The fifth installation of Conversations with Professor Laura Jellicoe of the Royal Northern College of Music.
Dynamics and Tone Colours
Hello everyone, I hope you’re keeping well and feeling inspired!
This is a really interesting one – it happens so often that when a student comes for a consultation lesson and I ask what they would most like to improve about their playing, the answer they give is ‘Dynamics’. They want to able to express their musical ideas, but they don’t yet have the technical tools to do that. I’m really happy to discuss this here, and hopefully share some tips with you all, and I think it makes sense to talk about ‘dynamics’ and ‘tone colours’ together because they are so intertwined. I will mention ‘vibrato’ too, because it’s an integral part of the sound.
The first thing to say is -
The most important tool we can use when developing our tone colours and dynamics is our imagination!
It really helps to be able to hear, or imagine, the colour, dynamic, and also vibrato, in our head before we play, rather than just launching in and playing with our usual ‘default’ sound. Think about the character of the music, the harmony, the Period/Style, the musical energy, and think about how your note or phrase would best fit into that. If you’re playing in an ensemble, imagine what kind of sound would best fit with the sound of the instruments you’re playing with eg. you might want to use a very different sound when playing with clarinet compared to when playing with violin.
We know that since every piece of music is different, it will challenge us in different ways, and the great news is that for flute players there is a myriad of possibilities when we think about dynamics, tone colour and vibrato. For example, in one piece we might be called upon to make a dark, rich sound but within pp and with no vibrato; another time, maybe an airy yet almost overly- expressive, full sound; and sometimes a sweeter and clearer, more bird-like, singing tone with a vibrato which is within the sound. There is no end to the possibilities!
Before we work on a few exercises specifically for tone colours and dynamics, I’d like to talk a little about ‘Harmonics’, as they help us to find the best airspeed for each note.
If you play a very loud, very low note on the piano and listen carefully, after a little practice you’ll be able to hear several other notes higher up the instrument vibrating and sounding gently. These are the ‘harmonics’ or ‘overtones’ of that low note you just played, and the notes you hear above are in the ‘Harmonic Series’. I won’t go into too much detail here, but for example if you play a low C on the piano, you will also hear a G, a few more Cs, E and Bb; if you play a low F, you would start to hear a C, a few higher Fs, A and Eb. When we play the flute, we want to use these harmonics to -
Find the correct airspeed and support
Develop resonance in the sound
Develop a strong but relaxed embouchure
Practising the following exercises will help you to find a better, clearer tone without forcing the upper notes.
1a. Play a low C, then using the same fingering, gently increase the air pressure, ie blow slightly faster, until the next C appears one octave higher.
A few tips -
- Don’t move the lips
- Don’t use more air when you blow the upper note, but simply increase the air pressure using a little more abdominal support
- Play the notes legato
- Use a gentle dynamic such as mp, and try not to get louder as you go higher
- Breathe deeply and with a relaxed posture, as discussed in the June article
When you’ve done this exercise a few times, play it a semitone higher, ie do the same exercise starting on C sharp, then D, then Eb etc.
1b. Now add the next note in the harmonic series ie. blow a gentle low C, gently float up to the next C, then slur up to the middle G. Again, don’t move the lips – you can alter the quality of tone and the pitch later using the lips, but for now we are just wanting find the best airspeed. Repeat, but starting on C sharp, D, Eb etc.
1c. Add the next note in the series ie. the next C, a fourth higher than middle G. Again, think of floating up, simply using increased air pressure and more abdominal support.
1d. You can continue this exercise going all the way up to top Bb. Play very slowly, with only 2 or 3 notes in one breath. The higher notes need tremendous abdominal support, so you should soon feel more at ease with your higher notes when you use the real fingerings.
1e. When you’ve got the hang of this, make up a simple, slow tune using the notes from one harmonic series. Always play legato, and don’t force any of the notes – ‘wait’ for them to appear.
In these exercises, we want to gradually increase the airspeed as we go higher and then decrease it very slightly as we come down. Remember to support as you come down, and be careful that there is no sense of forcing or adjusting with the lips at this stage.
There are many other wonderful harmonics exercises which we can look at in another chapter, but this is a good place to start.
So now to……TONE COLOURS!
