Focusing the sound

One reader requested a blog on finding a focused sound, so here’s my way to approach this.

build-your-focus

One has to be careful when setting goals for students or yourself such as “find a focused sound”, since there’s the potential for what Alexander Technique practitioners might call “end-gaining” (see a previous blog). One can try all sorts of things to try and focus the sound, but this can lead to bad habits and/or tension if not done with care or patience. With this in mind, I will suggest below some exercises and processes I practice regularly that I find useful.

Airstream

Firstly, a focused sound is all about the airstream and how it is directed when we blow over the embouchure hole of the flute. The sound is created when the air divides at the back edge of the embouchure hole. A lack in focus can be caused by an airstream that is too spread out, but also by:

  • Misdirected air. When the air isn’t centred, but travels off to the side. ➡️ Try whistle tones exercise. Whistle tones are great exercises to use as target practice.  I always sound so much better after I do some whistle tones.
  • Undue tension. Tension in the lips or body from tightening or holding muscles, which inhibits resonance. Tension in the throat or mouth doesn’t allow a free passage of air from the lungs out of the mouth, but rather distorts it so the exchange is not as smooth as it could be. Too much tension in the lips creates airiness in the sound. ➡️”Pooh” exercise

Pooh exercise

In a previous blog on wobble, I talked about using the “pooh attack”, where your lips form a round shape simply by blowing through closed lips, just as we do when we say “pooh”.

  • Overblowing. When we use too much air, the air escapes around the edges, causing a distortion in the sound. True resonance is found not through blowing hard, but by opening and making space for the sound.(see resonance blog)

Core of the sound

pencil_lead_closeup

Finding a “focused sound” can often be frustrating and I like to think of finding the core or essence of the sound, so as long as we have that core, any air around the sound caused by tension or even dry lips doesn’t detract from the message we want to give. One teacher used to use the imagery of a pencil, where the lead is the core. What creates images and writing is the lead and so that is the most important thing to cultivate. One can then have different shades of sound, depending on how much core (or harmonic content) one uses.

Exercises that help find the core:

  • Pitch bending. Finding where the harmonics are in tune.
  • Muscle memory

On a long note, start from a very unfocused sound, with the lips quite loose.  Gradually introduce the lip muscles that you used in finding a whistle tone (think of creating the vowel sound “ooh” with your lips).  This takes away any habit of tightening lips before playing which might be causing airiness and gives you a sensation of what you do when you hear the sound focusing. This has to be done very slowly in order to gain muscle memory.  You can then reduce the time it takes to reach your desired sound by starting with your lips more formed.

  • Paper on the wall/straw

Use a thin straw and blow and piece of paper on the wall.  Notice how the straw perfectly directs the air into the middle of the paper so that it stays up.    Try the same thing without the straw, making sure you feel the opening between the lips like you did when the straw was there and not letting that collapse.  Keep the air speed constant and well-directed and the paper will stay up. Now blow a note on the flute as you did with the paper and hear the difference!

  • Removing tension

Do some singing and playing at the same time to open up the sound and remove tension.  Allowing your true sound to come through by not tightening the jaw, throat, lips,  abdominal muscles etc will give you a greater chance of finding the core of the sound.  One can try and try to focus the sound, but if you are not letting the air through smoothly without interruption, you will only get frustrated, tense up more and just get further and further from the core.  One needs to be quiet in order to play loudly.  

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!

My book “Mastering the Flute with William Bennett”, published by Indiana University Press, is available on Amazon and in all good flute shops.

Wobble vs Vibrato

A couple of students have recently come to have lessons with a bit of a wobbly tone. This isn’t uncommon and can creep up without much notice, so I would like to discuss this further and give some tips.

Wobble vs vibrato

The main difference between a wobble and vibrato is that the former is something that is quite uncontrolled and automatic, often disrupting the phrase and disguising the core of one’s sound, usually quite slow and wide. Vibrato is something that adds an expressive quality to the sound and can help build phrases and changing the expression or character. I like to think of vibrato as “spinning the sound”, which implies that it doesn’t get in the way, but makes the sound come alive.

One of my teachers would often say “vibrato is like ketchup” i.e – one shouldn’t smother your food in it, but rather add a tasteful amount to enhance the dish. If one can get a lively and expressive sound without vibrato (i.e. a sound with a healthy air speed, core and resonance), it is then possible to add some vibrato tastefully.

