Flute Punch

Posts Tagged ‘tension

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.

I’m discovering right now that my fingers are not as close to the keys as they should be, which means my technique is not as efficient as it should be. By efficient, I mean fast and clean. In particular, my right index finger wants to fly up a bit, which means that Bb fingering is sloppy. Seems a bit silly, since we all learned that fingering in the first few weeks of beginning band!

To build awareness, I’m practicing slow enough to be conscious of whether or not I can feel my finger pads touching the keys at all. I’m aiming for just the slightest feeling that they are touching. This reminds me of the years I spent in non-contact tae kwon-do: By the time we reached black belt level, we were expected to be able to hit the uniform but not the body of our opponent.

I also notice with my students and myself that sloppy technique is frequently a roadblock to being able to double tongue a passage. Tension is probably the biggest inhibitor of fingers lying loose and low to the keys; the more tense a person is, the more the fingers want to fly up. Beginners often have tension because they are assimilating so much new information, so I think it is important, as a teacher, to be aware of tension from the very beginning, and move the student away from tense positions in the early stages of learning.

Speaking specifically of finger position, I think I will become more aware of the significant role it really does play in being able to advance one’s technique.

I just finished Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind, which discusses Arnold Jacob’s renowned philosophy on breathing (stay tuned for more posts on that). I thought I’d see if there were any videos out there of Arnold Jacobs teaching. A search on YouTube turned up this video, which is not the most well done, but it does introduce a few basic concepts of breathing. The concept that stood out to me the most was Jacob’s mention of the “old school” method, which asks the player to tighten many abdominal muscles and exert far more pressure than is required to play wind instruments.

Courtesy of Ann Yasinitsky, Clinical Assistant Professor of Music, Washington State University

Everyone’s mouth and lips are different, but there are a few basic principles of embouchure. For the low register, the bottom lip is drawn back (corners frowning), and the airstream is directed somewhat downward. The bottom lip moves slightly forward for the middle and upper registers and the air is directed more across the headjoint. The higher the note, the smaller the aperture. Do not pinch the lips in the high register! Instead, relax the mouth and produce high notes by supporting from the diaphragm. If you think of the syllables “ah” or “oh” while playing, your tone will have a fuller, rounder quality. Do not press the lip plate [of the flute] hard against your lip. Remember that any tension in the mouth, lips or throat will result in an ugly, choked tone.

from “A Little Bit About Flute Playing”

I forgot to mention in my previous entry that these excerpts are taken from a handout Ann uses when she gives workshops.

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