Flute tone is a complex yet wonderful thing. When we get it right, it feels like we are just singing into the instrument. But more often than not, it causes us so much frustration, anxiety, and is often the reason that we just want to give up.
It is important to remember that everyone has a unique tone. However, there are some basic principles that we need to get right in order to find our best possible sound. Here are my top suggestions to help you improve your tone:
1. Find the right position
At the core of it, flute playing is pure physics. The air needs to hit the edge of the flute at the right speed and right angle. If the angle of the air is too high or low, your tone will suffer. If the air is being directed over to one side or another, your tone will suffer. If the flute is is too high on the lip, your tone will suffer. You need to make sure that you position the flute correctly on the lip. Remember, the tone hole and the “o” of your lips should line up, and the flute should not be placed too high on the lip. I tell my students almost daily to “ROLL OUT!”
Watch me walk through some of the basic principles in this video:
2. Releasing the embouchure
One of the most surprising things about the flute is that the harder you try and the tighter your embouchure, the more likely you are to get a worse sound. Isn’t that unfair?! The most important aspect of playing the flute is having a supple, flexible embouchure. The tension in the embouchure usually results in us being unable to move the embouchure at all! We need to be able to make nuanced changes to the air direction, shape, and speed to find the right tone.
In a recent interview at The Flute Center of New York, Jill O’Neil speaks about how her tone actually improved once she returned to playing after a severe accident. As a result of a motorbike accident, she lost her ability to play for an extended period of time. When she returned to playing, she had almost no embouchure but was surprised to hear that her tone sounded better! So, find ways to release your embouchure and play with less tension.
Here are some tips to help you release your embouchure:
3. Release the jaw and throat
Another culprit, that we often forget about, is jaw and throat tension. These two are a real Bonnie and Clyde of flute playing. They are inseparable and have the potential to steal so much of your joy. When we clench and lock out the jaw, our lips are less flexible. We are unable to get that lovely supple embouchure we need. The throat usually starts kicking in, to ‘control’ the sound and we get a very throttled, closed sound.
If you are lucky, you will even hear some noise in your throat. I say lucky because it is a dead giveaway that you are struggling with throat tension. The throat can also be tense without the jaw being so, however, in most cases, these two are connected.
My favorite tip for releasing the jaw is to think about space between the back teeth. Feel the jaw really hanging down as you play and become aware of your cheek muscles. Do you feel them getting tight and clenched?
If you are looking for resources to work through throat tension, here are some tips to help:
4. Breathe and support
Something we so often forget is that we play a wind instrument, and we need AIR to make any kind of sound. When we improve our breathing we automatically improve our support and the tone naturally follows. It always amazes me what a big difference this makes! A good
breath, however, is not just lifting your shoulders, sucking in your belly, and forcing as much air into your lungs as possible. Rather, it is a reflexive, expanding movement that opens the abdomen like a balloon without forcing, holding, or gasping. What follows is an open full feeling which is the beginning of support. Your job as a flutist is to now slowly release the air, keeping your belly and back as expanded as possible. There’s no need to push or squeeze the air because you can control your breath with your core muscles.
The core muscles work with your spine and other muscles to support the body. You can tell when they are working because you feel straighter and taller. This is the same kind of relaxed yet strong support you need when playing the flute. That gentle yet secure expansion in your upper body is what allows you to release the air slowly rather than just puffing it out forcefully.
Spend some time exploring your breath with this helpful video:
5. Your body is also the instrument
We so often think that the flute creates the tone and makes beautiful music for us. We do not often consider that WE make the flute play and how we use our bodies affects the sound massively. If you stand in a twisted contorted position, it will affect your breath and support, and your tone will suffer. Likewise, excessive tension in your neck and shoulder will translate into tension in your jaw and embouchure.
The biggest lesson you will start to learn is that everything is connected. How you breathe, affects the tension in the jaw, how you stand affects how you breathe. Gripping your flute causes tension in your shoulders, the tension in your shoulders tightens your throat. While it’s easier said than done, it’s important to find a relaxed position to play and practice in. So, here are a few videos to help you find more balance in your body!
Give these approaches a try, and let us know what made the biggest difference in your tone.