Approaching flute tone early on, even on just the headjoint, will not only create more vibrant, clear sounds from your section but helps with projection and tuning. Flute is one of the easiest instruments to focus on tone but is often misunderstood by directors with no personal flute experience.
Mirrors correct so many problems. Since headjoint placement is often the culprit, students should either provide their own locker mirror or have access to a class set of mirrors as they learn how to play flute. If we can teach them what to look for in the mirror, students can self-correct their own embouchure and set up problems without a teacher individually checking every student every day. Partners are another helpful way to help catch set up problems before students struggle with sound production.
Mirrors Help Students Diagnose Problems
Air on hand is the most effective way I have found to start any student on flute. I have the kids use their right index finger as their “fake flute”, setting up just like they would their headjoint. This gives us the opportunity to talk about and learn the proper embouchure before they can ever make a mistake. I show them what my embouchure looks like on “fake flute” so they have a general idea of what to expect in their own mirror. Initially I have my kids start with their lips completely closed and allow the air to form their natural embouchure. Knowing where the embouchure wants to form shows us where we need to set the headjoint. While the right hand creates the “fake flute,” we put our left hand in front of our face to practice using the correct air speed, size, and temperature. A lot of flute students have the completely wrong idea of what “flute” air is. Air should be firm, cold, fast, and no bigger than the size of a quarter on the center of their hand. Often I find it helpful to have the kids hold up their hand so that *I* can blow on their hand and let them feel what proper flute air feels like. This is also a great opportunity to go ahead and teach articulation off the real flute.
Another skill we approach with air on hand is basic air direction (a concept that becomes wildly important later). I teach the kids to put the inside knuckle of their middle finger on the tip of their nose and then pull it about 6 inches away from their face. Without moving their head or hand we learn to “paint” our hand with our air stream, moving it from the wrist up to the fingers and back down. This teaches them the jaw flexibility required to pay flute across all octaves. At this point in time, painting the hand is all we do with this skill.
Once the kids can form the proper embouchure and are using the correct flute air, we can move to headjoint. This is when mirrors become a daily fixture on their music stands. I start my kids on open headjoint (no right hand over the end of the headjoint) to learn placement and initial tone production. While I define headjoint placement as putting the tone hole directly under the nose with the back edge of the hole on the edge of the bottom lip, this is just a basic guideline and not the rule. More importantly than aligning the tone hole with the nose is centering the fog. When they blow across the headjoint you’ll see a line of fog. The fog needs to be fully centered on the tone hole and no wider. Fog should only ever be as wide as the tone hole or skinnier. Wider fog creates a fuzzy tone. If the headjoint is lined up under the nose but the fog is off centered, the student will need to learn to place the headjoint in a spot in which the tone hole “catches” the fog.
When looking in the mirror half of the tone hole should be visible. More than half will either create a really fuzzy, weak tone, or no sound at all. Less than half creates a covered, dull sound.
Once we are making basic sounds—good or bad—we start refining the tone we want to achieve. Flute is the brass instrument of the woodwinds: it is an air directional instrument. As flute changes pitch and octave, the direction we aim our airstream changes as well. While working on open headjoint the air stream should be aimed slightly below straightforward to achieve a full, vibrant sound. If the airstream is too high, your students will either make no sound or have a fuzzy, fluffy, hollow sound. If the airstream is too low they will get that same covered, dull sound they made when covering too much of the tone hole. If you have a student with an overbite severe enough to automatically aim the airstream down, they will have to commit to bringing the jaw forward to correct the issue. For all students, this is a good time to revisit painting the hand with our air to remind them how to aim the airstream. You can walk around and feel each student’s airstream, but more often I have my students pair up and while one partner plays the other feels where the air is aimed. We review on a daily basis which headjoint set ups create which tones so that the kids are learning to evaluate and diagnose problems. If they can’t articulate what creates a bad tone, they can’t fix it.
