Want to learn to play the flute or improve your existing skills? Check out these helpful tips from New York flute teacher Nadia B...
As you learn to play the flute, you may encounter some challenges as you grow, learn, and improve. Read on to discover the most common issues I see my flute students facing, and tips to overcome them so you can play at your best.
“I don’t have enough air to play that passage!”
While you may feel that you don’t have enough air, you usually have enough, or even too much. As you play a long phrase and feel the air being used up, your mind usually takes over and reminds you that you still have to make it to the end, so you had better start squeezing out the air… that’s where the problem comes in. If you try to squeeze out the air, you are contracting lots of large, powerful muscles, which actually prevents you from using up the rest of the air inside the body. Then, you may gasp a breath of air at the end of that long phrase without having used up all the air you already had, creating an issue for the next phrase.
Here’s the way out of this vicious cycle: We actually don’t need as much air as we think we do. So when you’re getting ready to start a phrase, don’t gasp in air, or try to tank up. Just let some air naturally flow in (after all, when we have finished up the air inside of us, our bodies automatically respond to make room for air and bring it into the body) and then begin playing the phrase. Your body-mind knows how to manage the air based on the length of the phrase. If you feel like you’re starting to run out, sense the ground underneath you and see if you can allow your body to expand rather than contracting and collapsing in your body to squeeze the air out.
“The flute feels like it’s slipping” or “My pinky finger or thumb hurts from gripping to hold onto the flute.”
Finding a hand position that is effective, comfortable, and sustainable is the key. Too often I see students clenching the flute for fear of dropping it and developing hand pain or fatigue as a result.
It’s important to know that the flute is not just supported by the fingers. (Even if it were, our fingers are longer than most people realize—they start at the base of the hand.) To find a more supportive position, we can visualize a connection between our hands and our back, with our arms as the conduit. You can imagine your arms growing out of your back, and letting the fingers lengthen as the hand touches the flute. This gives you much more support for the flute, so that your back is doing the ‘heavy lifting’ rather than the hands.
Next, find a book and hold it with the fingers stretching out across the front or back cover of the book, and the thumb stretching out across onto the opposite cover. Imagine the fingers connecting to the thumb through the book. This relationship of the fingers and the thumb when holding a book is similar to how we should hold the flute. When the lines of the fingers and thumb in each hand are roughly parallel (but not held straight, simply curving and arched naturally) as we hold our flutes, this eliminates a lot of extra contorting and tightening of the fingers.
These two fundamental ideas should help you find a hand position that feels, looks, and ‘sounds’ better!
“My sound is fuzzy/thin/airy.”
Developing good tone is crucial since a clear, rich, and flexible sound allows us to have a wide range of tone color for expression. Most flute students try to manipulate tone quality by making changes to their embouchure.
While the embouchure is undoubtedly important, sometimes we can become preoccupied with it and forget that the sound depends on the quality of the whole body. When the body is free and open, there’s more room for the sound to resonate through us, which is infinitely better than a sound that is produced in the throat, cut off from the rest of the body by excessive tension and manipulated by too many changes in the embouchure. As you learn to relax your body, your embouchure will naturally respond to make the changes needed to facilitate a change in color, dynamic, or range.
To try this out, play a long tone and see if you can imagine the sound traveling all the way through your body. Mentally scan your body to see if there is muscular gripping anywhere in the body that is blocking the passage of the sound. After all, sound is vibration, and vibration needs space to occur.
With these ideas, your practice will be easier and more enjoyable!
Nadia B. teaches flute and piano in New York, NY, as well as through online lessons. She acted as principal flutist of the orchestra and wind ensemble at California State University, Sacramento, and then went on to receive her degree in Music Performance from New York University. Learn more about Nadia here!
Photo by Andrew Allio