Dynamics and Intonation, part 1

Dynamics and Intonation go hand in hand.

Dynamics = playing loud or soft, or somewhere in between

Intonation = the art of playing in tune

Changing the volume on a radio or headphones requires changing a button. It takes very little effort to make this change. However, as a flute player, it’s not that simple. Anyone can play one volume. Learning to play various volumes adds to the musicality of your phrases.

Musicality = expressing feeling through the music by adding dynamics and stylistic characteristics. This makes music more interesting to listen to and to play instead of sounding monotone.

Phrase = a musical sentence. This can be any length, but frequently is 2 to 4 or sometimes 8 measures long.

There are many articles and books written on the subject of flute dynamics and more specifically, intonation. My intent here is to do a basic, simple summary for flute players and give you a place to get started. Here is a chart to help explain it.

Dynamic levelpp ffpp
Lip shapeooAhoo
Size of lip opening (embouchure)smallerbiggersmaller
Angle of the air streamhigherlowerhigher
Amount of airlessmoreless
Abdominal supportalwaysalwaysalways
Elements affecting dynamic range

The column on the left describes the elements that affect your dynamic range. The columns on the right describe how those elements should change when you are playing the different dynamic ranges as listed at the top of the chart.

Just as these colors gradually shift from one to another, you must progressively adjust your lips, opening, angle and amount of air. Sometimes the smallest modification can create a big difference in your flute sound.

First, practice moving from the pp column to the ff column. Then start at the ff range and gradually move to the pp range. Practice this on random notes in the low, middle, and high registers. Try to create the widest extremes that you can. For example, play even softer than you think you can and try playing even louder than you think you can. Then, after you are feeling comfortable with this, try going from pp-ff-pp all in one breath. Do this exercise on random notes in different registers as well.

Check back next week for part 2.

Spring Forward

Did you Spring Forward with your clocks last Saturday night? I live in the Mountain Daylight Standard Time Zone. We get the pleasure of moving our clocks ahead an hour in the Spring and moving them back an hour in the Fall.

As I was thinking about the Daylight Savings Time Change, I thought about how I could relate that to music and flute playing.

We talk about “Spring Forward”. Take the word “Forward.” Now think about music. We always have to be looking forward to what’s coming up next in music. This leads me to two topics.

First, speed reading. Second, don’t dwell on the past.

Have you ever had to read something faster than usual? For example, maybe you show up to class and suddenly remember that you were supposed to read an article (or a chapter!!) before you came to class. So you take the 3 minutes before class starts and skim through it as quickly as you can so you can gain some small idea of what it’s about. Has that ever happened to you?

Or, as a flute player, have you ever experienced the feeling of panic as you realize that your lesson is today?! Then you quickly look through your music and play through the hard passages so your teacher won’t know you haven’t practiced as much as you should have. Has that ever happened to you?

(Shhh, here’s a secret…Your teacher can always tell whether or not you’ve practiced!)

When playing music, we need to learn to push our eyes forward. This is an essential component when trying to improve your sight reading skills. You must continually be looking forward to the next main beat or the next measure. When you’ve practiced this skill a lot, your sight reading abilities will improve.

I had a teacher who, as I was playing an Andersen Etude, would take a piece of paper and cover up the measure I was currently playing which forced me to look ahead to the next measure. Talk about panic! Over time, this simple act of covering up the measure helped improved my ability to look ahead and to view music as a bigger picture, so to speak.

The other thing looking forward helps us with is not dwelling on the past. This is true in music and in life. When you are practicing, yes, look back, analyze, critique yourself, and decide what needs improvement or what went well that you could apply to something else.

When you are performing, that’s an entirely different story. You can’t look back. You must constantly be moving forward and looking for what’s next. If you don’t do something as well as you hoped, it’s past. What’s gone is gone. Don’t dwell on the past. Don’t go back and fix it, that’s what practice time is for. When performing, look ahead and make the future great.

Practice these “Forward” skills of speed reading and not dwelling on the past. And “Spring” – as in the season? Look ahead. Hopefully, it’s just around the corner for us here in Utah.

Summer Practicing

Hooray for Summer! Who doesn’t love a change of pace, the warm summer sun, lemonade, swimming pools, ice cream and vacations?

With all the fun and extra events that summer brings, how do you stay motivated to practice during the summer? Commit to keep playing, especially if you are not taking lessons during the summer.

Sight read anything. Pull out old books you’ve previously gone through, flip randomly to a page and see what you can still play.

Go to flutetunes.com and try the Tune of the Day. They have an audio recording along with it.

Summer can be a great time to strengthen your scales and put them to memory.

Play popular music or folk tunes. All local music stores always have popular music or Broadway or Disney music favorites or Irish tunes or folk songs for flute. Try a new one each day as you continue to work on proper breaths, accurate tonguing, solid tone and vibrato.

If you find it hard to motivate yourself to practice, at the very least, listen to exceptional flute players. Maybe that will motivate you to practice.

In any case, enjoy summer and keep music a part of it in some way.

Get Started

I’m sure you have heard of “writer’s block”. It’s when a writer can’t think of what to write, how to start the story, what character development should take place or where to take the story next. Well, I’ve come up with a new term – “human block”. I’ve decided this means that as human’s we get stuck and have a hard time getting started, don’t know how to proceed, or where things should lead.

My advice to that is GET STARTED!! The popular sports slogan for Nike is “Just Do It.” That can apply to so many things. Sometimes half the battle is simply getting started.

The legendary, masterful Irish flutist, James Galway, is credited to say,


Getting your flute out of its case. Sitting down at the piano bench. Opening your textbook or your laptop to do homework. Walking down the stairs to get to the treadmill. Pressing the Reply button on a computer. These are all first steps to progress.

Don’t be lazy. Don’t be sidetracked. Don’t procrastinate.

Or in other words –
Be productive. Be focused. Be enthusiastic.

Flute Pet Peeves

As soon as I saw this picture I knew that I needed to write something about it. This represents perfectly one of my pet peeves.

When younger students take a break and need a place to put their flute, they often have a tendency to set it on the music stand. I’d recommend NOT doing this because you never know if the stand is loose and the weight of the flute will cause the top part of the stand to move down or tip forward and possibly cause the flute to fall off. In addition, with other fellow band students walking around during a break, your flute could very easily get bumped and fall off. I know these scenarios happen because I’ve seen them. When either of these things happen, then you have created a bigger problem of bent keys or a dented flute.  A better suggestion is to ask a trusted friend to hold it for you or invest in a reliable flute stand such as a Hercules stand or take it with you while you get a drink from the drinking fountain.

Continue reading “Flute Pet Peeves”