In the previous two posts I wrote about the common problem of over covering the embouchure hole that detracts from producing a great sound. The correlation of the right hand thumb position on the flute and the coverage of the embouchure hole is often overlooked by flautists.
I encourage the three point balance to hold the flute; under the bottom lip, between the second and third knuckle on the left hand pointer finger and the right hand thumb. (Have a look at my article Flashy Fingers under Articles on this site for a more detailed explanation of this) The job of the right hand thumb is to move the flute in a forward, slightly upwards position producing a gentle counter-resistance against the left hand. Instead, many players place the right hand thumb under the flute and use it to lift the instrument. The problem with doing this is apart from jamming up your fingers (see the afore mentioned article) it causes the flute to roll inwards and hence causes over covering of the embouchure hole. You then end up with all the sound problems discussed in the previous post. So try to remember that your hand positions are not only related to your figure technique but can also have a big impact on your tone quality.
Following up on my previous post, the first reason that can cause flautists to cover too much of the embouchure hole is compensating for a lack of air. Instead of focussing on a good consistent airstream that is pliable and appropriate for what is being played, the flautist rolls the flute inwards, overworking the lips, attempting to produce a better sound. The higher up the flute they play the more the flute gets rolled in and the tighter the lips become. This produces a thin tone lacking projection as it reduces the harmonics present in the sound. Intonation becomes very unstable and has a tendency to become very sharp as you ascend through the registers. Additionally an over covered embouchure hole limits the dynamics that are possible; especially at the forte end of the range. So the thing I often tell my students is more air, less face.
When you listen to a flute player what is the one that you want to hear the most? For me it is a great sound. Yes, lots of fast notes are fun but it is the tone quality that makes the biggest impression on me.
One of the biggest detractors from producing a stunning sound is over covering of the embouchure hole. Many flautists allow the flute to roll too far inwards and cover too much of the embouchure hole which in turn produces a small sound lacking in projection. I’ve noticed in my teaching there are two main reasons why players over cover the sound hole. In the following two posts I’ll be looking at each of these problems.
Sometimes when talking about articulation it’s easy to get caught up with what the tongue is doing and to forget something quite fundamental about playing.
The tongue produces no sound on the flute. So irrespective of what your tongue is is up to, in order to produce a good flute sound you have to have good air.
Remember my motto ‘Air is Sound’ or ‘Sound is Air’. So whatever you are focussing on with your tongue don’t forget to blow!
Just following up on my last blog regarding basic articulation. I talked about beginning each note with the syllable ‘too’ or ‘tee’. I think it’s very important to remember that once you have articulated a note, the tongue remains relaxed and down in the mouth until the very moment you are going to re-articulate.
‘too’ rather than ‘toot’
- When you pronounce ‘too’ notice that you tongue remains down in the mouth once you have finished the syllable.
- When you say ‘toot’ notice that your tongue finishes back up on the alveolar ridge.
It is preferable to use ‘too’ rather than ‘toot’ as leaving the tongue down in the mouth between notes promotes a more continuous airflow which in turn produces more legato playing. The same goes for ‘tee‘ as opposed to ‘teet‘
Apart from chopping up the air unattractively, the ‘toot’ syllable also produces that audible ‘back flapping’ sound of the tongue at the end of notes which for me is not an appealing part of the flute sound.
The first articulation that I prefer to teach and I believe works well as a default basic tonguing is to articulate from behind the top teeth. Lately I have read some articles promoting tonguing between the lips as the first articulation to teach. This is certainly a valid and useful articulation but I find for younger players it creates a definite halt in the airflow and doesn’t encourage legato playing from the outset. With younger players it’s important to emphasis a consistent airflow in order to create lovely legato playing.
There are a few approaches in teaching tonguing from behind the top teeth. For many students just saying the syllable ‘too’ or ‘tee’ is enough to establish good placement of the tongue. This depends somewhat on their mother tongue as some languages tend to be more forward in the mouth and clearer with those syllables. French is very clear whereas Australians tend to be quite sloppy with their ‘too’ or ‘tee’, which may not result in a clearly articulated note. I have noticed that with some Asian languages the tongue is place behind the bottom teeth to produce the ‘too’ or ‘tee’ syllables. This is quite impractical for flute playing and something I discourage.
If using ‘too’ or ‘tee’ with minimal instruction doesn’t produce clearly articulated notes then it’s time to be more specific with the instructions:
- Place the very tip of the tongue on the bottom inside edge of the upper teeth.
