“What am I doing wrong here?” said Geoff, a 70-year-old learner of the flute. Clutching a well-worn copy of Trevor Wye’s famous ‘Tone Practice Book’, he grumbled with frustration:
“It seems like no matter how many long tones I do, I really don’t hear much improvement in my sound!”
It was our first lesson together in my Cornwall flute studio and Geoff detailed his current practice regime to me:
“I play long tones at least an hour everyday – I set my timer– I even do the order of exercises that the book suggests!”
Geoff, a retired, impeccably dressed former mathematician, seemed to take his flute practice very seriously. In fact, he gave me the impression that he approached it with the same dogmatic rigour and discipline that one might do to train for a marathon. His book’s pages were covered with personally constructed timetables and daily regimes for the tone work he did every day. Unfortunately, the meagre outcome of what he was hearing from the fruits of his (very dedicated) labour seemed to have left him anxious and frustrated—in fact, this was why he had come to see me.
Let’s put the pause button on the story for a moment here. I believe Geoff’s tone problems (and his frustration) are not just his alone. Ask many flute students how to improve their sound and the first thing you will most likely hear is that ‘you should play long tones’. Every. Single. Day. This is often accompanied with the belief that the longer you devote to playing these magical long notes the more likely it is that your dream sound will arrive. And like a good fairy-tale, they will come when you least expect it on a gilded carriage, perhaps someday in the future.
I know this is often the case because I, too, have also been a part of this urban legend. If you were to rewind back to my music conservatoire days, I would have religiously prattled off the famous Marcel Moyse’s De la Sonorite bell tone study with a mixture of smugness and glory. Why? Because I knew it was part of what I ‘should’ be doing in a ‘good’ practice session. But, in all honesty? I really had no idea how to use long tones effectively to beautify my tone. I knew I had to listen to myself play, but I wasn’t sure how I might make anything better in a physical sense if I didn’t like what I heard. It seemed as if the whole process was a complete hit or miss for me.
After 20 years of teaching many thousands of flute lessons to all levels of players, and after much experimentation, I remind my students to try to achieve two things when working on tone. First, I recommend that you listen to yourself as if you are an unattached observer, i.e. not judge what you hear coming out of your flute, but simply note what is going on in the sound. Next I suggest that you check in physically with what you are doing, too—even if you need to find a mirror.
This state of playing, where you are unattached and fully present, might be described as even being mindful, meditative, or spiritual– simply pick your favourite buzz word. However you label it, trust me, by engaging with yourself on these 2 levels you are not able go into la la land when playing your long tones. Nor does this encourage you to have a mini freak-out session if something doesn’t sound right (because let’s face it, some days your flute playing will simply fall apart).
The next stage involves knowing how to physically tweak anything that you are not happy with in your tone. If you were here with me in a session, we’d zoom in on these 15 observations to find your ideal sound (think of it as a physical check-in to see how you are using your body when playing).
- Are there any changes we could make in your posture that will help alleviate any undue tension? (i.e. looking at shoulders, stance, hand position, etc.)
- Is there tension appearing in your face on any notes? (i.e. lifted eyebrows, furrowed brow, etc.)
- How are you taking in your air, is the inhalation style effectively supporting your phrases?
- How is the speed of the air you use in each dynamic? Is it fully smooth or is it wrought with wiggles and under-supported?
- Are you losing air ineffectively when you play (is it leaking through your nose, for example?)
- Is the general angle you’re blowing on the flute riser ideal for your lips (do you have a teardrop lip shape that we might need to factor in, for example)?
- If I were to look at your embouchure shape is it pulled taught, or too relaxed? Are your cheeks engaged or loose when playing?
- How about your aperture shape and size, could it be modified depending on what you are hoping to play?
- Where is the position of your tongue when blowing? And when you are tonguing?
- Is your flute sitting low or too high on the chin depending on your lip size?
- Are you using throat tuning or vowel shaping at all?
- Is there any undue throat tension or grunting I can hear that appears involuntarily?
- Is your vibrato control disturbing your core sound? Is it throaty?
- Are you able to taper and have clear, in tune note endings with lip, jaw and head position?
- But most of all, above anything I’d want to know: how do you want to sound? What do you want to achieve and feel is lacking in your tone?
The above points are not meant to be a fully comprehensive list of the only physical modifications you can use to adjust your tone. Yet, once these basics are explored (and perhaps tweaked), long tone studies can then be very helpful as a tool to refine your physical approach to playing.
I believe that your body is a vessel that holds that golden tone you desire… it’s simply a case of finding the optimal position for our bodies when we play. It is unique to every flautist and there’s never a one-size-fits-all approach, which is why we all have such different flute tones and embouchure styles. This is the beauty of tone production and also the most frustrating thing for those that want quick answers.
My passion for helping flautists with tone development is on par with the thought that everyone has a unique singing voice that needs to be nurtured and also celebrated. Similarly, in a recent interview, the legendary Alice Parker, composer and choral expert (now in her 90’s) talks about developing her own voice in Kristina Tippet’s On Being Podcast:
The voice is a part of us much as our physical appearance is, and the customs that we have, the way we use our bodies…. we each have a sound. And we communicate emotional states through that sound that are impossible to get at any other medium. It’s deep. Sound gives us what is behind the surface. I think each one of us is a walking encyclopaedia of all the sounds we’ve ever heard in our lives. And it takes a sympathetic vibration, kind of light glinting off something, or a color, or a representational object, or an occurrence, or remembering the first love or — all those things. What they call forth, the kind of communication they call forth is music.
I know red, green, all those things, but I can’t remember a color and reproduce it somewhere else. And I can with music. And if I am absolutely convinced that the possibility of song is always there, no matter where I am, my job is to birth it.
As I close, I want to remind you that you deserve to know the tools to use to help make a tone that satisfies your musical voice. You deserve the gift of birthing this sound, whether that is with your teacher, or alone through your own experiments.
And as for Geoff? While he’s had a few lessons with me, he is still struggling to come to terms that there is not just one way to approach tone and no one magic solution to any of this. As I write, I am still holding out that he ditches 40+ years of flute doctrine that has held him trapped to his regimented tone practice. Instead, I hope he continues to delve into the wide casting net of possibility within his own body first that is waiting for him to unearth his dream sound. (Geoff, this blog post is dedicated to you.)