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!

De“pressing” the flute on one’s chin

To press or not to press? That is the question for many flute players, especially in the early stages of learning, and there are a few different opinions on this which I would like to discuss and offer my own thoughts.

When we are first taught the flute, we are told to blow across the embouchure hole. To make a sound on the flute, the air needs to divide at the outer edge, where air goes in and above the flute, creating a vibration. To control pitch, dynamic and intonation, our lips need to be flexible. So, ideally, the flute’s lip plate should be placed below the bottom lip where the roots of the teeth are. This varies, however, due to people having different thicknesses of lips. Those with thicker lips often need to place the flute a little higher up on their lower lip than those with thinner lips, since a thick lower lip would cover too much of the flute’s embouchure hole, either making the sound quite small and flat, or non-existent.

When we press the flute too much into the chin, something similar occurs. Firstly, the blowing angle is lowered due to the lower lip covering the embouchure hole more, making the pitch flatter. Secondly, the lower lip is receiving more pressure and is restricted in movement, making it less flexible. Thirdly, the teeth themselves are getting a metal (or wooden) plate jammed into them, which can have a non-desirable effect of tooth damage. Look at how free Emmanuel Pahud’s lips are.

In order to apply more pressure onto the chin, one pushes the flute with the left hand index finger (the finger that balances the flute, together with the right thumb). If you are working hard with your left hand, overusing muscles, this can only have detrimental effects on the sound and set up bad habits of tension and could cause pain issues further down the arm or shoulder. When I try to apply more pressure, I instantly feel stuck in position, with no way out!

So why do people suggest it?

I’ve seen students who have stability issues- their flutes are wobbling all over the place and the sound, especially in articulated passages isn’t stable. This can be due to a lack of pressure, but also because of being unbalanced. As stated in the Trevor Wye books, there are 3 balance points when holding the flute- the left index finger, just above the knuckle joint; the right thumb, which supports the weight of the other end of the flute; and the chin itself. If one can hold the flute without it wobbling with just the right thumb and left index finger, one has found good balance, so overusing finger muscles to grip the flute, or pressing a lot on the chin becomes unnecessary. This is especially noticeable when coordinating finger movements for C-D (2nd and 3rd octave), or any combination where the left thumb leaves the flute. If the flute is balanced, there shouldn’t be any need to press more.

Some teachers, including a very famous one, suggest applying more pressure to students, to help with articulation, so the sound is constant and consistent and not likely to go in too many directions when changing fingers. This is not a bad idea, the sound does indeed need to be stable, but is there another way? Presumably, one wants the air to go down a bit more when tonguing, since the air tends to go a bit higher when adding the tongue. So, instead of pressing more, one could simply aim the air a bit lower and find the angle of the air that gives the best quality of tone. In this way, one can control the pitch better, so tonguing in loud and soft passages is possible.

I think this brings up another issue, which is more general in nature. That is, can we find a better solution to technical problems, rather than trying to fix the issue head on (known as “end-gaining” – see a previous blog about this). Can we find the means whereby that will indirectly fix the issue, rather than “muscling” our way through, which inevitably sets up bad habits, tension, discomfort and poor technique. I can think of many examples of this, such as “support”, holding one’s breath and others, which involve overusing muscles and I may write about these another time.

So, in summary, if someone says “press more”, work out if you do in fact need to, or whether you could get the result they want another way, but where your lips are free and flexible. Don’t be afraid to ask “Why?”. If someone can explain the reasoning behind it and you don’t feel discomfort, then go with it, but just know there is always another way.

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!

Andersen etudes op.15 – no.11

So, if you thought no.10 was tiring, this one will require some serious caffeine/energy bars!    No.11 is all about intervals, but played quickly con agilita.  Yes, easier said than done Mr Andersen!

Andersen 11 opening

This etude requires a great attention to detail, not just in terms of all the accidentals, but getting a smooth legato in wide intervals and creating a connection between groups.  One has to be careful of cutting slurs or rushing the ends of groups, as well keeping a good connection between notes in order to sustain the melodic line.

