Flute Punch

Archive for the ‘Improvisation & Jazz’ Category

Without further ado (with links to Google images):

  1. Hubert Laws
  2. Sam Most
  3. Eric Dolphy
  4. Frank Wess
  5. Herbie Mann
  6. Ian Anderson

See the previous post if you missed out on the fun. 🙂


…try the “name that famous jazz flutist finger puppet” game. TheHollyJones whipped these bad boys up for me a couple months ago and I just now have time to photograph them. Ok, I’m actually procrastinating, doing this instead of putting up my Christmas junk. At any rate, see if you can be the first to name all 6. (By the way, #5 does have 2 eyes.) Sorry, no prizes… Just glory and fame. I’ll post the answers in 1-2 weeks.

I had the privilege of studying briefly with Horace Alexander Young III several years ago, from whom I learned a little about jazz flute tonguing.

If you’ve ever played jazz on the saxophone, you’ll have that experience of the feeling of swing to help you out. But there are some subtle differences as well when it comes to playing jazz on the flute.

The most notable similarity is that you still use off-beat tonguing. Say you have a measure full of eigth notes in 4/4 time: If you were to tongue them in groups of two as a classical player, you would most likely tongue on the beat — that is, 1, 2, 3, and 4. But if you are playing jazz, you would tongue on the off-beats — all of the “&”s.

Now if you’ve ever played sax, you know that the feeling of swing is created through the fingers. That is, you play the swing rhythm. On the flute however, if you were to swing this hard, it would sound unnatural. Why is this?

My opinion is that this is due to 1) the classical background of the flute, and also 2) the strength of the flute in Latin jazz, in which you play straight eighth notes (not swung).

So how do you create a feeling of swing on the flute? The answer to this lies not in the fingers, but in the tongue. Try this exercise:

Play a measure of moving eighth notes at a moderate tempo, straight (not swung) and slurred. (For example, a G major scale). Now apply this tonguing: “oo-dah oo-dah oo-dah oo-dah” — you should notice, that without changing the straight eighth rhythm as played by your fingers, you have now a feeling of swing that sounds more native to the flute than it would if you were using heavy triplet swing rhythms.

Horace has written a very informative book, Improvising Jazz Flute, that unfortunately appears to be out-of-print, but you might be able to find it used if you’re interested in learning more.

Once you get started with improvising, you’ll quickly find that you’d like to have some accompaniment to support you. Here’s some different sources for accompaniments (mostly jazz-oriented, as that’s my personal favorite!):

Live Musicians

Playing with other musicians is always the most rewarding option! But many of us don’t have a complete rhythm section at our disposal. Fortunately there are some other helpful options.

Pre-Recorded Accompaniments

Jazz musicians are probably most familiar with the Jamey Aebersold play-alongs. These are books that contain several lead sheets for instruments of various keys/clefs that come with a CD of a rhythm section playing several choruses of each song. I’ve also used Music Minus One on occasion.

Automated Accompaniment Software

In order to use one of these programs, you’ll need a lead sheet of the song you want to play. A lead sheet consists of a melody line with chords above it. What you then do is type the chords into the software, set your style and tempo, and then you can play along with the accompaniment it generates. The best automated accompaniment I know of is Band in a Box. The disadvantage of this is that the accompaniment can have a “canned” sound to it, although this has improved over the years. But I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages; namely, 1) you can change the tempo or the key, and 2) over a longer period of time, it’s more cost-effective.

Whichever method(s) you use, there are important reasons to use harmonic accompaniment, including:

  1. It forces you to play in time and learn to keep track of where you are in the music
  2. It allows your ear to hear the harmonic structure over which the melody is laid and how your improvised notes are fitting into that harmony

That second point is important, because as you gradually learn what notes sound like over the various chord qualities, you can have more control over what it is you want to say with your music.

When I was in middle school, my English and Humanities teacher taught us to get started writing something by “breaking the power of the white,” which consisted of putting something — anything — down on paper, no matter how “bad” we thought it was, in order to get the ideas flowing.

I think many of approach improvisation with a similar attitude: We’re not sure how to get started, and we’re afraid that our first attempts will be “bad.” With that in mind, I’d like to offer the following comments on attitudes and techniques for getting started with improvisation.


I find it helpful to keep the following things in mind:

  • Ask yourself if you want to be an improvisatory musician. Do you like improv? Do you want to try it? Then do it. Don’t worry about whether you’re “gifted” or not.
  • Don’t worry about whether your initial attempts are “bad.” Who cares if they are? What’s important to remember, I think, is that we play music because we like it. That said, read on — I hope some of the tips below will help keep you from feeling you are “bad” at improvisation.

Ways to Get Started

The first thing you should do is start listening. Music, including improvisatory music, is an aural art form. We have ways of notating music, but until we get the style and feel of it into our heads, it can’t really come out of our heads. You can’t play anything until you can start to first hear it in your mind. Find radio stations (many are online now) and recordings of the improvisatory music you like and want to play. I myself tend to lean towards jazz. Whatever your choice, listening is where you start to get ideas from.

The next thing you should do is memorize a melody you like. It’s OK if it’s technically easy! In fact, it should be, because the point is that you can memorize it easily.

After you have a melody memorized, start embellishing it. Turns, trills, glissandos — try it all. This is great exercise for your mind, because the process that’s occurring is:

  1. Ear hears an embellishment
  2. Fingers, embouchure, etc. try to make that embellishment happen
  3. Ear hears that embellishment didn’t happen as expected
  4. Brain learns from the disparity between expected and actual, so that the next attempts gradually get closer to what the musician wants

In short, don’t worry about what people (including yourself) think about your improv skills. If you want to do it, then jump in. Start in such a way that you can have fun right away, and you just might find yourself hooked on improv.

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