It’s generally recognised that flute players need to be able to make two main tone colours throughout the whole dynamic range, and that all other colours are a variation of these two;
Rich, dark, intense
Hollow, gentle, airy
You’ll probably often hear flautists talking about finding a ‘dark, rich sound’, or a more ‘gentle, hollow or airy sound’, as these are the words which have been passed down for years. But sound is very difficult to describe in words and we all relate slightly differently to these descriptions. For some people, it’s more helpful to think in terms of colours (red, purple, yellow etc), for others in terms of personalities or emotions (happy, angry, cheeky, peaceful etc), and for some people it’s ‘food’ - maybe try thinking of a chocolately, velvety sound, or even a dark, treacly sound! The important thing is to find a way which makes sense to you, so that you can develop as much variety and imagination as possible in your playing.
But how can we vary the tone colour…?
So let’s figure out technically how to produce these different colours - what can we physically do to affect the tone colour and dynamic?
Here are a few suggestions -
Shape of Embouchure
Which vowel we use
Direction of air
Position of headjoint
Volume of air
Amount of hole coverage
Position of tongue
Position of jaw
Amount of support
The way we breathe
Strength of lip muscles
Each of the above will make a big difference to our sound. We have touched on a few already in the previous articles, and here I am going to focus on just three;
Shape of embouchure
Direction of air
As we discussed in the last article, we want to avoid a ‘smiling’ embouchure as it is limiting in terms of colour and dynamic. For changing tone colour, our embouchure needs to be as flexible as possible. We want to;
keep the lips relaxed for the most part, and think of bringing the corners of the lips down
think of bringing the middle of the lips forward, with more of a ‘whistle’ shape
Direction of air
This is controlled by the jaw and the lips, and is another very important aspect to making our playing flexible. To help increase flexibility with the jaw and lips;
Hold the palm of your hand about 10cm in front of your mouth and blow straight into the middle of your hand, using a flute embouchure. Now try moving that stream of air higher up to the fingertips or even your forehead – notice how your jaw comes out and the bottom lip helps to direct the air as high as possible. Next, move the airstream down again slowly. This time, the jaw will come in and back, and the top lip will come over a little and direct the air down towards your chin and your neck.
Keep the airstream steady, and make sure that you are supporting well throughout by engaging the tummy muscles. If you are finding it difficult to maintain the support, try the ‘paper on the wall’ exercise;
Hold a small piece of paper on the wall at the height of your mouth, go right up to it with your lips and blow onto it with a fast, steady airstream to keep it in place. Take your hand away and keep blowing – try to keep the paper in place for around 7 seconds.
There is a big connection between the vowel shape in our mouth when we play, and the tone colour we produce. There are lots of singing books where you could read more into this, but in a nutshell;
a more resonant ‘aaah’ vowel, sounding like the letter R, will produce a darker and more resonant tone, whereas an ‘ooooh’ vowel will produce a more hollow and airy tone.
Practise singing the same note with lots of different vowels, and listen to how the sound changes. Take a really good breath when you sing, as if you are an opera singer. Keep the throat relaxed, use good support and not too much air. Notice how the shape of your mouth and the cavity change as you sing with different vowels.
Now let’s combine these three points, and start to make some new colours! Here are two ideas for you to experiment with -
Dark, rich tone colour
Release and lower your jaw, so that your teeth are open
Keep the embouchure relaxed, and think ‘down’ with the corners of the lips
With a fairly big embouchure hole, and letting your jaw drop down, bring your top lip slightly forward to aim the air down inside the headjoint
With this new embouchure, and with a big cavity inside the mouth, finger a low G and sing a G into the flute, using a rich aaaah vowel. Do this several times until you can feel the flute vibrating in your hands.
Sing the G as above, using the aaaahh vowel shape and this new embouchure, then actually play the G. Repeat many times, alternating between singing and playing without breathing in between, until the two feel connected. Hopefully you will start to hear more resonance in the flute tone, and you will be producing a darker, richer tone.
This would be suitable for music such as the famous tune from Bizet’s Carmen, some of the solos from Richard Strauss’s tone poems, or many of the fast and furious passages from Shostakovich’s symphonies.
Hollow, airy, gentle tone colour
For this tone colour, you might find it helps to bring the lips forward a little, almost into a ‘whistling’ shape.
Bring your jaw and bottom lip forward, so that the direction of the air will be slightly higher
With this new embouchure and slightly different jaw position, finger a low G and sing a G into the flute, this time using a gentle ooooohhh vowel. As you sing, experiment with making the embouchure hole a little larger than usual by lifting your top lip. Do this several times until you find something that feels good.
