Flute Punch

My custom flute case cover with custom embroidery from MischiefDesigns arrived Friday. It’s a graduation gift for another flutist, but it looks so fantastic, I thought about keeping it! It’s slightly oversized, to accommodate both student and professional style cases.

black flute case cover with embroidery

MischiefDesigns flute case cover with embroidery

Music educators have a vested interest in helping people understand the importance of music — partly so their school programs don’t get cut, and partly because they see first-hand what music does for kids. In doing this, we often relegate music to a supporting role, listing study after study showing how music improves math grades or helps kids regulate emotion.

Screw that. You know why? Because music is worth studying for music’s sake. This world would be nothing without music. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who enjoys a day — just one day — without music. Music on the morning commute, on our iPods, in our movies, at our parties, in our lonely bedrooms, in our churches, even in our elevators. Why? Because we need it. Because it does something to us that can’t be explained, and it doesn’t have to be. It’s OK to understand the intrinsic value of music without having to quantify it.

But for those who enjoy quantification, here’s a video that does a pretty good job of it without degrading music to a supporting role. Enjoy.

Monitoring the unseen is probably the most difficult aspect of teaching a wind instrument. Over the last several years, it’s been my experience that throat tension causes a variety of difficulties. The obvious includes sore throats or tight sound. The less obvious includes difficulty developing vibrato or tonguing. Other signs of throat tension are a tense neck (tendons standing out excessively), a lot of visible throat motion from the larynx down to the notch in the collar bone, or a pinched upper register.

If you think any of those describe you, you can try some self-help. First, read my post about tongue placement. I do feel that this helps create the right space in the throat. The next step is to understand the muscles involved with positioning the larynx.

Try yawning. The larynx will move downward, and then back up again. The muscles engage for a brief period, just long enough to accomplish the task. If you swallow, the larynx will move upward, then settle back down again. It is my experience (personal and educational) that most people struggling with throat tension are engaging the swallowing muscles for an extended period of time.

If that is you, make a conscious effort to allow the larynx to relax back downward again. Vocalists train the larynx musculature to resist its natural tendency to rise upward with higher pitches, and flutists have to do the same by consciously relaxing.

Once you’ve spent a few minutes away from the flute trying these things, play a simple scale or song — something that is easy so you can focus awareness on the musculature in question. If throat tension has been a problem, you’ll find your sound won’t be quite right — you won’t reach a high note, or your releases will be rough. That’s usually a good sign — it means that you may have been using the throat to compensate for an underdeveloped embouchure or lack of breath support. Those things are remedied more easily than throat tension, however, so be patient and keep experimenting with the larynx relaxed downward.

At the risk of appearing self-serving, I do recommend consulting a good private teacher for issues like this. A flutist with some experience should be able to assess all these factors and tell you if you are on the right track. Lastly, if you have more severe throat tension issues (you get sore throats after speaking, e.g.), vocal therapy (as silly as it sounds) can be very helpful in addressing these issues.

Tone is influenced primarily by three factors:

  1. Embouchure, particularly the lower lip
  2. Tongue placement
  3. Oral space/open throat

In my previous two posts, I discussed lower lip placement and formation, and tongue placement. This final post in series will cover oral space.

Have you ever sung in the shower? Have you ever played flute in a bathroom or other space with a lot of hard surfaces? At one time or another, most musicians enjoy performing in these spaces because they are resonant — the sound lingers a bit longer and sounds fuller.

Believe it or not, you can achieve a similar quality inside your head by having a relaxed, “open” throat. The easiest and simplest way to create this space is to image you’re riding in a car on a cold morning. The windows are foggy. What do you do? If you’re a kid at heart, you take your finger and write something in the fog. Several minutes later, the windows have cleared up. What do you do? You breathe hot air to fog it up again!

Try this exercise right where you are (no car necessary!). Hold your hand in front of your face, pretend it’s a window, and fog it up. (Or pretend you’re checking for bad breath!) Do it several times and feel the space in the back of your mouth at the top of your throat. Notice how the throat is relaxed. If you try to create a space that is too large, you will develop unhealthy throat tension.

If you tried my tips in the previous posts over the last couple of weeks, you’re now in a better position to apply this third technique. You should notice the sound become warmer, fuller, and more vibrant.

Tone is influenced primarily by three factors:

  1. Embouchure, particularly the lower lip
  2. Tongue placement
  3. Oral space/open throat

In my previous post, I discussed embouchure, particularly lower lip placement and formation. In today’s post, I’ll be covering tongue placement.

To produce great tone, the back of the tongue should be placed higher in the mouth. This causes the air to pass over it in a more “compressed” fashion and exit the aperture (the hole your lips make) at a higher, more energized speed. If the tongue is too low in the mouth, placing the tongue higher almost always results in a dramatic improvement in sound.

Two concepts I use to achieve this:

  1. “Mountain” tongue — think of the tongue as a mountain range inside the mouth. Just as with mountains on earth, the air passing over them moves at a faster rate.
  2. Say the word “key.” Say it several times while noticing where the sides of your tongue contact your teeth. You should feel the sides contacting your upper molars.

Make changes gradually! After you have done the “key” exercise, play a long note using the new tongue position. Assuming you are moving enough air and have established breath support, you should hear the sound become stronger and more defined.

Once you’ve achieved this, try tonguing. If you notice the sound is negatively affected, you may be tonguing between the lips. This is an established method of tonguing, usually taught with the “spitting rice” technique, but it’s not the tonguing I teach for multiple reasons, and this is one of them. In my opinion, it’s difficult to tongue between the lips while maintaining a high tongue position. It’s almost as though the tongue isn’t long enough to do both. If you feel this is your difficulty, try tonguing so the tip of the tongue lands on the backside of the upper front teeth, as though you are saying “too.” Once you’ve got the hang of that, go back to the high tongue placement exercises.