Getting back to wobble, one of my students played a melody from Moyse’s Tone Development Through Interpretation and the sound was shaky and the wobble was automatic and disrupted the tone. Observing more closely, I noticed it was more about an instability of tone and a lack of form in the embouchure. So the air was not being directed as it should. There was also tension due to over-breathing (trying to take in too much air). So, I gave the following exercises:

“Pooh” attack

For keeping embouchure shape

Observe the shape of your lips when you say “pooh”. Also notice how your lips are closed on “p” and then how the air makes an opening in the lips on the “ooh”. Try elongating the vowel sound: oooooo and notice how your lips stay in place.

Now without vocalising the word, almost whisper the word “pooh”, so it’s purely blowing air through the lips.

Next take the flute and try a short “pooh” on one note. Play each note of a melody (e.g The Swan by Saint-Saëns) like this. No force from muscles, just a simple exhalation, like gently blowing out a candle. I suggest breathing in through the nose for this to avoid opening the lips each time.

Next, make the poohs gradually longer – think of the elongated vowel you did earlier. So, start with very short notes and gradually get longer and longer, making sure the airstream is steady.

Then join all the “pooh”s together to form a slurred melodic line. This is muscle memory, starting simple.

This is also great for soft playing. Try it with the slow movement of the Poulenc sonata.

Paper on the wall

Blow a small square of paper against a wall- only using your air to keep the paper up. This requires the air to be steady and fast, directed right in the middle.

Breathing out of time to avoid tension

We often over-breathe in order to sustain a long phrase, creating tension in the body.

When practising, instead of rushing a breath, take time so you don’t force a breath in, but rather allow the air in by itself. The in breath, when done like this, should be silent.

Start with a 4 second breath for each breath you take in the melody. If that goes well and every breath is silent, move on to three seconds, then two seconds, one second and then in time making sure that each breath is not forced in. Breathing in is passive; blowing out is active.

Whistle tones

Try sustaining a steady whistle tone – explained here:

Vibrato

There are several theories about vibrato and I don’t want to go into too much of that, but if we think of vibrato as a fluctuation in pitch, then we can practice several things to help that along. One doesn’t want to create a pulsed vibrato or something that sounds manufactured but something that is spinning and within the tone that creates expression. One wants to aim for a vibrato that is flexible so you can play with a slow and wide vibrato but also a fast and shallow one, depending on the phrase or the character of the music. The depth of vibrato is determined by the degree of pitch change. Allow the pitch to change as you play louder and softer, without adjusting with the lips.

In my lessons with William Bennett I worked on vibrato to help find depth in the sound and reaction in the tone. We practised different numbers of pulses such as going from one pulse per bar to 8. This exercise is detailed in my book Mastering the flute with William Bennett. Wibb would often get me to think of vibrating in 5s or 7s so it was difficult for the listener to count my vibrato. Once you practice this a lot, you can then allow a natural vibrato through where the air moves freely. By doing the vibrato exercise, you are releasing muscles around the diaphragm so the airstream is flexible and not restricted.

One should remember that “no vibrato” is a type of vibrato, so we have a whole palette of vibratos to choose from according to what the music dictates. For example, a haunting solo in a Shostakovich Symphony might call for no vibrato to create an atmosphere representing a cold winter’s day in Russia. Whereas, the climax of the solo from Daphnis and Chloe might require more vibrato to show the intensity of expression. When playing the Brahms 4 solo, a tasteful use of vibrato, increasing toward the peak of the solo. So, there should never be an ON/OFF switch for vibrato, but more of a spectrum of possibilities.

So, first master your airstream and let that be your primary expression.  Then practise all variations of vibrato so you can paint a wonderful picture with or without vibrato, but never wobbly!

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!

Memorisation

Another blog topic from a reader: playing from memory! Keep the ideas coming!

Incentive

Memorising a piece of music, a speech or poem is something that has obvious benefits, but often scares people as it takes away the comfort of having a script or score.

I remember my primary (junior) school made all of the students memorise a poem and recite it to the principal (poor lady- she must have listened to thousands!). But we only recited it in front of her, not the whole class, and afterwards, we received a rather delicious red lollipop! Incentive is key and, to a 6-year old, sweets are always the best incentives! One started to look forward to the next challenge!

Goal

When I was 7 years old, I started learning the piano and memorising short pieces was never a problem. It came naturally. Giving concerts at school, I never thought about using the music.

