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Conversations with Laura Jellicoe: Embouchure

The fourth installation of Conversations with Professor Laura Jellicoe of the Royal Northern College of Music. 

What are your methods for helping students with their embouchure? If a student is already making a decent sound, would you discuss their embouchure, or do you tend to let it develop in its own way?

The quick answer to this is that Yes I would always discuss embouchure with a student, and try to help them to find the best one for them. We all want to be the most interesting musicians possible, with a flexible and colourful sound which not only beguiles our audience and suits each type of music, but is also in tune. So finding a really good flute embouchure is crucial because it determines how we form and control the sound – and some kettles pour better than other kettles!

Most of us were attracted to the flute in the first place because of the beautiful, singing tone it can make. This was certainly the case for me, and is still what drives me. But I remember as a 13 year old suddenly announcing to my mum that I’d realised it was sadly time to stop playing. She looked shocked because I loved it so much, and I had thought it was going to be my life. I calmly explained that I couldn’t make the same sound as James Galway and therefore there was no point going on – at that age, I had no idea that it was possible to improve our sound by working on our embouchure and by doing tone exercises, and that not even Sir James was born making that sound! (Although actually, maybe he’s an exception…!)

In other words, our Flute Embouchure is absolutely something that we can change and develop.

As we know, there are many things involved in making a beautiful sound, such as resonance, support, position of vocal chords, airspeed, but I decided it would be more helpful if we stay today with embouchure, and cover tone colours and dynamics in another edition. Hopefully I can share some ideas to help you find an embouchure that works better for you.

Firstly, I would say that the most common embouchure problem we see is the smiling embouchure, where the corners of the lips go up and back, often accompanied by tightness. This can work when we’re starting off as a youngster, and can produce a sweet tone which might seem ok in those early days, but it becomes very limiting later on when we want to develop more tone colours, or expand our dynamic range, and the pitch can’t be controlled properly.

Exercise to overcome the Smiley embouchure

Look in a mirror with your lips slightly apart in a relaxed, neutral position – not in a playing position, and neither smiling nor frowning. Notice how different this is from your normal playing embouchure.

With your thumb and forefinger, hold the corners of your lips and encourage them to go down a little into a miserable face, then blow out of the middle of your lips.

To strengthen your embouchure, bring the middle of your lips forward a little and engage the muscles ie. be aware of the muscles in the middle of your lips working slightly, on both top and bottom lip. Keep encouraging the corners of the mouth to stay down at the same time.

Try the above stages with the headjoint only, again in a mirror.

You will probably feel your muscles start to shake or quiver – this is because you will be letting go of some muscles, and starting to strengthen others. Keep going for a little while longer, maybe 10 minutes, and over time the muscles will start to get stronger. Like so many new things, I’d suggest practising little and often until it starts to feel more normal eg. for 10 minutes several times a day. But also be aware of it in everything you practise, throughout the range of the flute.

It should NEVER feel tight, it’s just a case of letting go of the ‘smiling’ muscles and building strength elsewhere. If in doubt, stop and come back to it later.

This new shape is also better to breathe with – drop your jaw and open your mouth when you breathe in, and keep your mouth shape the same when you blow and play. I like to do a goldfish impersonation here! Compare this to breathing with a smiley embouchure and you’ll feel a huge difference.

Whistling Shape exercise

An extension of the above exercise is to bring your lips even further forward, actually into a whistling shape, and practise like this for a short time, to get away from the smiley embouchure. As before, I’d suggest with no flute first, then headjoint only, then play through some tunes or exercises. It probably won’t sound good at this stage, but that’s fine – it’s just an exercise. In reality, your ‘finished’ embouchure will probably be somewhere between the very smiley and the very whistley, so although this will probably feel very strange at first, persevere because it’s excellent for adding more depth and lower harmonics into your tone, and it helps to relax the corners of your mouth.

I have included a few other techniques below. There isn’t the space here to go into detail, but practising each of these daily will quickly improve your lip strength and therefore your tone –

Bending Notes

These are very good for both lips and jaw flexibility.
Play a B above middle C with your best sound, then slowly push the jaw out and increase the airspeed so that the note goes sharp.
From this sharp note, slowly bring the jaw back to the starting position and slow down the airspeed, until the pitch and tone are centred again.