Tone is influenced primarily by three factors:

  1. Embouchure, particularly the lower lip
  2. Tongue placement
  3. Oral space/open throat

In this first of three posts, I’ll discuss the lower lip and its role in tone production.

Ever had chapped lips? The surface of the lips frays and dead skin peeling causes the lips to feel fuzzy and flaky. Even on a day when the lips are not chapped, the outer edge of the lips is still rougher than the inside edge.

A trained embouchure will expose more of the inside of the lip by rolling it outward. This, in turn, means that the corners of the mouth must pull the lip a bit more taut. The result is a smoother surface for the airstream to pass over.

The best way to evaluate this (or any) aspect of your embouchure is to look in a mirror while playing. The primary characteristic I look for in students is contact between the lower lip and the lip plate. You should see the lower lip contacting the lip plate on either side of the embouchure hole.

Average lower lip position

This is a typical flute embouchure. It’s nice, but not much of the lower lip is contacting the lip plate. It also tends to play sharp.

Better lower lip formation

More lower lip is contacting the lip plate. More of the smooth inner surface is exposed. Corners of mouth are directed downward.

If you’re struggling, try the following concepts:

  • “Smash” or “squish” the lower lip against the lip plate
  • Roll the lower lip out
  • “Pout,” which will roll the lip and engage the corners of the mouth

It’s important that the corners of the mouth engage, usually in a backward or downward/frowning motion.

Two parting words of caution:

  1. Leave smiling to the vocalists. On flute, smiling will pull the lower lip up and away from the lip plate, which is the opposite of what we want to achieve.
  2. Double-check lip plate position. Many players place the lip plate slightly too high on the red part of the lower lip. Using the mirror, make sure the edge of the embouchure hole contacts the face at the point where the chin skin meets the red part of the lower lip.

If you find your placement is indeed a bit high, and you make this adjustment, it’s possible that at first, no sound will come out. That’s OK! If that happens, keep the new placement while trying the tips above. Placing the lip plate at this point on the face will require you to use a better embouchure. When working with students on this aspect of playing, it only takes a couple of minutes before sound is again produced, and it is always a higher quality sound.

 

The moral of this story? Always have your flute with you. You never know when you might need a random solo to ease international relations.

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I keep coming back to this wonderful post of John Wion’s on vibrato. I love his detailed analysis of vibrato speed and width, but of special interest to me are the sound samples. Hearing samples of great players slowed down quite a bit (300%) has been very useful not only to me, but to my students as they are learning to understand what is happening to the sound and air during vibrato production.

Every time we perform, we make ourselves vulnerable. In the beginning, we think we are subjecting ourselves to the scrutiny of others. Then one day, we realize it’s ourselves we fear most. Maybe it’s because we can’t escape our thoughts — we keep reliving a bad performance, wondering why we didn’t do better. But I think it’s also because we don’t ever know if some experience will tear open our belief in ourselves and rip out our fundamental sense of purpose and direction.

If that is where you’re at today, musically or otherwise, take the time to watch these videos of BrenĂ© Brown. They are worth it.

BrenĂ© Brown’s TED videos on vulnerability

 

Solo & Ensemble contest is just a few days away, and as always, it has me thinking about the inner game of music performance. Here’s a few humble thoughts on the subject.Wonder Woman!

  1. Be honest about root causes of anxiety. I believe musicians walk around with a shared, unconfessed fear: “What if I botch this performance, thereby wasting countless hours of my life I spent practicing?” It is a risk we take as performers, and we can do 2 things to address this fear: 1) Perform multiple times, not just once. 2) Reflect on the improvements we made to our musicianship over the course of weeks/months practicing that will serve us in the future, not just for one performance.
  2. Practice focusing through distraction. Have some people distract you — cough, talk, throw cotton balls, whatever. Anxiety is just internal distraction.
  3. Rebrand anxiety as excitement. Trying to stifle nerves will make them worse. Instead, say to yourself, “I’m EXCITED!”
  4. Go Wonder Woman. Standing in the Wonder Woman pose for 2 minutes has been clinically proven to boost confidence.
  5. Laugh. I think people play better right after laughing. Grab a cell phone and check out Awkward Family Photos, or stupid YouTube videos, and have a good belly laugh before you perform.
  6. Enjoy others’ performances. Don’t just show up for your performance time — stay to hear more music and support your friends and classmates.
  7. Remember that people want you to do well. I think this is even true of your competitors, whether they realize it or not. Think about the last time you watched anyone perform, live or on TV. You wanted them to do well, right? I believe as human beings, we’re programmed to feel this way.
  8. Own your piece. When you are ready to perform, at that moment, you are the expert in the room on your piece — you, and no one else.
  9. Be proud of yourself. Assuming you have spent time and effort preparing, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Allow yourself to enjoy being the musician you are. There will always be someone better than you, and someone worse than you. What matters is that you are alive and participating in the most distinguishably human act of creating art!
  10. Aim to achieve the highest compliment possible. And what is the highest compliment? Getting a 1 from the judge? Beating out your competition for State nominee? Those things are great, but not the ultimate compliment. In my opinion, if someone says to you, “What was the name of your piece? I really like it,” that is the highest compliment. It means you presented music that others enjoyed.

Thanks for reading, and good luck to all the students performing this weekend!

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