Flute Playing Advice
Musical expression is by far the most important part of playing any instrument. However, in order to play expressively, a flute player has to develop a beautiful tone and a robust technique. Many students are surprised to learn that just the way one holds their instrument has a huge impact on their tone, and not just their technique. And you would be amazed at how many advanced players complain of being in pain! Flute playing should never hurt! Also, being in pain creates body tension which can mess up tone, technique, and the ability to relax. My teaching transfers the normal and natural positioning of our everyday relaxed hand and shoulder positions into flute playing, and my aim is, in addition to helping a student develop their musical expression and technique, to make flute playing feel as natural as possible.
This page was NOT published for students to learn solely from reading the information written here. There is no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to learning an instrument to a high standard, and learning DIRECTLY from a teacher who can physically demonstrate, is the only way to learn properly. Unfortunately, there are NO "quick fix" solutions to learning a musical instrument (and please don't waste your money on teach yourself DVDs - They don't work in the long run, and you'll pick up bad habits that can take years to rectify properly!) However, I have set up this page as it might be of use to students who study with another teacher, or to students who's teachers haven't covered these postural issues with them. Of course, this doesn't cover nearly a small fraction of what I teach concerning posture, and this page should be used in conjunction with what I teach in my lessons. This page is also intended to be of some assistance to my own students who might like to double check on a basic postural detail that they might have forgotten, during their practice time. If you are a student of mine, and are in doubt - PLEASE PHONE AND ASK! Of course, the problem will additionally be worked on in the next lesson. This information is to be used in conjunction with a full-length or half-length mirror, in order for students to WATCH themselves. Seeing the problem makes one more aware of it... And remember, if you're a student of mine, I'll be watching you like a hawk, and will nag you until you get it right! - So, practice!!
Ask yourself: What is a good basic tone ? Here are some obvious thoughts:
- When it sounds relaxed and open. Any rigid sound should be avoided.
- When it doesn't sound harsh, shrill, husky, or inaccurate.
- When you can play without constantly gasping for air.
- When there's no ugly noises to be heard -- NO throat noises/grunts!
- When there is a whole world of colour in it, ready to paint all sorts of 'moods'.
- When it is supported by your air.
- When the air is directed to the right place (i.e. TO the front edge; not over the front edge).
- When the sound starts immediately.
For a fuller sound...
- Master air direction.
- Open your throat. That gets rid of any horrid throat noises!
- Develop "throat tuning" (holding your throat open at the same pitch (but two octaves lower) that you would sing it, whilst playing it).
- Drop the jaw. Try yawning while you play, that will get the right amount of space between your back teeth.
- Correct posture is paramount to projecting the sound.. How can you make an evenly supported stream of air if your posture isn't perfect?!
- While keeping the jaw down, place your lips on top of each other, firm but not rigid, directing the airstream towards the edge of the embouchure hole.
- When you play the high register, give it the warmth of the low register.
- Listen to the greatest flautists and slowly form a picture about the ideal tone you want. This ideal sound should be in your head before you play, so that your instrument doesn't drag you to its sound but you make it sound the manner you want !
- Pay attention to your tone while practicing technique and monitor your technique while playing tone exercises.
Some thoughts on Posture:
Not only can incorrect posture hinder your technique when you are more advanced, but more importantly, incorrect posture can cause flautists some nasty injuries - tendonitis, RSI, and carpel tunnel syndrome, to name a few.
Playing the flute should NEVER hurt!
The above story is another reason why an inline G, open hole flute is actually my personal preference, despite the mistaken belief by some flautists that it causes injury. However, please note that I don't make anyone change their flutes from offset to inline unless they choose to. It is my recommendation, but is not in any way obligatory.
It is true that inline flutes can injury you, but only IF you play it incorrectly and force yourself to play with a straight wrist. Experience has shown that it is actually an offset G flute that is more likely to injure you, as it allows the left hand to slip into a lazy position without the player always realising it, resulting in a pushing action against the flute to try and keep it in place, and thus, is more inclined to let you slip into bad habits that will eventually cause pain, and eventually an RSI if you keep pushing yourself through the pain. An inline, open-hole flute, contrary to the belief of some, actually requires the most relaxed positioning of all flutes in order to play it properly, and it's like having a teacher with you at all times! - Just remember to cradle the flute from underneath, and let your fingers fall naturally onto the keys (curved), and NEVER push against the flute with a straight left wrist/hand! Use better air support, instead of pressing the flute into your chin with your left hand in an attempt to hold it steady. Use balance, instead of tension. That is crucial to avoid injury on all flutes, inline and offset included.)