Skip ahead a year, I took up the flute and was given lots of books. My teacher at the time encouraged me to play in festivals, but (perhaps because I couldn’t see what my fingers were doing) I used music and a stand. Not once was I encouraged to memorise it and so I just got out of the habit. I played from the music throughout my youth until I got to college. At the Royal Academy of Music, one is required to do at least one piece at your end of year recital from memory and this freaked me out! Especially since I’d previously seen people make memory slips in concerts and competitions. So, I gave myself a pep talk and decided I had the ability to do it! I made it a bit easier for myself by picking a short piece without too many notes that I knew really well. And after working steadily through it, I could play it from memory in my exam. I did this every year, making the memory piece a little harder each year. So I had a goal and I stuck to it.

Start simple

In my lessons with Wibb, I was asked to prepare a melody from Moyse’s Tone Development Through Interpretation book, memorised and in about 3 different keys! This was a great way to understand note relationships, harmonies and intervals. One became aware of how the melody modulated, how the phrases were shaped and how the intervals created tension or release. So I now do this on a regular basis. The melodies might be from repertoire or from another technique book, like the 24 Little Melodic Studies. So, start off simple and go from there! It is quite liberating when one takes away the stand. Mistakes and slips will happen along the way, but one has to allow that and embrace it. When we make mistakes, it’s just a sign that we need to practice that passage or phrase a bit more! No big deal!

Memorising a concerto

Having done some smaller pieces and felt confident in the knowledge that I can memorise, it’s now time to tackle a larger piece. I’d like to talk about how I’m going about memorising the Mozart G major concerto, since I will be playing this with an orchestra in Canada in April and I have made the decision to memorise it. It seems a shame if only violinists and cellists do it!

Analysis

I start by analysing the piece. I work on the piece with the score (piano part as well) and find all the different sections and all the thematic material within each section. How do they relate to each other? How do they change later on?

Then I’ll start with the first section and see how far I get without the music, under tempo to give my brain and muscles a chance to process the information. This gives me an idea of where I’m at.

Instagram minute

I then go through the piece in one minute chunks per day. I refer back to the music to check any details I may have left out. Then I record myself up to tempo on that minute and listen back. If possible, I will do this with a backing track. Luckily, there are sone play along videos on YouTube of the Mozart G major, which makes this much more enjoyable and helps you hear what’s going on around you and how you respond to it.

Doing it in one minute chunks might seem tedious, but remember Rome wasn’t built in a day! Try not to overload your brain all at once. Make it manageable.

Tricky passages

There is a passage in the 3rd movement which, for some reason, I find very difficult to play without the music, but quite easily with. This tells me I don’t truly have it under the fingers yet and it’s not quite lodged in my brain.

It’s difficult because there are many notes at quite a quick tempo. So I break it into chunks. Then I practice it like this for each 4 note pattern

  • 1st note only
  • 1st & 4th notes
  • 1st & 2nd notes
  • 1,3,4
  • 1,2,3
  • 1,2,3,4

Making sure that I am practising at least two 4-note patterns so I practice the joins between chunks. Then just move along one and practice the next two chunks. Cover the whole passage like that, then add some chunks together to make the chunks a bit longer. Chunking is so helpful! Take it slowly at first and then try faster.

Warm up

In your warm up, take a simple melody or vocalise and transpose it. This gives your brain a warm up too! Take a section of the piece you are working on and make a tone or articulation exercise out of it. For example, take the opening theme from Mozart’s concerto and play it in 3 different keys in different dynamics. Use harmonics to practice any interval leaps. Use your imagination to think of an interesting warm up that relates to the main body of your practice.

Performance

Make sure to run your piece through in its entirety several times before a concert. Give yourself plenty of time before the concert date to start memorising a piece.

Note any places that you consistently get wrong or forget and focus your practice there.

Remember

Further things to note:

  • Make sure you approach your memorisation practice with a clear mind. Lie down, do some breathing exercises and warm ups before launching in.
  • Don’t get distracted or procrastinate. Let your brain focus on the task at hand. Put your phone away!
  • Memorisation need not be scary. It’s just another skill that can be practiced and it can actually be enjoyable!!
  • One step at a time! Baby steps!
  • Memorisation gives you freedom and helps communication
  • Even if you don’t do it in concert, implement memorisation into your practice so your body has its best chance of good alignment. Being bent over a music stand can lead to many bad habits and a compromised tone.

Thanks for reading and happy fluting!

