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.
Another effective method of adjusting pitch is to move the flute slightly up and down on your bottom lip. You can do this by pivoting the flute, where it rests on your left hand index finger, by using your right hand thumb; very much like a see-saw. If you apply some effort through your right hand thumb you can pivot the flute downwards on your bottom lip. This allows the bottom lip to come out a little more and as we’ve seen in previous posts, this will lower the pitch. By relaxing the pressure of your right hand thumb the flute can ride up your bottom lip allowing less lip to cover the tone hole; this will raise the pitch slightly.
After you’ve tuned your flute successfully, you’ll need to learn some of the quick options for changing the pitch of a note so you can make tuning adjustments while playing.
One good principle to comprehend is that as you cover more of the tone hole on the flute the pitch goes down and conversely as you uncover the tone hole the pitch rises.
With this is mind while playing a B (middle line of the staff) lower your chin, allowing your bottom lip to come across the tone hole more; you’ll notice the pitch goes down. Lifting you chin and uncovering the tone hole will raise the pitch. Basically you are allowing your bottom lip to cover more or less of the tone hole.
Have some fun on different notes bending the pitch up and down. See how quickly you can do this and how far you can alter the pitch. You’ll notice there is more scope to lower the pitch than raise it using this method so it is better to be tuned a smidge sharp, needing to bring the pitch down, than to be a bit flat and constantly needing to lift the pitch.
It is better to make these adjustments with subtle head movements rather than turning your flute in and out with your hands. Ideally the flute will stay quite still while your head does the adjusting.
The third idea for tuning to the piano needs the help of your pianist to play each note repeatedly.
On the flute you will be playing a backwards C scale starting two octave above the flute low C, at the top of the middle register. Ask the pianist to repeatedly play this note while you sustain that note on the flute. Your job is to match your flute note to the piano note being repeatedly played. (More to come shortly about using beats for tuning) The reason for the pianist repeating the note is so that you can continually hear the note you are trying to tune to.
Once the pianist and you think the two notes match then you move down to B natural and repeat the process. Continue on down for one octave checking every note of the C scale.
During this exercise you may need to adjust the head joint to be overall more in tune with the piano. (See previous two posts) And of course you can do this exercise on any scale. I like to do this exercise in the key of the piece I am about to play to find the tonal centre of that piece.
The second idea for helping you to tune to the piano I call The Swoop.
Have the pianist sustain the note A. (You can do this yourself using the sustain pedal). Play your flute A along with the sustaining piano A but then stop your flute sound and listen carefully to the piano note. Did you feel the pitch moved up, or swooped up to the piano pitch? If so, then your flute note is flat and you need to push in.
If when you stop your flute note you feel the pitch sag down to the piano pitch then you are sharp and you need to pull out.
When you are in tune with the piano, once you stop your flute note there will be no movement of the pitch either up or down to the piano note. They match!
Tuning to the piano seems to cause many people a lot of grief so the next few posts are going to offer some suggestions to help with this.
This first approach I like to call The Process of Elimination.
Play the flute note before hearing the piano note so that you don’t try to adjust your A to the piano A you’ve just heard. Play an honest, mezzo forte, low register A. Have your pianist play a single A (a sixth above piano middle C) and then ask them to add in the F and D below that A to create a D minor triad. This triad gives more of a pitch centre to aim for than just a single note.
Once you’ve heard the flute and piano notes use The Process of Elimination:
Is it ok?
Is it not ok?
I’m not sure.
If you think it’s fine then play.
If you think it’s not ok then you’re probably sharp or flat. If you think you’re sharp then pull out. Recheck your A. Did it improve? If so then you are on the right track. If not then you possibly went the wrong way.
If think you’re flat then push in. Recheck your A. Did it improve? If so then you are on the right track. If not then you possibly went the wrong way.
If you are not sure then keep reading the blogs and continue to work at improving your overall intonation skills.
Just ask yourself; is it ok? Is it not ok? I’m not sure, to gradually improve your ability to tune with the piano.
Playing in tune is a very important part of good flute playing. There are so many variables at play but underpinning everything is the fact that the flute is based on the harmonic series.
The bottom register of the flute is the fundamental note (the lowest note possible with any given fingering), the second register notes are derived from the first harmonic (or partial) of the low register notes and the upper register pitches come from either the 2nd or 3rd harmonic of the low register, fundamental note.
Using Western notation this harmonic series is written as the first harmonic being one octave above the fundamental, the second harmonic a fifth above that and the third harmonic two octaves above the fundamental. The truth of the matter is that the distance between the harmonics is not exactly as written. Western equal temperament has slightly altered the natural pitches series. Basically as you go up further through the harmonic series the pitches become sharper. Since the flute is inextricably linked to the harmonic series this means that as you ascend your pitch will become sharper.
If you are doing nothing to adjust your pitch as you ascend on the flute you will be out of tune.
So the first step in developing good intonation is the realisation that the flute is based on the harmonic series, therefore it naturally pushes sharper as you ascend. You need to be doing something about that if you want to play in tune.
In future posts I will be looking at ways to adjust and control pitch plus some exercises to develop your ability to play with good intonation.
As a first exercise, finger any low register note (low C, C3 or D are good) and without changing your fingers blow through the harmonic series noticing how out of tune these harmonics actually are.