Flowing through the Flute
The second in the "tone production" series deals with the flute.
Unlike all the other woodwind instruments which use a reed, the flute does not have a direct connection to the player's head. It makes it difficult for students to shape their lips, and learn how to manipulate their air to make a nice tone.
The flute presents an interesting problem for beginning students. Unlike the reed instruments (oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon) which make an immediate sound when blown into, the flute takes a while for the kids to get a sound. I try to let the parents know that for the first few weeks of flute lessons we will only be playing on the head joint. They should not expect to hear many flute-like sounds coming out of their child's room, and in some cases they may not hear any sounds at all. Don't worry, that's normal. The flute is the most difficult for the kids to start getting a sound. In some cases, it can take up to a month before a student actually puts their flute together and begins to play notes.
I'd like to use this entry, then, to talk about the first year of playing the flute up through the point when we begin to work on tone.
In our first lesson, we only play on the head joint. The kids learn that making a sound on the flute is a lot like blowing across a soda bottle neck. Some Suzuki teachers have the kids spit raw rice through pursed lips. I describe it as blowing at a candle, to make the flame dance, but not blow it out. We learn to line the flute up against our lips (set the hole in the center of our closed lips, then roll the head joint down to just below the lower lip) and begin blowing across the lip plate. We look in the mirror at the condensation forming under their lips on the lip plate and try to shape it, by changing the opening in their lips, like an upside-down triangle. Once they can make a sound, we begin making a soft "ta" sound. Some kids have trouble with this and make "th" "tl" or "tsch" sounds, so I change the syllable to "da" and that seems to help.
What you should hear during practice time: lots of short scratchy whistle-like sounds, a few screeches, and maybe a complaint that they are feeling dizzy. (have them press their chin to their collar bone and breathe deep to combat the dizzies!)
Once it's time to put the flute together, it's actually quite difficult for the kids to balance and hold the flute up! Without a thumb rest (like the other instruments), and no direct connection to their mouth, the slippery metal makes the kids feel insecure. I reassure them that even if they do lose their grip and start to drop the flute, it will roll backward toward their face, and they will catch it, no problem.
I don't worry too much about the number of notes the kids learn during this period of time, but that they understand the difference between "high" and "low" notes. Most kids blow as hard as they can to get any sound possible out of the flute, and this results in notes much higher than what we are aiming for. This is the point where we learn about "Warm-Low" notes and "Cool-High" notes. I demonstrate for them how the temperature of the air we blow across the flute changes with the register.
Depending on how comfortable they are with high-low, is how many notes we learn during this period. We always focus on "ta" (or "da") to start every note, but during these months we spend time on basic rhythms (whole, half, quarter and eighth notes) to prepare for joining band around the 6 month mark.
I am not concerned at all with tone or dynamics (volume), as it is nearly impossible to deal with either of these elements at this time.
During these months, the kids make the greatest strides and we can now start to develop tone. My goal is to have them playing 5-7 scales at this point, and most kids have no problem accomplishing this in such a short period of time. We start to play short duets together so they can work on sight reading and intonation, and they are starting to become aware of how small changes in their lips changes their tone.
Dynamics are actually quite difficult on the flute. It's an instrument, when played by a professional, has a wide range of volume and tone color. The kids have those sounds in their heads and sometimes become frustrated that they don't sound like Rampal at this early stage. The only thing we can really do at this point, is work on how to play louder. It's a lot of fun because they get to play literally as loud as they can on the highest note they know. At first, they don't believe I want to hear them play that loud, but in truth, I already know that they can't play all that loud yet, so it's fun to hear them experiment with what they think "loud" is.
Tone work begins here and continues throughout the rest of their flute career. As they advance past the beginner/intermediate stage, the tone techniques also evolve. But this one simple tone exercise is something that even I practice to keep my tone fresh and direct. This is something that the kids always look at me like I'm crazy when I demonstrate and then ask them to imitate. It's always fun to see them struggle with letting go their egos and try what I'm asking.
We begin by playing a High-D (above the staff) with what the student thinks is a "good" tone. I then play a D for them and open my jaw, which makes the flute sound like a "yawn". They then have to imitate this movement. Most will stop blowing as soon as the flute makes a disagreeable sound, so I need to reinforce the idea that the air never stops, no matter the sound they hear. "Hee-Yaw" is what the flute will be saying.
Once they free up their jaw enough to make the flute yawn, we slowly close our jaw until the D reappears. They are very happy to do this portion of the exercise and hear a real note again. But that's not the end of it. They now need to practice balancing the tone on the edge between the yawn sound and the real D by trying to produce both sounds at the same time. Their lips will quiver, their jaw will shake, and they will try to avoid that double sound at all costs. But with a little encouragement, they see that it's not the worst thing in the world to make 2 sounds at the same time.
I call this exercise "Knife's Edge" because I feel like the sound does teeter on an edge.
When the kids realize that their jaw can be more open, more relaxed than they think, they start to hear beautiful free sounds coming from their flutes and get excited about the possibility of sounding more mature compared to their band mates. A little competition never hurt any flutist.
I promise the kids that if they practice "Knife's Edge" 5-10 minutes daily (and experiment with different notes) they will hear big changes in their sound in just a couple of weeks. This year, I started working with one of my beginners on this technique at the beginning of January, and by the end of the month her tone had improved to the point where even she was hearing the changes. It's always a great day when the kids hear the difference and become encouraged to practice more!
Tone on the flute can be frustrating at times, but with a little dedication, discipline and a whole lot of encouragement, the kids progress quite quickly compared to some of the other wind instruments. By the end of their first year, they can sound like "real" flutists!