Tonguing

Thanks to one reader, I have a blog topic which I think will be of interest: tonguing!

The first step is to get the tongued notes as clear and full as one does without the tongue. It’s all about the airstream and not letting the tongue affect how the air travels out of the body through the lips. Release tension in the jaw and use the slightest touch of the tongue. The tongue is a big old thing and it can be very easy for us to overwork it if we try to use too much of it.

When I was very young, I was taught that the K or G was a reflex of the T or D, which at first helped with speed, but the quality of the K was never as good as the T.  We should practice both consonants as equal strokes like a good string player who practices their up and down bow in equal measure. I had a private masterclass with some of Wibb’s other students given by great violinist and teacher David Takeno, where we worked on the Bach Chaconne and Mozart G major violin concerto. Among many pearls of wisdom, I will never forget that he said an up bow shouldn’t be weaker than a down bow and vice versa. One should be able to do whatever one wants without their technique limiting them. The same goes for tonguing: the K doesn’t need to be weaker or heavier- it should just be another feather to your bow.  Use it interchangeably with a T/D consonant.

Now try this exercise, using any note you like.  The aim is to back and forth between an articulated note and a note that doesn’t use the tongue, but always with a good full sound:

  1. “ha” (detached, but without the tongue)
  2. T/D (tip of the tongue, at the point where the top front teeth meet the gum)
  3. Ha
  4. K/G (middle part of tongue, hitting the roof of the mouth)
  5. Ha ha
  6. TT
  7. Ha ha
  8. KK
  9. Ha ha ha ha
  10. TK TK
  11. Ha ha ha ha
  12. KT KT
  13. Hahaha
  14. TKT TKT
  15. Hahaha
  16. KTK KTK
  17. Hahahaha
  18. TKT KTK
  19. Slur
  20. Stop

This is how I suggest practising Voliere from Carnival of Animals in my book, combining it with harmonics. Harmonics are your best teacher because any changes in airstream will cause cracks and incorrect pitches. Afterwards, when you play with normal fingerings, you will find it much easier!  Have a look below at an exercise from my book.

Anatomy of the tongue (MRI)

To become more familiar with how the tongue works, take a look at some MRI videos of the movement of the tongue, like the one below.  Notice how large the tongue is and how we use just a small part of it to articulate sounds.  Just as with any muscle (although the tongue is a muscular organ), the tongue can be trained with good practice technique.

 

Where is the tongue when you say each consonant

img_4954
CONSONANTS ARE FURTHER CLASSIFIED ACCORDING TO THEIR PLACE OF ARTICULATION, LKPRIMARILY THE LIPS, THE TEETH, THE GUMS, THE PALATE, AND THE GLOTTIS. TERMS USED BY SPEECH SCIENTISTS. TO DENOTE PLACE OF ARTICULATION. INCLUDE LABIAL (LIPS), DENTAL (TEETH), ALVEOLAR (GUMS), PALATAL (PALATE), VELAR (SOFT PALATE), GLOTTAL (GLOTTIS), AND LABIODENTAL (LIPS AND TEETH) FINALLY, CONSONANTS ARE CLASSIFIED. AS VOICED OR UNVOICED. PLACE OF ARTICULATION OF PLOSIVES.

Notice how the tip of the tongue is used to articulate T/D near the teeth and the mid point of the tongue articulates K/G on the roof of the mouth, or palate.

For consistency of sound, I think the vowel is also important, e.g. ta, te, tu, to, ti.  Be sure to keep your vowel sound constant throughout an articulated passage, trying not to change between different vowels, which will affect the colour of the sound.

 

The tongue can also be placed outside the lips like we do for words beginning with “th”, but we can still make a clear “t” without any hissing h sounds. Consonants like “t” are actually very flexible regarding tongue placement.  Most will find T behind the teeth easiest, but some will find articulated in front of the teeth easier.   Become familiar with using both.

To get used to feeling the tongue behind the teeth, try saying “Nnn”.
Then follow that with the consonant, “ta” or “da”.  Nnnn da.  Let the “da” release without any tension.  Think of the words “London”  Or “undone” 

Here is part of an exercise from my book for practising the different attacks/strokes of the tongue:

articulation

© Roderick Seed, Mastering the Flute with William Bennett, Indiana University Press 2018

For more on articulation, please take a look at my book.  Available from Amazon UK/US, Just Flutes, Flutistry, Flute World.