So, as always, practice the skeleton of the melody to get an idea of where the phrases go and how you wish to shape them:

Andersen 11a

From there, practice the intervals of the etude SLOWLY in different guises.  First, the first and third notes, making the first note slightly louder to give it the correct stress and so that the top note doesn’t stick out, thus ruining the legato.  This requires a subtle movement of the jaw to make sure the softer note isn’t flat.

1.Andersen 11b

After this, practice in these stages:

2.

Andersen 11c

3.

Andersen 11d

4 – 6.

Andersen 11e

When you want to get to a faster tempo, practice in chunks, always ending on the first note of the next group.  This is training for your brain and muscle memory for the fingers.  For example:

Andersen 11f

If you are struggling with the higher notes of each group, practice them as harmonics to find the air speed and direction that you need, then try again with the normal fingering:

Andersen 11g

Try singing and playing some of the etude if you feel you have lost some resonance or connection of the sound.    Remember to keep the connection between each group so the melodic line can be sustained.  Enjoy the changes in harmony and let that guide you in the type of sound you make.

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!

Andersen etudes op.15 – no. 10

Andersen 10

Back with some more Andersen!  Sorry for the delay-  I had a book to finish!  But now I can focus back on these blogs, which I’ve had some nice feedback on from students and other readers-  so thanks for reading!

This is an etude not for the easily bored!  It is relentless in its sequences, but excellent for legato lines, embouchure flexibility and sonority.

Firstly, let us consider the directions:  dolce and con calore.    Sweetly with warmth.  Right off the bat, we have a lot of C sharps and in the first bar- indeed, each 1st beat begins with a C sharp.  These act as anchor points for all the other notes-  it is therefore important to make sure that the colour and intonation of the C sharp are good and have suitable warmth.  Quite often, C sharp can sound like a dying owl’s hoot!

Practice finding a good C sharp

Pitch bending exercise.  Find where the harmonics are in tune.  See my videos on pitch bending for more information.  Click here for  Pitch Bending and    Harmonics in tune videos.

Harmonics

harmonics

Play a low C sharp and then go to the second harmonic without changing fingering.  You will get the next octave C sharp.  Switch to the normal C#2 fingering and compare the pitch and tonal quality of the harmonic and real note.   Try to match the depth of sound, pitch and quality of the two notes.

Intervals using Moyse

Next is to negotiate the intervals, like in the other etudes.    Let’s use a variation of Moyse’s De la Sonorite exercise for these.  Loud to soft =  lower lip goes forward.  Low note to high note=  lower lip goes forward.  “Aaa-ooo”   and air speed increases.

Andersen practice

Rhythm 

Next is to consider the rhythm and stress.  We want to hear the main beats of the 12/8 bar, with slightly more emphasis on the 1st beat.  Within those beats, the first eighth and third eighth are important, so practising the Moyse-style exercise above will help make sure the 2nd eighth doesn’t get accented.  Higher notes just need care with the air speed and direction, not by blowing more.  The third eighth propels the music forward to the next big beat (dotted quarter).

Colour in piano

I find that the most difficult thing about this etude is to sustain a suitable colour throughout.  The over-arching dynamic is piano, which makes things even harder!  Practice it in a comfortable mezzo forte with warmth and sweetness, then take the dynamic down a notch and then another notch after that.  The movement of air needs to be free and uninhibited.  Often when one sees piano  or pianissimo  we tighten up, so by practising it a bit louder at first, you can retain a sense of openness and ease as you gradually make it softer.

Legato tips

Keep the line very smooth by making sure the fingers move minimally and lightly and not letting them dictate how you blow.  I often practice this by blowing on the barrel of the flute or away from the embouchure hole, so I know what I want to do with the airstream before making any sound.  This works on fingers and air alone, then when you blow at the embouchure hole, the sound will be free and easy.

Another thing to do which I’ve mentioned before is to practice the skeleton or outline of the piece, paying attention to sustaining the sound.  Break it down to a very simple melody of the 1st and 3rd eighth notes, played as a quarter and eighth.  Feel the lilting quality of that rhythm and incorporate that when you add all the notes back.

Thanks for reading and happy fluting!