Last week I was a clinician for a flute sectional for a local Junior High Honor Band. The teacher that invited me to be the clinician asked me to take some time to address what is crucial for young musicians their age and experience level to know or to “share a silver bullet for correcting typical issues in young players.” Hence, the title and subject of this post.
What is a Silver Bullet? Merriam-Webster.com defines a silver bullet as “one that instantly solves a long-standing problem.” Dictionary.com defines it as “a quick solution to a difficult problem.”
Learning to master any instrument takes years of careful and thoughtful practice and instruction and experience. But, if I had only had 30 minutes to spend with you, this would be my advice.
Tone is the most important thing. Take the time necessary to develop a clear flute sound. Yes, this means you have to practice slow, long tones.
Use more (faster and effective) air. Practice blowing through a straw. When blowing through a straw, see how fast you can push all of your air through the straw.
A coffee straw, a regular drinking straw, and a larger specialty straw.
Try blowing through each one to gain the understanding of what kind of support you need to push your air through as fast as you can. Generally speaking, the regular sized straw is the most accurate type of straw to achieve the feeling of creating resistance as you exhale on the flute. Blowing through the coffee straw brings back college memories of taking oboe lessons one semester. Blowing through the specialty straw feels like blowing through a contrabass flute.
Straw practice is a good place to start, but I strongly suggest investing in a Pneumo Pro or Breath Builder. You can read my blog post from October 3rd, 2020 for more pictures and more information about the Pneumo Pro. Do an internet search for a Breath Builder and you’ll easily find one. Most younger players, and even older players that come to me for lessons, don’t use a fast enough airstream.
Pucker and Pout. Create a cushion for your flute with your lower lip.
Pout, then pucker and blow while maintaining your pout. Blow into the flute more and aim down.
Keep your airstream steady and consistent. Practice long tones daily to develop this skill. Set your metronome to quarter note=60. Play a scale slowly in whole notes. Challenge yourself to see how many whole notes you can play in one breath. Then advance to other tone exercises.
Learn your scales and arpeggios. This provides a solid foundation to everything else. Go to www.flutetunes.com for simple to find downloads of major, minor, chromatic, and other scales and arpeggios as well as loads of other fun and helpful flute information. Go watch the Disney Aristocats movie for a great song with cats singing about the importance of learning your scales and arpeggios.
Use the correct fingering for middle D and E♭. PLEASE!!! If tone is the most important, this is an easy tone fix. Lift your left hand index finger for middle D and E♭. The D and E♭ fingerings are different for each octave.
Use the Thumb B♭ key. Instead of adding your right hand index to the B fingering to create B♭, slide your thumb to the round, left thumb position. Remember to keep your thumb straight and pointing toward the ceiling.
You can keep your thumb in this Thumb B♭ position while you play all the other notes, except for the third register high F♯ or G♭, or if you have to play a B♮, C, or C♯.
Trill rules. Finger the note that is written and trill to the note above in the key. As flute players, we always have trills, especially in band music. You have to know your scales to know what the note above in the key (or scale) would be. If they add an accidental such as a ♯, ♭, or ♮ above the “tr” then that means to adjust the note accordingly. When in doubt, ask someone who knows, like a qualified flute teacher. Feel free to reach out to me and I’ll be happy to help.
Follow articulations. If each player is following the correct articulation (tonguing or slurring), you will sound more unified as a flute section. Get in the habit of following articulations.
Accents. The most common accent mark means to emphasize the note by playing it louder and stronger. As a flute player, you do this by using more tongue and more air. Use a stronger “T” sound by creating more air pressure behind the tongue. Accent mark = more tongue and more air.
Dynamics and Intonation. This requires a blog post all on its own. Once you have a solid tone, work with a qualified teacher on these two aspects of flute playing or check back in the near future for advice on these subjects.
I realize this is a long list. However, if I had to choose only one of these elements as the “silver bullet” (my advice for a quick solution to improving your flute playing skills) I’d say USE MORE (faster and effective) AIR!!