Amanda Blaikie is the 2nd Flutist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, having been appointed in 2016 by Leonard Slatkin. Previously she was Principal Flute with the Michigan Opera Theatre, Sarasota Opera, Battle Creek Symphony, and the Miami City Ballet. An avid educator, Amanda is actively involved in the DSO's educational outreach program, coaches orchestral excerpts, teaches private lessons, and presents masterclasses around the country.
I think most flutists want to produce the best tone possible. Naturally. It’s the first thing we hear and it’s the closest thing to our own voice. Unlike other woodwind instruments, there is more variance in sound from flutist-to-flutist which is impacted by lip size, chin, mouth, etc. But what happens when one day your ordinarily good tone just sounds kinda...BLEH? Here are 5 Tips to getting your luscious tone back:
This one might sound obvious, but if your posture isn’t aligned properly it’s very likely compromising your tone. Whether you’re tired because it’s late at night, or it’s due to an overload of online Zoom classes or lessons, you might find yourself hunched over with legs crossed and the flute practically vertical. How many of you have found yourself in this position lately? Well, all of us have done this at some point or another, so don’t feel badly. Just set an intention to bring awareness to your posture each time you bring the flute to your mouth. And like a ballerina, I’d recommend using a mirror to check your alignment throughout your practice sessions.
Despite the majority of ensembles requiring us to sit when we rehearse and perform, most flute teachers recommend that flutists practice standing up. This will enable you to play with your best posture-- head held high and body upright. It’s also going to maximize your breath, which is everything when it comes to playing the flute (hello, Afternoon of a Faun). Also be sure to check these three things: (a) shoulders are relaxed and down, (b) elbows are relaxed and open (not pointed outwards like marching band but also not squeezed inwards), and (c) the chin is upright. The way we hold ourselves has a huge impact on our sound, so check this first if you notice that your tone isn’t sounding awesome.
This is another comment you may hear your flute teacher say repeatedly, and it is probably the most important “fixer” when it comes to flute tone. Whenever I notice a student’s tone (or my own) not sounding as brilliant or clear as usual, I ask how the support feels. I say, “On a scale from 1 to 10, how would you grade your support right now?” It’s true that, again, with fatigue and even poor posture, our strong support is likely to take a backseat.
The most obvious method of fixing poor support is ensuring that the core (abdominals) are fully engaged at the top of the breath. While we used to hear flutists say, “support from the diaphragm”, we now know and understand that this is an involuntary muscle. In reality, it’s the core strength that is needed to support. I have found that in louder dynamics, a powerfully engaged core around or below the belly button is best. And for softer dynamics, supporting the very top abdominals located between the ribs is incredibly effective in spinning the air. Regardless of dynamic, however, a brilliant tone requires brilliant airspeed, and brilliant airspeed comes from-- you guessed it-- fully engaged support! One tip here is to practice some of your tonal warm-ups while doing a wall squat. I experimented and did this for 5-10 minutes every day for three weeks and found it absolutely amazing in strengthening the support and improving my tone. I still do this daily and encourage my students to do it as well. Give it a try!
- Bigger Breaths
So what if there was a way to trick your body into supporting better. Well, thankfully, there is! The solution to better support is a better breath. The bigger the breath, the more likely your body will naturally support your full tank of air (I think that we all can agree that a shallow breath will not be supported well). So thinking this through backwards: your best tone requires a fully engaged support, which requires a complete and full breath. In short, a better tone benefits from a full breath. Ahhh!
We’re all guilty of not taking in enough air when we inhale at times, so in your practice session ask yourself: “Did I take a 50% breath, 75% breath, 100% breath...?” Chances are pretty good that you need to, and can, take in more air. I’m sure you all know the best way to breathe efficiently and fully, but remind yourself to: (a) begin low by expanding the belly and the back, (b) fill the lungs, (c) top it off by filling the throat and mouth. Ideally every breath is inhaled low to high. Some will need to be quicker than others depending on the context and length of your rest (hello, Mendelssohn Scherzo). But if you have more than one beat to breathe, use it! Breathe an entire measure if you can. Tank up. Also try Francis Blaisdell’s breathing exercise: aim to hold G2 pianissimo for at least 40 seconds (60 bpm on the metronome); try this 3x in a row and log your results daily.
- Open Throat
The next thing on your checklist for tone is making sure that your throat is open. For those with throat tension this is easier said than done. Opening and relaxing the throat takes constant, conscious awareness before it can become an unconscious good “habit.” Everyone must face this at some point in his or her evolution as a flutist.
Remind yourself, too, that the throat does not create the tone; it is merely the vessel through which air travels. Much like a straw in a soda can, the throat should not be pinched or constricted, otherwise air flow will be restricted and thin. All the more reason to focus your attention on your support, the source of your sound, and less on the throat and embouchure themselves. But until your open and relaxed throat becomes second-nature, try yawning and even stretching the throat forwards before playing.
- Drop the Jaw
The last important “fix” for tone is making sure that the jaw is dropped and the teeth are apart. Much like the previous tip, clenched teeth will constrict air flow and resonance, thereby affecting the quality of tone. Dropping and relaxing the jaw will help to create more vertical space inside the mouth, so in the physics of flute-playing: more space equals more resonance, air flow, and depth of sound.
I studied with Robert Aitken at Orford Music Academy one summer and he had us put small pieces of cork between our back molars while we played. It was slightly strange at first, but the tone was notably fuller. This was a great exercise in understanding the physical sensation of dropping the jaw and immediately hearing the result. Instead of cork, another option is putting a piece of a baby carrot between the back molars (at least this is edible, should you get hungry). And I often think about the many brilliant French-speaking flutists out there, like my former teacher Robert Langevin. I suggest speaking a French word (“bonjour”) before playing to help bring the corners of the embouchure forward (closer to the canine teeth), thereby creating more vertical space and resonance. I did this myself after graduate school when I worked to have more round tone colors and depth of sound. My high school flute teacher, Laura Tittemore Piechota, also gave me the best example when I was a freshman: pretend that you are holding water in your mouth and about to spit it at your sibling. I still think of this daily!
Besides the aforementioned tips, I would highly suggest taking one day of the week (Sunday perhaps) and spending a little extra time on your tone, more than your usual warm-up routine. This might include exercises from Moyse’s De la Sonorite, Trevor Wye’s Vol. 1 Tone book, or Moyse’s Tone Development Through Interpretation, for example. And one thing I wouldn’t skimp on in your daily routine are Moyse Long Tones. Additionally, I highly recommend spending 5-10 minutes on harmonics each day to strengthen and maintain the many muscles of the embouchure. Harmonics are my favorite quick exercise for getting my tone back when it’s sounding kind of fluffy. I guarantee they will help you produce your most brilliant tone, especially when practiced regularly.
So in summary, my top five tips for getting your sound back on a bad tone day are to check your posture, ensure that your support is fully engaged, take deeper and fuller breaths, open the throat, and drop your jaw. Before you know it, these will all become second-nature in your playing, but regardless, consider putting this checklist near your music stand for a quick reminder. Happy practicing and enjoy your gorgeous sound!