copy, another group work better in a natural, less pressured environment, etc.

The most important take away is that you isolate the skill of breathing before adding the flute; and then you can play games to build on that foundation.

For young students using bubble wands or balloons, to see how long they can exhale, what they notice about needed to in take more air, and how that results in forming a bigger a bubble or balloon.

Visual Tools

Not all students have the same learning style, some students benefit from seeing what they need to do and building on that some of these students prefer to teach themselves.

Two tools you can provide these students to enable their learning style are coffee straws and a mirror. The coffee straw can be placed between the top/bottom lip, no more than 1 centimeter in the mouth, at a diagonal where the higher point is pointed towards the roof of the mouth. This tool allows the students to see how large the aperture (or the shape between the top and bottom lip) should be. The mirror allows for self-assessment, with or without a coffee straw, the student can see their own lips and observe what they are doing with guided questions to help them notice what to look for.

Eliminating Variables/Distractions

Rarely would you teach a young student to do several things at once. As a general rule, you would want to establish small foundational steps that you continue to build on as they develop. While it is important to hold students to a high standard, allowing them the space to succeed with realistic goals and expectations is paramount.

When introducing the producing first sounds on head joint (after successfully forming the embouchure and exploring air organization), bringing the head joint to the student and asking them to just focus on breathing and forming the sound/articulation will provide the least distractions and eliminate any potential bad habits. By bringing the head joint to the student, they don’t need to adjust their body, move their head, etc – remind the student to let the flute come to them. Early on this could be a game in group lessons where the students “deliver” the flute to another student.


What do you do for getting the first sound on the flute? Have you seen any Suzuki flute teaching incorporated into the classroom before?

The flute is not the most ergonomic instrument. It’s played horizontally; where the instrument is mainly on the right side of the body. There is a lot of fine motor skill required for advanced flute playing which can lead to significant injury if done without they key element of balance. Not just of the flute – but taking regular breaks, stretching, etc. to maintain stamina and wellness.

Here I’ll be sharing some tips and resources I’ve worked with on the everlasting journey of maintaining health while playing the flute.


Breaks!

Taking 5-10 minute breaking during practice sessions is so important. No matter how long you plan to practice for: IF YOU FEEL STRAIN/FATIGUED… STOP, TAKE A BREAK!

One of the hardest things for me to accept as an undergraduate student was taking multiple breaks during practice sessions because I felt like I could better spend that time practicing – pushing through the strain – because my schedule was so hectic that I knew I wouldn’t be able to make up for lost time.

Now, I know that’s completely pointless. Pushing yourself is one thing, but when your hands are numb, tingling, or extremely sore you shouldn’t “push” yourself. And if the problem is consistent start tracking when (if a particular exercise/pattern triggers pain) and what (level of pain and where is it located).

TLDR; 5-10 minute breaks during practice sessions, especially when you become fatigued is #1!

Change your warm ups

Variety is good – coming up with creative exercises and ways to practice the same material is not only beneficial to your physical health, but it will also keep you engaged and active in the warm up process.

For example, if you were to warmup with Taffanel and Gaubert #1 (Major scale, spanning scale degrees 1-5) every single day at the same time: You do your TG #1, long tones, articulation, and etude in that order all day every day (or most days…). That can lead to issues down the line.

While, yes, you are building muscle memory. You are also only using the same muscles and can cause strain from the repetitive motion. How can you prevent this?

  1. Change the order of your warm up – or intersperse your warmup with short/easy pieces on occasion (like the Moyse 24 Petite Exercises)
  2. Section/chunk larger exercises and spread throughout the week – with TG #1, for example, practice the lower register one day, middle register the next, and high register the day after that. Then loop back to the lower register.
  3. Find different exercises that focus on the same area. Again, looking at TG #1, you could do Paula Robison’s the Singer’s Warmup.

Breathing/Relaxation

Being aware of any tension while playing is worth noting.

Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I developed (or became aware of) my cubital tunnel and carpal tendonitis. It started with soreness any time I played for more than 10 minutes. During that time I was under a lot of stress – student teaching, recording for graduate pre-screenings, making travel arrangements, etc. I had to take a break from playing (more so than if I had done preventative care) to go to a rheumatologist (aka a hand specialist) who referred me for occupational therapy after the 2 diagnoses. I’ll come back to that in the next section.

Preventative care is #1, it is ongoing, so being aware of your body’s needs is so vital. Taking time during those 5-10 minute breaks to breathe or just decompress.

Many of the wellness/tracking watches have a breathing reminder. Or there are apps to follow along with breathing exercises. You can even just watch a short video on your phone and breath/decompress while watching that.

The Paula Robison Flute Warmups Book even starts with several breathing/stretching exercises to do.

Stretches

Stretching is necessary for any physical activity so playing an instrument shouldn’t be exempt from that.

Everyone will have a different area of fatigue that they will want to focus on maintaining. For me – back to the experience I had in occupational therapy with cubital tunnel and tendonitis – the strain was coming from the larger muscles in my shoulders (the serratus anterior) and causing issues in the small muscles up my forearm and in my hands (particularly numbing the pinky).

I did a full blog post on my OT experience right after I finished my therapy – it’s still an ongoing process and I still use many of those exercises to this day – check the link out if you’d like to see that full process (getting referrals, what occupational therapy entailed, and what modifications I needed).

If you are unsure if you need occupational therapy, you should consult your primary care doctor/family medicine doctor – even if they aren’t specialized in music medicine – the repetitive movements of flute playing can cause physical injury that shouldn’t be minimized.

Some of the stretches I do my own areas of fatigue include: tendon glides (obviously for the tendons – focusing on my forearms), cup stretches (for the upper traps in my shoulders), hip and back floor stretches for hyperextension, and wall exercises (in which I face a wall with my elbows flat against the wall – to focus on the serratus anterior or ‘wings’ area in my shoulder/back area).

Definitely seek out a referral for physical or occupational therapy if you believe you are suffering from injury (repetitive fatigue or strain while playing) to learn your own personalized stretches and modifications.

Other Ideas

Breathing Gym

Video

Alexander Technique


Do you have any wellness recommendations that I didn’t include here? How do you balance your physical and mental health especially during COVID? Share your ideas in the comments below.