Once the sound is clear on all these consonants, tonguing becomes much easier.  Articulation is primarily about how the air is released.  The tongue is supplemental/supportive in creating clear sounds.  Don’t let the tongue become an obstacle for the air.  As my teacher Lorna McGhee says, “The airstream is the King!  Make way for the King!”

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!

Nose breathing

When we sleep or walk around doing non-flutey things, we commonly breathe through our noses. So, is it a good idea to do this when we play the flute? Of course, one doesn’t always have time, but I was talking recently to a student about this and here are my thoughts on the matter.

The advantages of nose breathing

When we inhale through the nose, as opposed to the mouth, it takes longer and encourages a “deeper” breath. The air needs to travel through the nasal passages, where there are millions of tiny hairs that act as an air filtration system. The air that travels to the lungs arrives cleaner, moister and warmer. When we breathe through the mouth, the air is colder, less clean and drier, which can cause irritation of the throat among other things.  When I was younger, I would often get a sore throat after practising, but since improving my breathing habits, I’ve managed to avoid getting sore throats.

Other benefits

  • Calmness – Think of a flute solo in orchestra or your first note in an audition- feeling nervous?! Breathing through the nose and focusing on blowing out will help greatly calm your nerves. When you have 4 bars rest, breathe through the nose and you will likely sound better on your entry and inspire a sense of calmness in your section or to your audience. Careful not to take loud sniffs, but slow full breaths.
  • Improved circulation and oxygenation – More focus and better movement.  Often I will do some calm breathing before practice, lying down.  It gives me a much more productive practice session.
  • Opens nasal cavities- improves resonance.  Feeling the sensation of the air opening the nasal cavities can help open up the tone.  Thinking of a nice smell helps open the nasal cavities and mouth and encourages a full, deep breath.

An important point about breathing is that we don’t literally put air into the stomach!! When one encourages “belly breathing” or “diaphragmatic breathing”, this sets up a mis-map of how the respiratory system works.  The abdominal area will move, but the air itself isn’t going into the organ of the stomach!  Jessica Wolf’s Art of Breathing is a great resource to understand how we actually breathe.

Of course, when we play the flute, we don’t always have time for a nose breath. But where one has a whole bar/measure’s rest (or more), it can be a great way to calm one’s nerves or release tension. Hyper-ventilation (breathing too often through the mouth) is often observed in young students who then complain about getting dizzy. I will often get students to fill in a breathing chart, working on playing notes longer each day which encourages them to breathe less frequently.

Another useful aspect of nose breathing is letting the air out through the nose before one plays, which encourages a soft attack of the note. This is something Michel Debost, Emmanuel Pahud and others encourage. I personally prefer to get a soft attack in another way (blowing above the flute and lowering the airstream using the jaw to find the speaking point), but both have the intention of getting the air moving before the sound is made, releasing any tension when we hold the breath.

Some think they can’t get enough air when they breathe through the nose, but this is a common misconception.  It raises the question, “How much air do you think you need?” If you sing a phrase before playing it, how much air do you use? Can you get to the end of the phrase easily?  Try to emulate that when you bring the flute up instead of reverting to the habit of forcing a lot of air in through the mouth.    It helps me to think instead of
“breathing” to think of “Being breathed”, something I learnt from my Alexander Technique teacher.  In other words, take away the effort of trying to breathe, but just let the body do what it does naturally (just as we breathe when we are asleep).  Then the in breath becomes passive and automatic, as it should be.

If you breathe through your nose before playing, do you find it helps?  If not, have a go and let me know if it helps in any way.

 

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!

 

Finding resonance on the flute

“How do I get a big sound?” is often a question students will ask. Indeed, developing one’s sound and dynamic range is part of a musician’s daily practice. So, apart from blowing more, what can we do as flute players to get a bigger sound?

Well, it’s all about resonance. Resonance is the quality in a sound of being deep, full, and reverberating. When a violinist or cellist moves their bow across a string, the vibrations of sound are amplified by the resonating chamber or body that lies beneath the f holes. Even short notes or pizzicati have a ringing quality. For flute players, our resonance comes from the same place as where singers find their resonance: our bodies. If we can make the flute and our bodies resonate as one instrument, we can produce a large, enveloping tone without overblowing.

There are a number of factors that can affect resonance. I will discuss my thoughts and ideas for improving resonance below and hope that you will find something useful.

