Flute Punch

Archive for the ‘Anatomy’ Category

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.

It seems like a lot of flutists I know go through at least some period of time where excess spit or saliva is problematic. Here are a few things that have helped me deal with this problem.


Try toothpaste without SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate). SLS is a detergent that produces foaming, but as a detergent, it can be drying and irritating. I discovered that my skin does not chap if I avoid handsoaps with SLS, so I thought, “Couldn’t SLS in toothpaste do something similar?” It’s my hypothesis that SLS dries out the mouth and the saliva glands must compensate for this.

Two brands of SLS-free toothpaste that work for me are Tom’s of Maine and Biotene. Don’t be scared by the “dry mouth formula” advertising on the Biotene – it’s still worth trying if you haven’t already.


We all know how much water we drink, but I find it’s important to pay close attention to this the couple of days prior to a performance. The day of the performance, try to get most of your water drank earlier in the day (assuming an evening concert) so that you won’t feel like running to the restroom during the 2nd movement of something!

Lip Plate Modifications

While I have never owned a headjoint with an engraved lip plate, the engraving can provide some traction and help reduce slippage. I also have known a couple people who put a postage stamp on their lip plate. Strange perhaps, but if it works, is affordable, and doesn’t ruin the flute or you, it’s always worth a try.

Robert Dick started a YouTube channel in conjunction with a flute manufacturer. I thought this video on what he calls “throat tuning” was interesting. I definitely agree with his comments about singing. I think as instrumentalists, particularly when we are younger, we resist singing as some sort of “inferior” form of musicianship, probably because of the perceived differences between “band kids” and “choir kids.”

I came across this on Larry Krantz’s website — really wonderful. I’m always interested in anatomical explanations of how we produce sound on the flute.

Here are 4 short videos of Patricia George playing various things while under a fluoroscope. In particular, I noticed placement of the tongue as being fairly high in the mouth, and you can also see the soft palate in the back of the mouth lift to provide an open and resonant oral cavity.

I thought it was also interesting to note movements of the larynx, particularly as it relates to vibrato. We know that this happens because we can observe it during normal playing, and it also seems that the abdominal muscles do not tend to move. But we also know that often, if vibrato is taught from the throat instead of from the abdominal area, it tends to produce the infamous “billy goat” vibrato.

It was suggested to me by a medical professional that the larynx affects vibrato because as it closes, the air is forced to move faster, thus raising the pitch, and conversely, as it opens, the air moves more slowly and the pitch lowers. This makes sense to me according to my understanding of vibrato as modifications of the pitch (sharpening and flattening around the center of the pitch).

It would still be nice to have a better understanding of why, if the above is true, vibrato is still more successfully taught as a series of “ha ha ha” breath surges. The most I can figure is that teaching vibrato with the breath trains the ear to understand vibrato as variations of the pitch center, and as the ear becomes accustomed to this, the flutist automatically begins to transition to making these modifications with the larynx, as they would when varying pitch during speaking or singing.

It would be great to see a laryngoscope of a flutist while playing so we could further examine the action of the larynx.

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