How to get a good middle E on the flute

We all have bad dreams about ghosts/monsters etc at some point.  The same could be said for the note on the top space of the stave: middle E.  Indeed, somebody at RAM spent a whole lesson on middle E and came out crying “I can’t get a good middle E!”.

It pops up everywhere,  JS Bach E major and E minor sonatas,  Piazzolla Histoire du Tango, Griffes Poem etc.  Some of you may not have a problem at all with middle E – in which case, lucky you!    Actually, some flutes have better middle Es than others.  For those of you who share my plight, here are some tips to get a good middle E.

No vent fingering

Unlike middle E flat or D natural, middle E is fingered exactly the same as its lower octave relative.  E flat and D natural have the advantage of venting the first tone hole, which makes it easier for the second octave to speak cleanly.    We should therefore practise finding exactly where middle E is in comparison to the other harmonics.

Use harmonics to find middle E
Use harmonics to find middle E
Middle E lies between the fundamental low E and its 3rd harmonic – B natural.   Finger a low E and use your lips to change speed and direction of air to alternate between the low E and the harmonic as shown in the first bar.   Once you are comfortable doing that, move onto the second bar.  The middle E will need a slightly slower air speed than the B natural harmonic, but not as slow as the low E (the air speed of middle E is twice as fast as low E).  The direction of air will be slightly lower than the harmonic, but higher than the low E.   Once you have found it, hold it.  Then repeat the exercise.

Cheat fingering

You may be familiar with the fingering below:

Middle E fingering

Instead of using your right-hand little finger on just the E flat key, you press both the E flat key AND the C sharp key.   E and C sharp share a common harmonic:

Harmonics of E and C sharp
Harmonics of E and C sharp
As you can see, E and C sharp both have G sharp as a common harmonic.    I think this is why adding the C sharp key helps the clarity of middle E- it somehow enhances this upper harmonic.   This is particularly useful in passages with repeated Es (Piazzolla Night Club 1960 from Histoire du Tango).

You can practise playing these harmonics, finding a vibrant high G sharp harmonic on both fundamentals (E and C sharp).  Then try to bring out that harmonic when you play middle E.  It’s very difficult to isolate and bring out harmonics when playing just one note- but even the thought of that harmonic can help.

Also, singing a high G sharp (obviously not THAT high!) whilst playing a middle E can help.   Tune your throat to the G sharp and then play the E normally.

If all else fails, use the cheat fingering!  Some people use a trill key in addition to the normal E fingering- that is ok, but it can often have a strange colour and sound too bright – it depends on the position of the tone holes.

Taffanel & Gaubert 

Taffanel & Gaubert EJ 1
Taffanel & Gaubert EJ 1
You can use EJ 1, 2 or others.  In the example above from EJ 1, as Wibb would say, “follow the notes with your lips”, so that when you reach E, the air direction is higher.  Keep the embouchure round  as in the vowel shape “oo”.

Listen to Wibb’s middle Es in this recording of Piazzolla:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E644MDLYmwk

Hope you find this helpful.

Thanks for reading and happy fluting!

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8 thoughts on “How to get a good middle E on the flute

  1. The E you describe so interestingly is the high-tuned E, appropriate for all sharp keys from D up. But you will want a low-tuned E for G major and flatter. Maybe you could offer suggestions to help find that one? Since G/D as a tonal divide is right in the middle of the common keys used in most music, E is a note that more frequently than most needs two versions, one tuned high and one low.

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    1. Interesting point. I’ll give it some thought. The advice was really more about getting the E to speak rather than its relative pitch. I’m writing a book which will have a chapter on intonation. So a future blog might include some of that.

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  2. Dear Rod, I remember Wibb once telling me that the cheat middle E fingering is better because it allows a top B being played with the E fingering. It’s the added harmonic of the fifth that makes the note sound better, as it’s an ‘earlier’ harmonic in the series than the G#.

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  3. The best trick I learned for middle E is to lift LH 1, same as Eb and D, and try to get a good sound with that. Then, do some air attacks and add the tongue once that’s comfortable. The regular fingering is much easier afterward.

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