Harmonic series

Firstly, for a sound to carry with resonance, the harmonics or overtones within the tone must be in tune. How much harmonic content you decide to play with affects the colour. A détimbre sound is one that is more hollow and contains just the first couple of harmonics. When you play with more of the upper harmonics, you get a more timbre sound with a darker, richer colour. Whatever colour you choose to play with, the harmonics must be in tune for the sound to project well. When the harmonics are in tune, the sound rings and it makes resonance so much easier. Here’s a video explaining how to find a harmonics in tune sound:

Harmonics in tune video

Muscle [over]use

The overuse of muscles is one of the main contributing factors in cutting down resonance or making the sound harsh.

Situations where we overuse muscles:

  • Fast music

Humans can be strange sometimes. When we see a lot of notes on the page, our habit to tense up and try really hard to get all the notes. But by doing this, we are doing the opposite of what is useful. Light, free movement in the hands, arms and shoulders not only facilitates quick movement, but enables more resonance.

  • Low notes

I see a lot of students gripping the keys to ensure they get that low note out. See how much pressure you actually need to close the keys. I like to play the 2nd harmonic of low C since it uses all the fingers and when I apply minimal pressure, I feel the air passing under the pads of my fingers and resonating the whole instrument. As soon as I grip or apply too much pressure, the resonance is limited to a small part of the flute near the headjoint end- it’s a strange phenomenon. When I get that easy resonating sound on the harmonic with hands released of tension, I play a normal C and the sound just sings! Great thing to do before tone exercises.

  • Soft entrances

When one sees pp marked in the part and everybody else is playing super quietly, as is often the case for orchestral fluting, there is often a habitual response of tightening up or squeezing facial muscles or abdominals because one doesn’t want to stick out. It’s the musical equivalent of hiding at the back of a classroom when a teacher asks, “Does anybody know the answer to this equation?”. In soft entrances, we still need resonance and beauty of sound. I think this tension can be overcome by practising messa di voce exercises, or finding where the note speaks. It is one of the first exercises in my book. Basically, it is finding the point where, as you blow above the embouchure hole (jaw forward), you find the point where air becomes sound by gradually bring the jaw back and lowering the airstream. This exercise is wonderful training for the lip muscles and jaw movement, while maintaining a steady flow of air. When you sing the word “hah”, you will feel the air move through the throat before the sound is heard. As long as the air speed and direction are right, the note will speak. It just takes careful, thoughtful practice.

  • Breathing

Have you ever marked in a double-breath in your music to make sure you take in enough air for a big phrase? I think we all have at some point. But is it helpful? If we remember that the in-breath is an automatic response after blowing out due to a pressure change, then we realise that forcing in air by “taking a large breath” is actually just grasping and unhelpful. Instead, creating space after blowing out to allow the air in is more beneficial. This also improves resonance so one doesn’t need to use so much air to get a large sound- it’s an Alexander Technique win-win!

  • Support

This is another controversial topic, which I’ll just touch on. If you say “support” to a student or yourself, you may induce a tightening of muscles (abdominal usually). As discussed earlier, muscle use tightens the sound and cuts off resonance. Instead of “support”, try using a different word that is more helpful to the student, such as “air speed”, “connect”, “open”, or “legato” etc. This inspires the process or means whereby, rather than end-gaining with tension. To play with fast air requires a healthy use of muscle, definitely not completely relaxed, but also not over-used. Singing and playing at the same time is a great way to feel the connection of the sound and play with a good air speed. It also encourages an open throat, something singers work on for achieving good resonance.

Creating space in the mouth

  • Soft palate

My Alexander Technique teacher often says to “smile behind the eyes” and that helps lift the soft palate. Another way is to attempt a yawn without actually doing a full yawn. When we lift the soft palate, we create more space and also allow the air to travel in a natural flow over the roof of the mouth and out through the mouth between the teeth.

Inhale and exhale on a whispered “kaaah” or “aaaah”. You should feel the air passing over the soft palate. I find this particularly beneficial.

  • Jaw

Tension in the jaw, grinding one’s teeth, are signs of anxiety or nervousness. By releasing the jaw and feeling space between the upper and lower jaw and top and bottom sets of teeth, we allow more resonance. The lower jaw should be free to move anyway, since intonation and intervals require flexibility.

Alignment and awareness

Maintaining torso length

When we breathe in and out, we often let our chest collapse and we sacrifice the length of our torso and resonating chamber. If we can retain the length from our neck to the pelvis, we allow more resonance.

