One of the most common questions I receive is, "How do I get my flute players to sound less airy?" If you are a band director, chances are you are intimately familiar with that fuzzy, airy flute sound. Creating a full and resonant tone is something that takes years of hard work to achieve, but there are a few tricks that can help make a huge difference right away.
These are my go-to exercises to achieve a fuller flute sound!
1. the paper trick
The most common cause of a fuzzy flute sound is that the student simply isn't using enough air. Flute is the only wind instrument that does not have a mouthpiece placed directly in or completely covering the mouth. Since a lot of the air does not go directly into the instrument, you have to use a significant amount of air if you want to fill the instrument enough to create a full sound. My favorite exercise to show young players how much air they should be using is the paper trick. Have the student place a piece of paper against a wall. Standing with their face approximately five inches from the wall, have the student use only their air to hold the paper up against the wall. The first time you have a student try this, I would recommend not going longer than a couple minutes. Since most younger players are not used to using this amount of air, it is completely normal to get light headed during this exercise. Before beginning, It is helpful to reassure your students that this is normal and allow them to sit and take a break as needed! I also encourage my students to use this exercise daily. We want this to become a natural and integrated part of the student's playing, which will only happen through consistency. I have my students begin each practice session by alternating this exercise and their assigned tone exercise (long tones, vocalises, etc.). I ask the student to do the paper exercise, play one line of their tone exercise, go back to the paper exercise, play the second line of the tone exercise, and so on. I also emphasize the importance of utilizing slow, deep, low, expansive breathing whenever needed.
DOUBLE DUTY: This trick will also force the student to use fast air, which is another aspect of producing a clearer flute sound!
2. FIX FLUTE NECK
Most young flute players keep their heads too far forward when playing. When the head is not in line with the spine, the throat will be closed off and air can not flow as freely. A fun trick you can utilize is to place your head really far forward while speaking to the student about this and asking them to notice your head position, then move your head back and in line while you are still speaking. You will hear a huge difference in the tone quality and projection through your voice alone, so imagine what it will do when playing!
3. SINGING & PLAYING
Exactly what is sounds like, ask your students to sing and play at the same time. This is tricky when starting out, but becomes easier with consistency. When your flute players sing and play, they will experience buzzing similar to brass players. When singing, the throat naturally opens more which will lead to a fuller, deeper tone. In order to play at the same time, the student will have to use a large amount of fast air. So win win! My favorite use of this technique is while practicing scales and scale exercises.
4. ALLOW AIR INTO THE CHEEKS
This is generally the most difficult step for students who have already been playing for a few years. Many young flute players use quite a bit of tension in their lips, cheeks, throat, and neck. Doing this allows players to produce a clearer sound earlier, so this is a natural tendency. However, you ideally want all of these areas to be predominantly relaxed. In order to produce a full projecting flute sound, there needs to be space inside of the mouth for the air to resonate. If a student is playing with a lot of constriction in their lips and cheeks, this is going to directly translate into their sound. I like to go back to the paper trick and ask the student to fully puff out their cheeks during the exercise. After the student is able to do this multiple times in a row and it looks like they have fully released their cheek tension, have them go back to the flute and do the same thing. At first, this will produce an ugly and extremely airy flute sound. Ask the student to ignore the ugly sound and keep going so they can experience how much air they are able to utilize. If the sound becomes too distracting, wear earplugs! Once the student seems more comfortable with allowing air in the cheeks while playing, we can then add some elements of their normal playing back in to begin to bring the sound into focus. The length of this process is going to be extremely dependent on the individual student. Some students are very open to this process and adapt easily while others will have great difficulty letting go. For these students, continue this step for a few weeks or even over the course of a couple months until you see the student is comfortable opening up.
When trying to focus the sound from the extreme airiness, I ask the student to stop fully puffing out the cheeks and try to go back towards their normal playing. Be sure to emphasize that they must maintain the feeling of looseness and relaxed cheeks. I encourage them to still be able to feel air in their cheeks! If the student is using vibrato, you should be able to see the cheeks vibrating. The final step in re-focusing the sound is to experiment with air direction.
DOUBLE DUTY: Once a student masters this, it will also help them to produce louder notes in the lower register!
5. EXPERIMENT WITH AIR DIRECTION
The anatomy of every student and instrument is different. What works for me may not work for you! Perhaps the most important step in creating a good quality flute sound is finding the exact angle you need to direct your air across the tone hole in order to produce the clearest sound. Doing this will be involve slight and controlled movements of the bottom lip in order to change the direction of the air stream. If a student is directing their air straight across the tone hole, an extremely airy sound, or even no sound at all, will be produced. By moving the bottom lip slightly in, the air stream will be directed more downwards, and by moving the bottom lip slightly forward, the air stream will be directed up. I always tell my students that they need to be like a mad scientist experimenting in a lab as they practice! They will need to experiment with exactly what lip position will produce the air direction that produces the sound quality they desire! I ask my students to go home and experiment with a middle D to find their ideal placement for the middle register. If the student is more advanced, I will also ask them to experiment with a low Eb and a high F. After your student finds the angle that produces the best sound quality for them, have them work on being able to consistently produce. I practice this by playing the same note a few times in a row without a tongue attack, take the flute down and relax, bring the flute back up, find the same position and repeat, until the student is able to produce the notes consistently. Once this has been achieved, try the exercise on different notes!
It is imperative that your students have a clear idea for what a professional flute tone sounds like. I like to assign my students anywhere from 5 to 10 different flute players to listen to and have them to take notes. I have them use YouTube or Spotify and write down the name of the player and piece they listened to, and their thoughts on each player's sound. I ask them to focus on the vibrato (does it vary or is it the same throughout?), dynamic range, color (is their sound darker or brighter? Does it change or is it the same throughout?), and their own personal opinion on whether or not they like that sound, and why. In our lesson, I then ask them which player had their favorite sound and least favorite sound, and why. After completing this assignment, I assign a new piece of standard repertoire for them to listen to each week, and ask the student to find at least 2 different performances of it. Once you guide the student in how they should be listening to sound, they will begin to develop preferences and ideas for their own sounds. Most students are then able to produce better sounds just through experimenting with imitation! A list of famous flute players you can use for this exercise, in no particular order:
Julius Baker (my flute grandfather!)
Aurele Nicolet (my other flute grandfather!)
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