Let’s talk about doubling!

As an undergraduate student there was a time that I was playing bassoon and brass (trumpet and trombone) all in one semester… how do you maintain a solid flute embouchure going back and forth?


General Observations and Thoughts

You may have heard this before, but the flute is very similar to singing. When you break it down – the mouth shape (or vowel), tongue position, resonator or power source (diaphragm; chest; throat; head), etc.

Having knowledge of what you are doing to achieve an ideal sound on not just the flute, but all your other instruments will enable you to switch between them with more ease.

I always found that I learned so much more about my flute playing by playing other instruments. The idea of doing the extreme opposite really reinforced specific flute concepts for me – for example, the low, tall embouchure required to play bassoon compared to the higher jaw and tongue position needed for flute.


Strings, Percussion and Keyboard

Given the non-windness™️ of these instruments there is not really any challenge transition between these two instrument families to the flute.

The benefit of these instruments – in my own experience – has been the visual conception of range and intervals. If we are being honest FLUTE FINGERINGS MAKE VERY LITTLE SENSE… when playing a stringed or fretted instrument or a keyboard the distance between larger intervals is a tangible thing.

Brass

Doubling on another wind instrument can be extremely fatiguing – this is true for woodwinds as well. The brass instruments produce sound in a more direct way than the flute, however, the mouthpieces do provide some resistance that you would not otherwise have when playing flute (especially HORN). The larger brass instruments (trombone, euphonium and tuba) – in my experience – would allow me to be much more flexible with my air.

Another note on fatigue is your lips after buzzing – especially if you don’t have the endurance to sustain it for long periods – will impact the balance between your top and bottom lip when playing flute. It can create tightness or the upwards lift of the corners of your embouchure when playing flute which you will need to actively keep an eye on.

One major pro that I experienced when doubling on brass was the resonance. My air flow was so much more open and connected between low-middle and high as a result of the buzzing. However, you can create the same effect by doing lip trills from singing.

Woodwinds: Single Reed

Out of all of the doubling pairs I found clarinet and saxophone to be the most difficult when trying to go back to flute. I believe this is for several reasons (1) the resistance on the single reed instruments is SIGNIFICANTLY more than the flute and (2) thus requires a different embouchure, tongue position, etc.

I can’t speak for the lower instruments – bass clarinet or bari saxophone – but definitely the Bb Clarinet and Alto/Tenor Saxophones are not so similar to flute… but also not contrasting.

Woodwinds: Double Reed

What is contrasting is bassoon, and even oboe to an extent.

The double reeds are more similar to flute than the single reeds; I find this mainly because both the top and bottom part of the lip are touching the reed are the air is being sent directly into the instrument. Yes, there is more resistance than playing the flute, but less resistance than the single reeds.

For bassoon – as mentioned – the embouchure is almost the exact opposite to the flute which (for some people) can make it easy to transition between the two because it’s such a stark contrast. The register difference also helps with your mind compartmentalizing the instruments.

For oboe, I’ve found pretty much the same in regards to set up. However, I find the roadblock with oboe is more so the technical end. Both the flute and the oboe are high maintenance instruments – the the oboe is EXTRA maintenance, which for me has always been a duality of either flute OR oboe, but trying to care and maintain both requires someone with a lot of money and patience.


Do you have experience doubling? How do you manage transitioning between instruments – let me know in the comments below!

Have you ever thought of why the flute is included in the woodwind family? Of course, there is a history of flutes made partially with wood. The real answer though is much more interesting: the woodwind family is actually classed by the way sound is produced an excerpt from WWBW “the way they produce their sound which is by splitting the player’s air stream on a sharp edge, such as a reed”. When looking at flute specs – especially for younger students – often you are dealing with a cheaper silver – usually nickel. Here is a comprehensive list of both flute specs and flutes for students:

SPECS

There are so many variables with it comes to manufacturing a flute, this is no way a fully complete list (since there are a vast amount of custom variables), I have divided these specs into 6 common
categories:

Choices

New v.

C foot v.

Open holed v.

Inline G key v.

Preowned

B foot

Close holed

Offset G key

Extra Keys/Attachments
  • Gizmo key (foot)
  • Bb side key (body)
  • C# trill (body)
  • Split E (body)
  • C# roller (foot)
  • D# roller (foot)
  • Brossa F# (body)
Materials/Metals
  • Nickel silver – sometimes with silver plating on the exterior
  • Coin silver OR Sterling silver
  • Gold – How many karats?
  • Wood (uncommon)
  • Combination of metals
    • ie. a sterling silver body with gold keys; OR a coin silver body with gold interior wall.
Risers

The riser is part of the embouchure hole and can be any metal (ie. silver, gold).

Wall

Standard v.

Heavy

The wall thickness can impact the color of the tone (and the weight of the instrument).

Also as mentioned, the inner wall of the flute can be made of a different metal than the outer
wall.

Tubing

The thickness of the tube is important because flute players will often upgrade their headjoint
(since it is less expensive than buying a whole flute) and the diameter of the tubing MUST
match the body of the flute.


