Learning to Play the Flute in Tune (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of a handout “Learning to Play the Flute in Tune” by Mrs. Barbara Lambrecht.  Part 2 is posted here.

Inexperienced flutists should learn the basic elements of good individual and group intonation as soon as they can play a centered tone.  In the beginning stages of playing the instrument, students can learn far more than the names and fingerings of the notes.  Young ears can discern subtle differences in tone quality and pitch; they are merely waiting to be trained. The time for that education is early in the playing career, as soon as the student can play a clear, steady, focused sound.

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Good tone and good intonation go hand in hand.  If a flutist plays with a poor tone (meaning an airy, breathy, unclear sound) trying to correct bad intonation is a little like putting a Band-aid over the chicken pox. Treat the problem – the poor tone – and good intonation will come naturally. 

Once you are able to play a clear steady sound, you can begin learning how to play in tune. First, you must realize that many factors affect pitch, and many times you as a musician have no control over the factors. it is important for you to understand the things that cause you to play out of tune so that you can anticipate tuning problems and have possible solutions to correct those problems.

Temperature is a major factor in flute pitch. Most instruments are designed to play A440 in tune at 72 degrees Fahrenheit, but most of the time the temperature in practice and performance areas is different from that.  Generally speaking, cold temperature makes you play flat, and hot temperature makes you play sharp. Temperature and pitch for wind instruments usually rise during the playing period because vibrations travel faster in warm air.

Dynamic changes also increase the difficulty of controlling the pitch. This difficulty is compounded for younger players because your embouchures and breath control are not fully developed. Flutes tend to go flat in diminuendos and go sharp as the volume increases in crescendos. Just remember that generally speaking on soft passages you will tend to play flat, and on loud passages you will probably be sharp.

The flute is one of the most flexible instruments with regard to tuning.  What this means to you as a player is the amount and speed of your air affect the pitch. The angle you blow your air stream also affects the tuning, as does the angle of the flute rests on your face and where you place the flute on your lower lip. For instance, if you place the flute too high on your lower lip, you’ll play sharp. Furthermore, there are certain notes on the flute that are naturally out of tune. In addition to those certain notes, most flutes play flat in the bottom register and quite sharp in the top octave.

How do you know when you are in tune or out of tune? Basically if you are playing with another person, in tune playing sounds like one instrument. If you can tell there are two players it’s out of tune. Out of tune playing produces “beats” in the sound. The faster those beats occur, the farther out of tune the notes are.

First you just have to realize the notes are out of tune. At first you may not be able to tell whether you are sharp or flat. That knowledge will come later. Just remember if you guess, you have a 50% change of being correct.

Also, remember that even after a warm-up and pre-tuning, wind players tend to go sharp. If you are out of tune and unsure of the direction (sharp or flat), a good procedure is to lower the pitch by blowing down more into the headjoint. If the tuning improves, then make mechanical adjustments (pull out the headjoint). If the tuning does not improve, your original pitch was flat so push in the headjoint.

Before you tune your flute, it is essential that you warm up completely. Play a minimum of ten minutes before you check your pitch with the tuner. There are a large number of mechanical devices that you can use which include visual tuners with needles, wheels, or arrows that indicate whether you are in tune, sharp or flat. Other tuners play the pitch so you can match it.

Even the best flutes are designed to be pulled out a little bit. So, pull your head joint slightly, but no more than 1/4th of an inch. If you must pull a large amount to play in tune, that is an indication that there is something else wrong, either with your embouchure and tone production or with the placement of the head joint cork. When the tuning rod included in your case is inserted into the head joint, the mark on the rod should be exactly in the middle of the embouchure hole.

You must regulate your air angle and air speed to produce the correct pitch. One way to check yourself to is play the head joint alone. if you play an Ab on the head joint alone and an A with the end covered, you are doing things correctly. Smiling or pinched embouchures, inadequate air support and wrong fingerings create tuning problems on the flute. if you are always playing flat, under the pitch, you may be using too much left hand pressure, or you may be ducking your head and covering the embouchure hole too much.

There are numerous ways to control the pitch on the flute. You can change the direction of the air by ducking or lifting the head, moving the jaw in or out, or by rolling the flute in or out. (I personally do not recommend the latter because it adversely affects your technique.)

This article is taken directly from an amazing handout by Barbara Lambrecht and used with permission. This is the first half of the article. The second half  is posted here.  It includes specific suggestions to help you correct flute tuning problems and fingering alterations for troublesome notes.

Read more about Mrs. Lambrecht’s long and distinguished career here.

Related Reading:
Teaching Clarinets to “Roll to A” Isn’t Enough
Teach Style First
Band Drop Out Game – Teaching Beginning Band with Games

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