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.

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