FLUTES – General Names to be aware of

Beginning Brands (can also be used for outdoor playing/marching band)
  • Yamaha
  • Gemeinhardt
  • Selmer
  • Jupiter
Intermediate Brands
  • Trevor James
  • Yamaha
  • Pearl
  • Jupiter
Conservatory Brands (get through Undergrad)
  • Muramatsu
  • Yamaha
  • Azumi (by Altus)
  • Powell Sonare
  • Amadeus (by Haynes)
  • Di Zhao
  • Miyazawa

More specific – general specs and pricing

Beginner (Grades 4-6)

Close holed

~$300-500

  • Selmer – FL711 Prelude
  • Gemeinhardt – 2SP
Intermediate (Grades 6-12)

Close holed

~$600-1200

  • Pearl – PF 500
  • Yamaha – YFL 222

Open holed

~$800-1700

  • Pearl – PF 505 RBE
  • Yamaha – YFL 262
Conservatory (Grade 10 upwards)

Open holed

~$1800-4500

  • Yamaha – YFL 577(H)
  • Powell Sonare – PS 601
  • Muramatsu – EX
  • Azumi – AZ series (1, 2, or 3)
  • Trevor James – Cantabile OR Virtuoso Voce

What are your favorite student flutes and specs? Let me know in the comments below!

HAPPY NEW YEAR! I thought I would start off with the first post of 2021 being an instrument comparison since this [in a non-pandemic world] is the time region band meets again, at least in NJ. I have found that non-flutists rarely think of the flute and piccolo as different instruments. Of course, the other woodwind instruments have doubles (ie bassoon v. contra, all the saxophones, Bb clarinet v. bass v. alto…why are there so many clarinets). However, I have found in my own experiences that the doubling from flute to piccolo is expected to be this easily transferable skill when for many it is not.

Have some sympathy for your brand new piccolo players, and let’s get into what you need to know to help them transition easier from flute to piccolo:


What’s the same? What’s different?

At a glance, the piccolo may just be a “small flute” in fact some scores DO list the piccolo as such; one example being Grainger’s Shepard’s Hey (not exactly sure on the edition, but when I was handed the part I had a good laugh). This “small flute” label is misleading because the way you get a sound on the piccolo is VERY different than flute, and rather than giving piccolo to your first or second chair you should assess who may be best suited to play piccolo.

YES the fingerings are generally the same. However it is important to note that some flute fingerings DO NOT work (intonation wise, coordination wise) on the piccolo.


Good flute players are NOT always good piccolo players, this applies to both in high school and college. Just because a student is responsible and organized does not mean this is always a good fit for them!


The embouchure is a vital difference between the flute and piccolo. Of course, this needs to be generalized because embouchures vary greatly (even on flute alone) because of the differences of people’s mouth cavities, lips, and physical capabilities/limitations. For this generalization I will be referring to Nancy Toff’s “The Flute Book”:

Nancy Toff “The Flute Book” p. 94-95

YES the body needs to be relaxed, with minimal obstructions that will impact the air stream.

YES both the flute and piccolo should rest on the chin (that space right underneath the bottom lip) rather than ON the bottom lip itself. (Offset embouchures are okay on both instruments, if your primary instrument isn’t flute DON’T meddle too much with this let their flute instructor handle it).

Here’s where the similarities end. The lip formation/apperture as Toff discusses varies just on flute ALONE, add piccolo into the mix and things get confusing (especially for non flutists):

The flute has 3 general registers, each where the lip formation adjusts slightly to accommodate. One GREAT exercise that is rarely used for flute players in public schools is harmonics. While your brass players are doing their fundamentals let the flute players join in. Why? Because discovering the ratio of the top/bottom lips, apperture size, hole coverage is all highlighted when the students can only change the pitch that way (not changing their fingers at all).

The low register (B3/C4-B4): This is the most relaxed, the jaw is slightly lower (more space in the mouth cavity), the bottom lip needs to be wide (touching the lip plate) rather than turned up, to maximize tone quality.

The middle register (C5-B5): A more neutral set up, typically the upper lip is just slightly in front of the lower lip (think of the air hitting the lower lip and going down into the flute), the corners of the lips are still turned down; the space in the mouth is slightly less than before this can be achieved by a neutral jaw or widening the tongue.

The high register (C6-beyond): Rarely would you tell a student to pinch, or squeeze the sound; however things are getting smaller for this top register. The space between the top and bottom lips is the smallest – the lips are still able to let the air pass through, the cheeks are still relaxed, and the corners of the lips are still turned down; the space in the mouth is less which can be done by lifting/widening the tongue which also requires speeding up the air (like blowing out a candle rather than filling up a balloon).

The piccolo is a transposing instrument, it reads the same as flute, but sounds an octave higher. One MAJOR MISCONCEPTION that beginning piccolo players make is taking the embouchure from the middle and high registers on flute and applying it to piccolo. NO NO NO!

Beware, just because the sounding pitch is in that range as flute does not mean the embouchure stays the same. This is precisely why flute to piccolo is this ‘hidden challenge’ in comparison to the other woodwinds because with something actually inside the mouth – reed, mouth piece – the main challenge is size. However switching from flute to piccolo requires a completely NEW embouchure!

Generally, the most common mistakes new piccolo players make is squeezing or forming a too tight embouchure because they are trying to match the mid/higher embouchure from the flute. It is actually the OPPOSITE, maintaining a loose embouchure where the lips can still vibrate, and the cheeks are relaxed is ideal.

Obviously the piccolo is smaller and requires different air than the wider, longer bore of the flute. Also the materials are completely different (especially at the more advanced level).

While flutes are made of metals, piccolos are made of plastic/resin, wood, a combination of these. Piccolo players have to adjust to all of these factors. To summarize:

  • Piccolo size is much shorter and thinner than the flute.
  • Piccolo material varies much more than flute.
  • Piccolo range – transposes up an octave.
  • Piccolo embouchure – despite it’s range the lips and apperture are NOT the same as flute. Stay relaxed, loose on piccolo.
  • Intonation on certain fingerings from flute do NOT work on piccolo.

I have compiled some resources that can be useful for these students transitioning on flute to piccolo:


What are your tips on switching from flute to piccolo? What do you want band directors know before starting new piccolo students? Share you thoughts below!