- Now travel up the inside of your top teeth and find the place where the teeth finish and the ridge behind the teeth begins; this is the alveolar ridge.
- Go exploring on the ridge, which basically means moving the tongue closer and further away from the inside edge of the top teeth.
- Find the spot just bend the top teeth.
- Without the flute and without voicing the sound, produce the syllable ‘too’ or ‘tee’ and find the clearest, cleanest, lightest use of the tongue that you can. I encourage using the tip of the tongue and not the flat top surface of the tongue.
- There is a choice of two actions with the tongue: the first is the tongue moving or rolling forward, almost like it is following the air stream. Usually this is closet to saying the ‘too’ or ‘tee’ syllables. The second equally valid action is to draw the tongue downwards and backwards into the mouth.
Try all this out on the flute, perhaps just on a simple B at first, and work out which method produces the clearest sound. When you’re ready try playing three crotchets followed by a rest on each note of a simple one octave scale and aim for a nice clean beginning to every single note.
Imagery can help so I like to imagine one of those big sprinklers you sometimes see in large gardens. The circular ones where the water shoots out and is repeatedly tapped gently by the little lever hinge thingy, causing the sprinkler to go around in a circle. The water shooting out is analogous with your continuous airflow and the little lever thing is analogous with your tongue. It doesn’t stop the water but rather punctuates the flow.
Remember there is no hard and fast correct way or articulating. It really depends on what sounds the best and what you are trying to achieve. For me, tonguing behind the top teeth is a very good way to start exploring the world of articulation.
With summer holidays upon us, well at least in the southern hemisphere where I am based, many of us have a lovely long break to look forward to. This is a great chance to set up a regular, relaxed practice routine and give your playing a boost along. It’s a good opportunity to learn some new repertoire you’d like to focus on in the coming year but remember as I always say; every practice session should contain some work on tone, technique, articulation and repertoire in order for it to be a really worthwhile session.
There is a new flute teaching position advertised at Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne, Australia. That is the school where I run the flute program. I’ve attached the advertisement for anyone who may be interested.
Since the flute is based on the natural harmonic series, and the intervals of the harmonics series become wider as they ascend, the top register of the flute will push sharp if you do nothing about it.
Using your tuning machine, play the top register notes and notice how sharp they are if you don’t deliberately lower the pitch.
In order to lower the pitch of these upper notes there are a few things you can do. (Some of these ideas have been discussed in earlier posts. Look for the tag intonation)
- Lower the flute slightly on the bottom lip, allowing the lips to cover more of the sound hole
- Lengthen the neck and drop the chin slightly, which allows the lips to come over the sound hole.
- Relax the jaw. Allow it to hang more freely, creating space between your upper and lower teeth, releasing excess tightness in the embouchure.
- Think of a round ‘0’ vowel shape to create a bigger, rounder shape inside your mouth. This slows down the speed of the air a smidge and will lower the pitch.
- Think of your airstream coming up from your body, around the palate and down into the flute; playing over the left foreman rather than aiming upwards towards the ceiling.
A combination of all these ideas should help to lower the top register pitch. Remember to check your intonation with a tuning machine as it is very easy to get used to being sharp and thinking it is ok.
And finally, check the tuning of the top Bb and B natural. Are they actually sharp or perhaps a tad flat? The right hand little finger is the way to get these in tune.
A good place to start improving your articulation is by increasing your awareness of your tongue and its position and action inside your mouth. With that in mind try the following activities, which aim to increase your kinaesthetic awareness of your tongue:
- Go exploring with your tongue and count all your teeth. Upper and lower!
- Put your tongue on the inside bottom edge of your upper front teeth. Now slowly travel up the inside of those teeth, onto the flat part behind your upper teeth (the alveolar ridge) and back as far as you can along where the palate curves up and away.
- Say the syllable ‘tee’ repeatedly without voicing it. Which part of your mouth is your tongue touching? Which part of the tongue is doing the touching?
- If you say ‘tee’ just once, where does your tongue finish? Up or down?
- Repeat the previous step with the syllable ‘do’ and try a few different sounds as well. ‘duh’ ‘too’ ‘toot’ ‘ku’ etc
- Try moving your tongue back as in swallowing and then bring the back of your tongue up and as far forward as you can, without poking your tongue out of your mouth.
Did you know that two thirds of your tongue is actually vertical? The horizontal part we call the tongue is only about one third of your entire tongue.