Does your flute section play at a mezzo forte dynamic most of the time? Are you constantly asking them to play out more or play much less for balance in your ensemble? Are your flutists only able to play loud in the high register and soft in the low register? Do you lack specific exercises to help them expand their dynamic ranges individually and as a group?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above questions, I have some solutions to your challenges that will both empower your flutists to play with a more expanded dynamic range, while also maintaining accurate intonation throughout the registers.
First, it is imperative that you understand how to make dynamic changes on the flute so that you may demonstrate and explain the physical mechanics to your flutists. To play with a loud dynamic, we need to use very fast-moving air while engaging the core abdominal muscles. Make sure your flutists are exhibiting good playing posture while taking large, low breaths. Check that they can feel the expansion of their lungs when they breathe all the way around their bodies, including through their backs. One exercise that is helpful for demonstrating this is to have each student rest their hands on the back of their lower abdomen while breathing in and out for a set number of counts. (photo 1)
When you have determined that your students are taking in enough air to play with a strong dynamic, have them experiment with a forte dynamic on notes in the middle, low, and high registers. Likely, they will notice that either the note cracks while using fast air, the note goes sharp, or both occur. To counteract these problems, have your students angle their air direction down more and open the space between their top and bottom teeth. My favorite air angle exercise simply uses the hand placed in front of the embouchure without the flute to feel the air direction. (photo 2) Blow directly into the palm (straight air direction), blow down towards the elbow (downward air direction), and blow up towards the fingertips (upward air direction). To direct the air, we use the lower jaw, lips, and, occasionally, head angle. For downward air direction, the jaw relaxes back and down, the top lip goes over the bottom lip, and, if needed for additional pitch correction, the head nods down slightly (photo 3). For upward air direction, the jaw and bottom lip come forward, and, if needed for extra pitch correction, the head nods up (photo 4). Optimal space on the inside of the mouth can be checked by having students place one of their thumbs turned sideways between their top and bottom teeth. Usually, this amount of space is more than they are used to opening while playing. Encourage them to experiment with this amount of space, or more, when they play medium to loud dynamics. With more space on the inside of the mouth, the pitch will drop and the resonance of the note will increase. Blowing fast air alone to achieve louder dynamics will result in a thin, strained, or laser beam-like tone that lacks depth and harmonics in the sound.
For piano playing, flutists are usually leery of extremely soft dynamics because they may find their intonation sags and they crack the desired note to a lower pitch. To play very soft, flutists must use a slightly slower airspeed than for mezzo forte, still maintain engagement through their core, and blow with a higher air direction to maintain pitch integrity. In the air angle exercise above, this calls for air direction towards the fingertips. Another strategy for helping students find their softest dynamic possible is to have them begin a note by coming from an air angle above where they get sound on the tone hole. With fast air, have them blow so high that the note they want to play does not come out, and all they produce is air sound. Gradually, have them angle their air downwards slowly until they get the desired pitch at a very soft dynamic. Often, this position of the embouchure is directing the air much higher than they are used to. Have them study their embouchure positions for loud and soft playing in a mirror to solidify both techniques.
Once your flutists are comfortable playing in tune at forte and piano dynamics, encourage them to expand both their extremes on the loud and soft sides each day with a tuner or drone to check intonation. Next, consider introducing crescendo and decrescendo exercises. My favorite exercise for expanding the dynamic range is to set a metronome on 60 bpm and go through the following exercise (photo 5).
For nine counts, students practice crescendos, decrescendos, crescendo-decrescendo, and decrescendo-crescendo patterns from pp to ff in a seamless, even manner. This exercise helps them plan their dynamic changes in an equal, measured way, aiming for smoothness between dynamics and optimal air conservation. This exercise should also be practiced with a tuner or drone. Each day, students should select notes in the low, middle, and high ranges and complete all four dynamic patterns on each pitch. They can choose to use vibrato or not, and should aim to play both louder and softer daily. Consider having them measure their decibel levels using a free app and charting their progress over time.
Other exercises I like to use for increasing the dynamic range are simple two-note chromatic long tones with a crescendo starting from B2 descending to C1, and B2 ascending to C4, or the student’s highest comfortable note. This exercise can be found in Marcel Moyse’s De la Sonorité, among others. Trevor Wye’s Practice Book 1: Tone has equally good supplemental exercises. Near the middle of the book, the flutist starts in the middle range on a G2 pedal tone and slurs up by step, second, third, and so on. Each interval size increases, which is also great for developing embouchure flexibility. The exercise should be practiced with even dynamics, decrescendo, and crescendo between the two notes. Another great Wye exercise in the same book is the flexibility exercise with subito dynamic changes. Four sixteenth-note groups are played slowly forte then piano back to back. Students will often add a crescendo or decrescendo in this exercise, telegraphing their upcoming dynamic shift. Encourage them to change their dynamics as quickly as possible, so as not to give away the upcoming surprise. Adding quarter rests between the beats, setting the new embouchure position and airspeed in the rests, then going on to the next beat, can help facilitate the quick changes. As the student gets comfortable with the extreme shifts, have them decrease the duration of the added rests until no rest exists between the sixteenths.
An additional exercise that I find assists students in creating extreme dynamics is what I like to call the “crossing the line” exercise. Often, students do not realize how much or how little air they can use without crossing over the imaginary line where the tone becomes ugly, cracks, or refuses to speak. Have them cross over that line and make the note crack on purpose so they know where their limit is. Then, with adjustments to the air direction, see if they can get even louder before the note cracks and goes “over the line” (i.e. if the note cracked higher, blow down more while keeping a small aperture, which will allow more air to be put into the note without it cracking). This way, they learn where their limits are today, so they may push their boundaries even further tomorrow.
Explaining the mechanics of producing dynamics while maintaining correct intonation will lead to confident flutists that aren’t afraid to take risks in practice sessions, rehearsals, and performances. Using these strategies, your flute section will play with exciting, contrasting dynamics in no time!
Erin Kendall Murphy is the Assistant Professor of Flute at Oklahoma State University and performs with the Bluestem Blaze trio and Lakeshore Rush ensemble. She holds performance degrees from the University of Michigan (BM), Northwestern University (MM), and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (DMA). Visit Erin’s website for more information.
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