Please get in touch if you need this explaining further.
- This rule assumes you are standing at approx. 70 cm. right in front of a music stand. Turn your whole body to the right, about 30°. You won't see the stand. Now place your flute parallel to the stand onto your left cheek. Then only turn your head facing the stand and place your flute to your lips.
- Move your flute to your head, NOT your head to your flute!
- A good posture will help your breathing.
Keep your shoulders relaxed. Don't push them forward or backward. Don't lift them up or push them up. They should be able to move when playing. Make a little circle with your shoulders to relax them.
Arms and elbows
Your arms keep your wrists and hands in a good position to play the flute. The elbows are bent and positioned not too high and not too low. They should be flexible.
- When you play the flute, think of balancing the flute; not "holding" it!
- Keep all fingers of the left hand NATURALLY curved!
- Place the base of your left index finger squared against your flute between the first and second top key, where a little space is.
- Next your left thumb should be placed flat against the lowest of thumb keys. Note that this is the only finger which is placed flat against the keys!
- Then index, middle, third and little finger should all form an arch to their key. Even the little finger!
- The left wrist is placed almost under the flute tube. The straighter the wrist, the more difficult it is to get the fingers curved on their keys. Let the wrist fall back and let the fingers curve.
- Keep the fingers around the flute as though cradling it
- The position of the right hand is simple. Yet, so many flautists make it harder to do and therefore compromise their speed. To view what your right hand should look like, let the right arm FALL relaxed next to your body. You should have done this without thinking, totally relaxed. Now look at your right hand. Look at the fingers and the thumb. They are curved ! The thumb is almost directly under your index, a little shorter than your index.
- Now raise your arm. Keep the fingers in the same position square to the flute ! Before you place them on the keys, LOOK and REMEMBER.
- Place the third, middle finger and index curved on their keys.
- Make sure that the little finger (the stabilizing finger) is placed on the Eb key - CURVED!! :o)
- The position of the right hand thumb is a rather controversial issue. Some players believe that the thumb should be behind the flute while others say it should be underneath. Personally I believe that the thumb should be underneath where it balances the flute, and it should be directly underneath your index finger.
- A little note on the right wrist. It is only a relaxed joint between the hand and the arm. It is slightly bent. Note that the position of the right wrist is determined by right elbow and fingers.
(What they don't teach you at the music colleges!)
Tip #1 - Practice like your life depends on it! Is it the scales that gets you every time? Play them all a few times and eliminate the ones you could do hanging upside down while sleeping. With the ones you're having trouble with, do them over and over and over, until your fingers automatically know where to go! If it means you have to practice it 100 times, then so be it!! Recommended practicing time is about 30 minutes MINIMUM!!!
Tip #2 - Have confidence! In order to be a good musician you need to face ALL the facts, whether they're good or bad. Also, remember that just because you are a lower standard than a fellow flautist, it doesn't mean you can't play. In fact, you could be better than the people/person in front of you but not everyone exactly knows it yet...! Don't put yourself down, because when was the last time someone achieved something that they thought they couldn't do?
Tip #3 - Let yourself be known. Try out for all of the orchestras and ensembles possible (School/College, County, National etc.) The more you do it, the more comfortable and confident you'll be when you audition. It also makes you NEED to know your scales - and you WILL be tested on them!!
Tip #4 - To those of you who aren't my students, get private lessons, with a teacher who specializes in flute teaching, and not general woodwind. Lessons are important as they make sure that your flute playing has no major flaws.
Tip #5 - Expose yourself to good flute players. To get good tone quality you'll have to work at it, but also listen to your flute teacher, other professional performers, CD's etc. That way you can keep the sound of what a flute should sound like, in mind when you play.
Tip #6 - Last but definitely not least - MOYSE STUDIES! These are a must for advanced flute players. Not only do I insist that my more advanced students practice Moyse Studies, but these studies are also taught at the top major UK music colleges, and by the famous British flute teachers. These studies also give the student the ability to judge oneself objectively. These are lifelong exercises, and are important for any student who aspires to be a professional flautist. My principal recommendation is De la Sonorite, and the other important studies are Tone Development Through Interpretation, 24 Little Melodies, and Daily Exercises.