There are several simple things band directors can teach to flute sections that will quickly produce measurable improvement in tone quality, technique and intonation. These tips can be used with beginning flutists, as well as flute sections in middle school and high school. How many times have you lamented that your flute section is extremely sharp and shrill in the high register? How many times have you reminded your flute section not to go flat on the diminuendos? Does your flute section have a breathy sound instead of a beautiful and focused sound? This article addresses these concerns and others with tips that every band director should know about flutes.
1. PRODUCING THE FIRST SOUNDS AND GETTING A BETTER SOUND
Start on the head joint only
When teaching beginners how to get their first sounds, it is beneficial to use the head joint only. This allows students to experience success without the awkwardness of holding the whole flute. Many important skills can be developed using the head joint, including starting notes (tonguing) and blowing with a strong air stream. Fun activities with the head joint include exploring the variety of sounds that can be produced, including glissandi (like trombones) and covering the open end with the palm to produce a low pitch. Students can also learn to play several scale-wise pitches by inserting their right index finger into the open end of the head joint which will allow them to play three note songs such as Hot Cross Buns and Mary Had a Little Lamb.
Placement of the lip plate
For good tone, the embouchure plate (or lip plate) should be placed just below the flare of the lower lip allowing 1/4 to 1/3 of the tone hole to be covered. The student should be able to feel the edge of the tone hole under the flare of their lower lip, which will help with placement. This position enables flexibility of the lower lip, which controls the angle of the air stream. Students with full lips having difficulty with sound production, can place the lip plate slightly higher directly on the lower lip. Traditional methods of placement such as “kissing” the tone hole and then rolling tend to place the lip plate too high for many players.
Fast air stream
Using a consistently strong fast air stream on all notes, both low and high, is required to develop a good tone. I like to use the analogy of using “birthday candle air”, i.e. the speed of air used to blow out birthday candles.
Teaching students to tongue as if they were “spitting a grain of rice off the tip of the tongue” is a method of tonguing that helps students blow a strong air stream through a small aperture. This type of tonguing produces tone that is strong and full without the usual “airy” sound that is produced when the air stream is too wide. This method of tonguing is sometimes called spit rice tonguing, Suzuki tonguing, forward tonguing or French tonguing. Its hallmark is tonguing slightly between the lips--sometimes it is helpful for students to think about touching the tip of their tongue to the top lip to start each note. When they do this successfully, there is a small “pop” sound as the air is released.