Pitch by Laura Jellicoe
Hello again to all fellow flute players - I send you lots of warm wishes from England. I hope you are well and enjoying your flute practice. We’ve now covered quite a few topics in these articles, and I really hope you are finding them useful and are seeing how they all interconnect. PITCH is another wonderful aspect to discuss, so here goes!
Maybe you’re dreaming of being Principal Flute in a big orchestra one day? Or of being a wonderfully supportive and flexible 2nd flute player? Or maybe you have even ‘higher’ dreams of being a piccolo player? If so, I imagine you’re spending a considerable amount of time learning as much orchestral repertoire as possible, and practicing and watching masterclasses on the big orchestral flute and piccolo solos? I hope so because this is, of course, absolutely necessary and I thoroughly recommend it!
However……when you do well in an audition, and get the opportunity to do a ‘Trial’ with the orchestra, the player who actually stands out is the player who, alongside playing beautiful solos, is also fantastically flexible with their pitch, thereby making life easy for the rest of the section – and we all want an easy life, don’t we?!
So let’s get started and talk about a few aspects of Pitch. The first thing to say is –
We can only play in tune if
- We are breathing properly ie. deeply and in a relaxed manner (see the June article)
- We are supporting properly ie. using gentle support from the whole body (see the June article)
- Our embouchure is well set up (see the August article)
Before we go any further, let’s check that we can play a long note that is in tune (and beautiful!) throughout. It may sound simple, but even at professional level this is something that we need to constantly check because our ears can deceive us. It’s useful here to have a digital tuner – either an actual tuning machine, or a tuning App on your phone.
Straight Note Exercise
Turn the tuner on, and set it to the calibration used in your country. For us in the UK that means A = 440, although many European and American orchestras now tune to A = 442, and in certain orchestras it has even been known to go as high as A = 445! Be aware also that there is a tendency for an orchestra to go slightly sharper as the concert goes on, especially in hot concert halls. Therefore our ears need to be flexible, and we need to learn the skills to be able to adapt to whatever is necessary.
- Play a beautiful, long mf low G without vibrato. Watch the tuner - the needle or arrow should stay straight throughout the note ie at the beginning, the middle and the end. Do this several times, improving the note each time.
- As (a), but 1 semi-tone higher ie. G sharp.
- Continue up the chromatic scale.
- This exercise is good for strengthening the lips, playing without vibrato, finding the correct airspeed for each note, supporting well and building lip stamina.
- Start in the low register, but then gradually go higher up the instrument.
A variation on this involves fifths and octaves, again with no vibrato.
- Repeat the exercise, but this time with the notes G sharp – D sharp – middle G sharp, then A – E - A, then Bb - F - Bb etc.
- Keep watching the tuner – the 2 tonic notes (in this instance, low G and middle G) should be in tune with the tuner. However, the fifth (here, the D) should be a tiny bit sharper to make it SOUND in tune – more on this later!
Before we start to change the dynamic, it would be useful to refer to the section on ‘Bending notes’ in the August issue on ‘Embouchure’, because being flexible with our lips and jaw is key to excellent pitch control. Here is the exercise from that article -
- 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, I’d suggest 4 or 5 breaths per note as you bend the note downwards, 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!
Additional Bending Note Exercise
For the following exercise, start by playing a note in tune, then follow the arrows – the 2nd note should be immediately sharp and the 4th note should be immediately flat. Use your best, most beautiful singing tone on every note, but especially on the last note. You could go up a scale in this manner, and aim for as much flexibility of pitch as you can – using only jaw and lips!
So assuming we can now keep a straight note in tune, and the bending notes are starting to feel good, it’s time to think about how to change the dynamic whilst keeping the pitch the same - we touched on this in the September article ‘Dynamics and Tone Colours’. We call this ‘Flexibility’, and it involves moving our jaw and lips – it is the key to great flute playing.
Whereas with the bending notes, when moving our jaw and lips we want the pitch to change, this time we want to change the dynamic but keep the pitch the same.
- Crotchet = 60
- Play a low G for 6 beats, starting ff and finishing pp. ie diminuendo in a controlled way over the whole 6 beats. As you get softer, the jaw and bottom lip should gradually move forward/out, the airstream will raise slightly and your embouchure hole should get smaller.
- Repeat on each note of the first octave of G major scale.
- Practice this exercise for a few days until it feels comfortable, then gradually shorten the note – for 5 beats, 4 beats, 3 beats, 2 beats, and 1 beat, but with the same amount of movement in the jaw and lips.
- Play with the metronome, as it’s so important to be able to do diminuendi and crescendi to a prescribed amount of beats, instead of just in our own time!
- The next stage would be putting notes together in a scale or arpeggio, again to a rhythmic beat. Note that when we do this, there needs to be a very quick jaw movement from the end of one note (pp) back to the beginning of the next note (ff). This should feel quite different to the gradual movement needed during the diminuendo.
- I suggest playing this without vibrato first, then adding expression to fit the dynamics.
Now reverse the above exercise, but moving from pp – ff on each
- Crotchet = 60
- Play a low G for 6 beats, starting pp and working towards ff, ie. crescendo in a controlled way over the whole 6 beats. Start with the airstream raised, jaw and bottom lip forward/out, small embouchure hole, and as you crescendo gradually bring the jaw and bottom lip back and down, and increase the size of the embouchure hole slightly.
