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Silver Bullet Advice for the Developing Flute Player

The Power of a Straw

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.

This was just too cute to not share. She’s going to make a great flute player when she grows up.

Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash

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.

Continue reading “Silver Bullet Advice for the Developing Flute Player”

The Universal Gift of Music

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to travel overseas to Europe and Asia with performing groups. These trips were memorable and eye opening. Even though we couldn’t speak the same language, the universal language of music and a smile broke down any language barriers that existed through not being able to communicate through words.

Where words fail, music speaks.

I found this to be true back then and continues to be true today. A few weeks ago my family and I went to an assisted living facility to do a musical Christmas program for some of the residents in the memory care. Sharing a musical program to what used to be called “an old folk’s home” is a favorite tradition that I carried over to my family from when I was a child. My children have participated as soon as they are old enough to shake a jingle bell. This is one of the best parts of Christmas, sharing our gifts with others.

We provided a Christmas variety show with piano, flutes, alto flute, pan flutes, drums, tambourine, jingle bells, and singing. While some of the residents can’t communicate very well through words, due to health issues and loss of brain functions, the smiles on their faces said it all. We performed for nearly an hour and none of them became restless. They wished for more.

Why do we learn to play or sing music? Why to do spend so much time practicing to really master a skill? Why do we sacrifice so much time and effort and money (thanks moms and dads and grandparents)? It is for times such as these.

Music is that language that connects our hearts together in spite of race, religion, ethnicity, language, lack of brain function, or any other barrier. Music speaks from one soul to another soul. How blessed we are to have the universal gift of music!

Simple Advice for Christmas and Beyond

The Christmas tree advice is adapted from a message originally published in a magazine in 1959 by Howard W. Hunter. [This Christmas…]

Be kind.
Be gentle.
Apologize.
Write a letter.
Keep a promise.
Give a soft answer.
Forgive an enemy.
Welcome a stranger.
Express your gratitude.
Think first of someone else.
Seek out a forgotten friend.
Gladden the heart of a child.
Examine your demands on others.
Speak your love and then speak it again.
Manifest your loyalty in word and deed.
Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust.
Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth.
Encourage Youth.
Forgo a grudge.
Mend a quarrel.
Try to understand.
Laugh a little more.

This advice still applies to each of us in 2021. As you begin 2022, may you find inner peace as you strive to be a little better in some small way. Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for a Joyous New Year!!

Benefits of a Masterclass

Tonight I held a group flute class, called a masterclass. Each student played a piece for each other. Some couldn’t attend in person, so they joined us on Zoom. A couple of other students had scheduling conflicts so we recorded their songs during their lessons and played the recordings for the other students. I then opened it up for comments from the students after each performer. Even though it was just the students (and one parent) playing in my living room and wearing casual dress, it still provides a more formal opportunity to get in front of others to play your flute.

Two main questions to ask are: “What did the performer do well?” and “What can the performer work on to improve?” We can always be just a little bit better in some way – in music and in life.

When you come to a lesson, it is understood that the teacher has the job of pointing out what you did well and what you can improve on. However, I often try to turn those questions around during lessons and ask my students to answer those questions. This helps encourage better listening habits.

When you are practicing at home, you are your own teacher all during the week. You have to listen to yourself and be constantly asking yourself those questions. That’s how you decide how to spend your time while practicing.

What are you listening for? On the judging sheets for the National Federation of Music Clubs they list the following elements. I’ve only included the ones that apply to flute players.

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Flute Hand Position

A GOOD EXAMPLE

What is a good flute hand position? A picture is worth a thousand words. Earlier this year I wrote about a couple of my flute pet peeves. Here is another pet peeve…not playing with a good hand position.

But first, let’s talk about WHY a good hand position is important.

I believe that if you have a natural, relaxed hand position and keep your fingers close to the keys then it makes your playing sound more clean. What’s good about the example in the picture above? Fingers have a natural curve, they are properly centered on the keys, and the left thumb is straight and pointing upward.

The most important thing with your hand position is to stay as relaxed as possible. Having a former teacher with serious hand problems and experiencing some of my own through the years, it has reinforced to me the critical need for a proper hand position.

Right hand thumb is under the index.

If you drop your right hand to the side and stand relaxed, notice your natural hand position. Where does the thumb naturally fall? For everyone I’ve ever taught, the thumb naturally falls in front of the index finger. Bring that naturally shaped hand position upward and insert your flute, keeping the right thumb under the index finger as shown in the photo above. Be careful to not let it poke out too much. It should be under the flute to help support and balance the flute.

Left hand thumb is straight and pointed upward.

While it is necessary to curve the left index finger, the left thumb should be straight and pointed upward. I used to play with a bent left hand thumb. Then one of my teachers suggested to keep it straight since that is a more natural position. I’ve never gone back to a curved left hand thumb. It feels so much more relaxed being straight instead of curved.

While the above photo shows a good placement of the left hand thumb, the right hand fingers fall into the category of what I call “flying fingers”.

These two photos below demonstrate the fingers flying high away from the flute and they also show how some of the other fingers are not even close to the keys. The photo on the left shows the left hand placed too far up the flute. (But how nice of her friend to act as a music stand so she can practice outside. Way to go, girls. Nice teamwork!) The ring finger and pinky are too far away from the keys they will depress. The photo on the right shows even more dramatically what NOT to do with your left hand ring finger and pinky. Notice how they are not even near the keys.

When the fingers are placed on the flute, they should be curved and relaxed with the finger tips or fleshy part of the finger resting just barely above the center of the keys. To work on this concept try playing your favorite scale while keeping your fingers actually touching the keys when you lift them up and that will help you understand what little movement is needed to change notes. The goal should be minimal movement of the fingers.

Even though this image below is computer generated, it gives a good example of a proper hand position.

In conclusion:

  • Keep fingers as naturally shaped as possible.
  • Limit any unnecessary tension in the hands and fingers.
  • Curve the fingers.
  • Keep the right hand thumb directly under the index finger and slightly pulled back.
  • Keep the left hand thumb straight and pointing upward.
  • When playing, keep the fingers close to the center of the keys and avoid flying fingers.
  • Above all, remember that a relaxed position is a better position.

Let a mirror be your best friend when trying to improve your flute hand position. Good luck!