Concept of sound, imagination and careful listening

Put your ears on stalks! Can you hear your sound from the other side of the room?! Often we focus on what we hear directly around the headjoint. Listen to what comes back to you if you are playing in a nice acoustic. If you are in a very dry acoustic, inhibit the desire to force the sound.

Can you imagine resonating in different parts of your body? For example, resonating in the chest, the back, the head, the shoulder blades. By thinking of these different areas, you become aware of any tension or closing down of space. You can therefore release those areas of tension and allow more resonance. You can’t exactly control it, but you can help increase the possibility to resonate.

I hope you find this useful.

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!

Puff away

Another popular discussion in the flute community is the issue of puffing one’s cheeks when playing. This is something I have experience of myself, having been a “puffer” in my formative years. I would like to discuss this and try to find pros and cons of letting one’s cheeks puff!  Please note this is a discussion and I’m not wishing to polarise opinion.

My experience

As a young student, I was always trying to improve and take my playing to the next level. Part of that was getting a big sound to match those around me in youth orchestras. Rather misguidedly, I did this by blowing more. I knew that relaxing helped me find a bigger sound than tightening and this is when the cheeks puffed. Being told to “relax” encouraged a full, round sound, but it also caused my cheeks to puff. I don’t think I was so aware of it at the time. I did notice that quiet playing was difficult and the sound was somewhat raw. Indeed, my first teacher in London, Sebastian Bell, noted “You have a raw energy, which you mustn’t lose. But we can refine it!” I hadn’t really seriously worked on tone and intonation until I started working with Sebastian and this is when I became conscious of the cheeks. During one lesson, Bas noticed my vibrato was quite wide and automatic and this was where my cheeks were filling with air and, being completely relaxed, they were moving in waves, affecting (or rather dictating) my vibrato. Later, when I studied at the Royal Academy of Music, my teachers Wibb and Kate, as well as visiting teachers including Emmanuel Pahud and Paul Edmund Davies all mentioned it in the first year. So, it was something that was getting in the way of my expression and I made it my project to do away with puffing and find a way to sound relaxed but with more control and varied expression.

What happens when our cheeks puff?

Here is an interesting video of the muscles of facial expression. Notice how all these muscles are connected, so anything we do with our face has a reaction in the other muscle groups.

The muscle group that is responsible for forming and controlling our embouchure is the circular muscle: Orbicularis oris. The muscle group associated with puffing one’s cheeks, or conversely sucking them in, is the buccinator muscle.

Knowledge of these muscles is very useful since we can then see how tension in the jaw area can cause quite a significant change in our blowing muscles. Other expressions which some of us do when playing are muscle contractions: closing one’s tightly, frowning, smiling.  These are just the visible things we can do.  There are so many expressions we do internally, particularly in relation to the nasal muscle group.  Then of course, changes in these muscles affect the throat, shoulders etc.  Everything is connected!

But looking again at the two muscle groups: buccinator and orbicularis oris. Notice how the fibres of these muscles blend. There is a direct result in the lip muscles when we puff our cheeks: it relaxes them. Try blowing on your hand with tight cheeks and the with puffy cheeks. You can feel more freedom of air when the cheeks are puffed out.

So what are the pros and cons?

Drawbacks

  • The sound is rather coarse. Lack of tone in the lip muscles means a lack of focus to the airstream and therefore the sound.
  • Slow vibrato when the cheeks flap in and out.

Benefits

  • Loosens embouchure. If you find your embouchure or lip muscles getting tight, a bit of puffing can be a good idea.
  • It adds a different dimension to one’s sound.  I’ve seen many professional players puff their cheeks at times and it works for them.
  • High register has more openness and sounds less harsh.

Practical uses:

  • Circular breathing – allowing air into the cheeks and using this as a reservoir to inhale while still blowing out.
  • Warm up/cool down- loosening any muscular tension and warming up muscles around the lips and face.

As for playing with puffed cheeks, I have now steered away from this as I prefer playing with good control and just enough use of the facial muscles. I try to think of the lip and cheek muscles working together in creating a good embouchure, but with a good balance of use. Too floppy and the sound lacks focus; too tight and the sound becomes harsh. But I definitely puff my cheeks before and after playing as a little stretch, much like an athlete would stretch their hamstrings before and after a race.

Let me know your comments! Are you a puffer? What benefits or drawbacks have you observed?

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!