- It’s really useful to play both the above exercises with a tuner to check that you are staying in tune throughout the note – but don’t use it all the time! The idea is to train your ear to hear these subtle differences in pitch, so I would recommend playing each exercise a few times with the tuner, then without, and then finally with the tuner again to double check that your ear was correct!
Once you are pleased with how these exercises are sounding, and the pitch is stable as you travel through the dynamics, you have the tools to play with much more musical phrasing. The goal for all of us is that these lip and jaw movements become automatic, so that we can concentrate on making the music sound beautiful without always worrying about the pitch!
Another useful technique we need to learn is how to balance the sound over the 3 registers whilst controlling the pitch. On the flute, the sound naturally gets louder as we go higher, and softer as we go lower, so it’s a good idea to practise doing the opposite of this ie getting softer as we go higher, and getting louder as we come down – this involves moving the jaw and lips, at the same time as increasing or decreasing the air pressure. The more we practise this, the more natural it will feel. When we are doing it correctly, we are constantly ‘in flow’, making tiny changes to our embouchure, jaw position and airspeed in order to make the registers sound the same, and to be able to play well in tune throughout the range. It comes down to the same word yet again – Flexibility - and it’s what makes the great flute players sound so great.
Here are just a couple of suggestions on how to work at this, but I will give you many more manuscript exercises in the book to follow these articles –
- Play ‘2 octave’ scales legato in one breath, starting forte and getting softer until you reach the highest note pianissimo, then doing a big crescendo as you go back down to the starting note.
- Move your jaw and lips forward as you go higher, and increase the air pressure. Reverse this as you come back down.
- As (1), but playing ‘2 octave’ arpeggios, again with a diminuendo to the top note.
I also recommend using the following as more advanced flexibility exercises –
Taffanel and Gaubert - Daily Exercises (no.10 is especially useful if you dimuendo each time you go up the arpeggio)
Reichert - Daily exercises op.5
Moyse – De la Sonorite (page 17 onwards)
Moyse – Etudes et Exercises Techniques (no.3)
I mentioned earlier in this article about ‘raising the 5th’ slightly when you are playing the exercise involving 5ths and octaves. This is due to something called ‘Equal Temperament’. I would recommend you read more about this elsewhere, but in a nutshell if you play every note ‘in tune’ with a tuner you will NOT be in tune! In simple terms, in the modern day scale which we play to, and to which are ears are tuned, we need to slightly adjust most of the notes if we are to sound perfectly in tune. To help as a starter, here is a list of the intervals of the scale which need be altered, with the corresponding change of pitch we need to make -
Tonic – in tune
Major 2nd – play slightly sharper
Minor 3rd – play quite a lot sharper
Major 3rd – play quite a lot flatter
Perfect 4th – play a tiny bit flatter
Perfect 5th – play a tiny bit sharper
Major 6th – play quite a lot flatter
Major 7th – play slightly flatter
To have some fun with this, join up with a flute-playing friend and play some intervals together.
- Tune up with each other and the tuner, and check your octaves are in tune with each other.
- Player 1 plays the tonic, let’s say C above middle C, whilst Player 2 plays a major 3rd higher ie. E.
- Player 1 should stay on the C, in tune with the tuner, whilst Player 2 is flexible with their embouchure and moves the pitch subtly up and down with jaw and lips, until the pitch suddenly feels really good – you may well be surprised at how far this has had to move.
- Player 2 could play his ‘altered’ note with the tuner now, and notice how sharp or flat it is according to the tuner – and yet, to our ears it is beautiful!
- As above, but this time try a Minor 3rd apart, then maybe a Perfect 5th etc. Continue doing this, the 2 players swapping roles, and each time Player 2 being flexible and listening until the pitch feels really good.
- You can also add a 3rd or a 4th player, and build up chords eg. a Major triad of C, E, G, or a Dominant 7th chord of F sharp, A sharp, C sharp, E. The important thing is for Player 1 to keep referring to the tuner, to make sure that the Tonic is absolutely in tune, so that the other ‘more flexible’ notes can be placed on top of this. The other players can have some fun experimenting – and enjoying the surprise when the interval suddenly sounds juicy!
- Try this with friends who play other instruments too, it’s all great practice for your ear.
The final tip for today about playing in tune, is to SING the note in your head before you play it. Most people have a great sense of pitch naturally, but when we pick up the instrument things can go rather hazy. So trust your ear, and practise being able to sing the note you’re about to play and copying it on your flute. Over time, you’ll be able to sing the note in your head silently before you play it, and this will really help your orchestral playing.
I’m off now to practice Beethoven Pastoral Symphony for a concert tomorrow. The slow movement is a good example of what we were talking about earlier – the solos are beautiful to play, but the bits in between are quite challenging for our lips. As with so much of Beethoven’s music, such as the overture to Leonore no.3, we need a lot of lip stamina and flexibility for the soft long notes, and excellent pitch control. And as I’ve mostly been sat at the computer the last couple of days writing this article and have therefore neglected my flute practice, I feel the time has definitely come to go and practice what I have preached!
All the best to you all, have fun practising and work hard – the prize is worth it.
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.