Even at this very early point, we start using tuners. We’re still only on open headjoint playing one pitch, but there is a specific pitch they should achieve if the headjoint and airstream are correct. On open headjoint I want the kids to aim between the range of a perfectly in-tune A up through 15 cents flat. Students can either have their own tuner hooked up to their headjoint or you can drone a pitch for them to match. If you drone, I would perhaps split the difference and drone a slightly flat A. Once they match this pitch with the set up looking good, your flutes will already be using and learning what a full, clear flute tone sounds like. Don’t forget to check the tuning cork on each of your students’ headjoint before working with a tuner.
The next step is to close the headjoint with our right hand. Closed headjoints can play two partials: a low A and a high E. Closed headjoint is not worth your time until students are making a characteristic sound on open headjoint. To achieve the two partials flute players have to do two things. For the low A, air has to be shifted lower into the tone hole. For the high E, air has to be pointed more straight forward. I take my kids back to air on hand and practice aiming at our wrist specifically and then the center of the hand. We practice this shift of air direction on “fake flute,” feeling the air hit those locations. Pneumo-Pro headjoints are perfect for kids that need a visualization of where their air is actually going. For this kind of work, I take off the top and bottom pinwheels and only have them aim for the middle two. Once they can shift their air correctly on command between those two pinwheels, I put them back on headjoint, usually with marked improvement.
The aperture also changes for these two partials, just like a brass instrument. For the low A we allow the aperture to open slightly to a small oval while the high E should be a small circle. Using “fake flute” to practice this aperture change, we can feel the air stream change sizes as well as temperatures. Using the mirror, there should be a visible change in the size and shape of the aperture. Blowing on your hand (or a partner’s), there should be an obvious difference in size and temperature of air. When the aperture does not change, this is when your flutes are forced to overblow the high octaves (sharp above the staff) or struggling with low notes.
Advancing Air Direction and Aperture Changes
Working with our tuners, I want our low A to read between in-tune A and 15 cents sharp. Anything sharper means the air needs to be aimed lower into the tone hole still. A note about low notes in general on flute: if your flutes have to use a weak slow air stream to play in the low range, their air is aimed too high. Slow air or less air is NEVER a requirement for low notes. When the air is aimed correctly, low notes should still use a firm, fast airstream creating that big, resonant sound low flute should be. For our high E we aim for an in-tune E for the high note. If the tuner reads sharper, they are more than likely overblowing, a symptom of not changing the size of the aperture appropriately.
Focusing on tone and tuning on headjoint (even with older students) pays back dividends on the whole flute. The headjoint is far less forgiving than the flute itself, so when your students (or you) can successfully achieve a characteristic sound on headjoint, the flute is going to be clearer, more resonant, and better in tune.
Quick Fix: Octave Work
Moving to the whole flute, I spend a lot of time working on octave exercises using B-flat, A, G, and F, reinforcing everything we learned on headjoint. The air placement for each of these gets lower and lower as we move down the flute like a continuous wheel of air direction. Low A is placed lower than B-flat, low G is placed lower than low A, and so on.
Learning to manipulate the headjoint and then transferring those skills to the octave drills on the full flute is the number one way we can grow the tone of our flute players.
Final short diagnoses:
- Fuzzy – aperture too big OR too much hole showing OR fog not centered OR air aimed too high
- Dull – too much hole covered
- Weak/soft/flat low notes – air aimed too high OR air stream not firm
- Flat low notes – see above
- Aggressive/loud/sharp high notes – aperture didn’t shrink requiring overblowing
Hand Position, Posture, and Vibrato
Right Thumb Position
Posture for Flute Players
Check out Encanto in the MakeMusic Cloud Music Catalog!
More Helpful Resources
- Count Me In by Brian Balmages and Darcy Vogt Williams (available in MakeMusic Cloud)
- Teaching Rhythm Logically
- After Sectionals Podcast