Slowly move the jaw back and down as far as you can, and gradually slow down the airspeed so that the note goes very flat and squashed in tone.

Bring the pitch back up to the starting position. Repeat slowly using different notes

Start in the low register, as this is where you’ll hear the biggest changes in pitch, particularly from G up to C, but then gradually go higher up the instrument.

Breathe whenever you need to as it’s very beneficial to play this exercise extremely slowly.

Aim for as much pitch bend as you can, and use your best sound at each stage of the note – when you think you have gone as low as you can, wait and see if you can go even further, you might be surprised!

Whistle Tones

These are the whistley noises that sometimes appear, unwanted, especially at the end of our pp low notes - it’s generally considered a good idea to practise them so that we know how to get rid of them!

But they are also really useful to strengthen our lips. They are produced by blowing very slow, warm air through our lips, and it helps if we use a more whistling shaped embouchure. To hold a ‘whistle tone’ note with no wobble takes very good support and lip control, although being careful not to be tense anywhere, and I’d suggest practising them in 3 stages

Start with the top octave fingerings eg top B, as it’s easier to produce a note here. Hold the whistle tone for a few seconds, trying to make the tone pure and straight. Wander around chromatically until you can find them more reliably. Over time, come lower down the instrument, opening the embouchure as you do this, but maintaining the strength in the lips, and the abdominal support.

Play a top note with the normal fingering for a few seconds, rest for a second, then blow a whistle tone using the same fingering. Over time, try to make the embouchure movement minimal between the notes, and try to connect the two sounds.

Overblow the harmonic series, eg. blow a low C whistle tone, and gently blow up and down through the harmonic series. Allow your jaw to move up and down as you do this.

Check that you are relaxed, balanced and not tightening anywhere
Always breathe well
Copy the position of the tongue in your mouth as you go higher or lower when you actually whistle – this will help the flute tone, too
Aim for a straight and pure tone
It might help to walk around while you are doing this exercise, so that your body doesn’t become too focussed and tense
Think ‘free and up’!

Top Lip exercise

This is just a simple little exercise to try to free up and move the top lip while we play. It helps to develop our flexibility skills.
Look in a mirror, and play your favourite low register note with a good embouchure and your best tone.
Start lifting your top lip as you play, so that you almost lose the sound. Hold it for as long as you can.
As above, but also move your top lip around from side to side, twitching like a rabbit!

Keep thinking about the corners of your mouth coming down, and the middle of your lips working in a ‘gentle but firm’ way.
This only needs doing from time to time, but it is useful to open up our embouchure, and further strengthen our lips.

Once the embouchure is starting to feel different and is hopefully feeling more relaxed, and you can hear that the sound is changing in a good way, play through your usual tone exercises, trying to maintain the new embouchure and gently building up stamina in the lip muscles – again, we are aiming for ‘Gentle, but Firm’. Always use a mirror to check on things regularly. Moyse’s ‘De La Sonorite’ would work really well here, whilst remembering the usual issues which we chatted about in the May, June and July editions of Flute View:

Good breathing
Balanced posture and support
Vibrato which fits the sound

So that’s it for today, I hope these exercises might have given you a few ideas of how to work on your embouchure, and might help you come closer to expressing the music as you would like to. These are the kinds of exercises I love working on with my RNCM students, as they really do produce results – and I do hope I get the chance to work with some more of you ‘live’ one day!

I’m looking forward to talking about tone colours and dynamics next month, and tying this in with what we’ve already been discussing in the articles over the last few months. Take care everyone, and keep smiling – but only when far away from the flute!

With love,

Laura’s career as a flautist has taken her all over the world, playing with many of the UK’s top orchestras and ensembles. She won 1st prize in the 1992 British Flute Society’s International Young Artist Competition, chaired by Sir James Galway, joined the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at only 22, and is currently Principal Flute with the English Symphony Orchestra.

She has also played with orchestras such as the BBC Symphony, including at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ and many other Proms concerts, and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, with whom she has toured Europe. She has broadcast on radio and tv many times, and can be heard on recordings such as the complete Beethoven Symphonies with Sir Charles Mackerras, the Bax Symphonies conducted by Vernon Handley, Delius with Richard Hickox, and Faure, Kodaly, Nielsen with the RLPO.

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