Sing the G as above, using the oooohh vowel shape and this new embouchure, then play the G. Repeat many times, alternating between singing and playing without breathing, until the two feel connected and you can sense your voice in the sound.
Hopefully, this time you will hear a more ‘oooey’ sound, suitable for music such as the opening of Faure’s beautiful Pavane or Schubert’s ‘Die Trockne Blumen’.
For the dark colour, we want to use more overtones. One very good way of doing this is to practise the ‘Bending Notes’ exercise that I mentioned in the August article. This exercise makes your lips stronger and encourages you not to use more air than you need. After some practise, hopefully you’ll start to feel the sound and the harmonics ‘ringing’ more.
The size of the embouchure hole, and the airspeed, will both have a huge impact on the sound – for these different tone colours, experiment with different sized embouchure holes by moving your top lip up or down, and with different airspeeds.
Try a combination of these techniques and new positions, to see how many new sounds you can find.
Practise the long notes from Moyse’s ‘De la Sonorite’ with these two extreme colours, and with your own versions. Start in the low octave, then gradually move higher up but using the same principles.
Vary the vibrato until you find something that fits each colour.
Once it becomes more natural to produce these colours, in most pieces you will find yourself using a combination of all these colours to make the music as interesting as possible. Remember, this is just the beginning of your journey - try to move out of your comfort zone and learn how to make different sounds with your instrument. Variety is the name of the game!
Once your tone colours are developing well, you will find that dynamics feel easier. This is because your embouchure, jaw position, and airspeed are becoming more flexible. The long-term goal is to be able to make –
DIFFERENT TONE COLOURS
IN EVERY DYNAMIC
IN EACH REGISTER
Not much to ask, hey?! Well, it’s a big challenge, but……if you can do this, you will be very employable. FACT. It’s now or ever, so you may as well start now!
The books I would recommend to use as exercises for dynamics are;
Moyse – De la Sonorite (the long notes, and pages 10-14)
Trevor Wye – Practice Book for the Flute Book 1 Tone
When doing these exercises, I would suggest setting yourself a specific dynamic challenge each week. Here are some examples;
Each phrase mf
Each phrase mf – f
Each phrase f – p
Cresc and Dim within each phrase
Dim and Cresc within each phrase
A big challenge when changing dynamic is the pitch, so make sure you are using your jaw and lower lip, and remember the ‘bending note’ exercise. Use a tuner to help your ear. We will talk more about this further another time.
I’d also like to mention ‘Harmonics’ again here, as they can help to keep the tone beautiful when practising dynamics. I would suggest that you use harmonic fingerings while you’re doing your tone exercises, to find the best airspeed, and the most centred tone. In the middle register Moyse exercises, try substituting harmonic fingerings for every other note, then repeat the phrase with the normal fingerings.
For example, when starting the tone exercises from middle B, use the low E fingering; when playing a middle G sharp, use the fingering for low C sharp. You will soon be able to find these fingerings more quickly, and will start to find a good airspeed, without forcing or narrowing the higher notes. Adjust the pitch as necessary, using your lips.
Finally, I’d like to mention ‘Block Dynamics’. This is when we go from one dynamic to another without any hint of cresc or dim. They are very good to practise to strengthen our lip muscles and to improve our muscle memory.
A very good exercise can be found at the back of Marcel Moyse’s book ‘Tone development through Interpretation’, starting from page 67. He writes the forte notes in big notation, and the piano notes in small notation. This calls for a sudden movement of the jaw, which changes the direction of the air to aid the pitch, as well as a change in the shape of the embouchure and a change in airspeed.
It’s also useful to practise scales, or Taffanel and Gaubert’s Daily Exercises no.s 1-5, in a similar way – play 4 notes with a loud, dark tone, immediately followed by 4 notes with a softer and more hollow tone. Without any cresc or dim between notes, this becomes a very good exercise for flexibility!
I do hope that some of this will be helpful to you on your journey to becoming the most beautiful sounding flute player you can be – combine the tone colour and the dynamics exercises with the vibrato exercises in the previous article, and you will find so many possibilities of expression. Muscle memory plays a big part in our learning, so when you find something you love, play it over and over, day after day, until your body knows where it is.
Sending you all warm wishes from the UK, and very much hoping to hear you play one day. Keep well until next time, and enjoy experimenting – you never know where it could lead.
All the best,
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.