Flute Punch

Posts Tagged ‘throat

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.

Finally, some clarification is coming for me on the subject of tonguing, thanks to the flute listserv I belong to. I was taught “too” or “tu” as Americans say it, and my experience is that students who were taught something else — usually some form of tonguing between the teeth — have sluggish, unclear tonguing. I had always thought that this was French tonguing, but it is not. The French style is “teu,” which has the benefit of keeping the tongue high in the mouth, which is also something I teach my students (or at least try to!).

A helpful member of the listserv directed me to this fantastic article on the Joseph Allard website. The “thi” tonguing is something different from “teu” and “tu/too” (I’m not sure where “thi” fits in; more on that to come, I hope). Even though Allard was a sax player, this article does a great job of describing effective tongue and throat position. Basically, the French “teu” causes the air to flow more quickly over the top of the tongue, because the tongue is close to the roof of the mouth — an effect similar to that created by putting your thumb over the end of hose, causing the water to spray out.

I may have to rethink my position on the open throat, or at least how I teach it. With students, I usually ask them to hold their hand up and breathe on it as though it is a mirror and they are going to fog it up. I think that this in itself does not create throat tension, but when the “teu” style tongue position is added to it, it certainly may, as it is hard to do both of those things at the same time. So it could be that if the tongue is functioning in the “teu” position, then it is out of the way of the throat, and the throat is therefore “open” and needs no further attention.

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.”


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