Looking for solutions for common flute problems?
There are a couple of issues that often appear in flute sections which create technique and tuning issues that make band directors nuts! The good news is that you don’t have to be a flute player to help them fix these issues! Below is a list of solutions for the most common problems that band directors run into in rehearsal each day.
Have students check their head joint corks periodically to ensure that they are placed correctly.
- Correct: If the line on the rod is in the center of the tone hole, with a correct embouchure, the instrument can be pulled out roughly a 1/4 inch and be in tune with itself and display normal tuning tendencies.
- Incorrect: If the cork is not in the right place, the instrument isn’t fundamentally in tune with itself and that will result in tuning challenges throughout the range of the instrument.
- So how do I fix this? Have students check their corks once every couple of weeks.
- If the cork is too far out, then the cap on the end of the head joint should be loosened the amount that the cork needs to go in and pushed in and then gently snugged.
- If the cork is too far in, gently use the tuning rod wrapped in a cleaning cloth to push it out the amount needed and snug the end cap down.
- If the cork moves very easily or comes out of the instrument then it needs to be replaced. An emergency repair is to use tape around the cork to seal the end until it can be replaced. If the cork is leaking it can affect tuning and tone quality.
Monitor your flute section’s embouchures continually.
- Correct: The embouchure should be pout shaped with corners down. The embouchure doesn’t tighten to change registers. Instead, the aperture is made smaller to play higher and more open to play lower. The jaw should always be dropped with the inside of the mouth open and round, and the soft palate lifted.
- Incorrect: Make sure that your flutes do not have embouchures that resemble a clarinet’s embouchure. Tight corners pulled back and lips pulled tight across the teeth will result in the player being very sharp, a thin shrill tone quality in the upper register, and a thin quiet tone quality in the lower register. Generally, flutes playing with this type of embouchure will run 30 to 40 cents sharp and go even sharper as they move into the top register.While telling a flute player to “roll in” or “roll out” does provide a quick fix, this creates tone quality changes which don’t blend well. That’s why they will all hit A440 on the tuner but as a section still not be in tune with each other. If you’re not in tone, it is impossible to play in tune as a section.
- So how do I fix this? I am a big believer in harmonics exercises to develop the appropriate flexibility. I stole these from my master’s flute teacher Dr. Rhonda Mains at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Teach these while focusing on:
- Maintaining a pout shape to the embouchure. This will result in corners being down.
- Use a round open shape in the mouth. (Have them pretend to catch a tennis ball in their mouths to feel that shape. Also singing “Oh” is another way to explain it.) This also lifts the soft palate.
- As students move lower on the staff the aperture becomes more open with the jaw being relaxed and down. They should keep the air speed fast and their heads in a neutral position.
- As students move into the top register, the embouchure moves forward which creates a smaller aperture. Again, the head remains in a neutral position. This isn’t tight, the corners remain down and the jaw remains down with the round open shape in their mouth. This brings their pitch down considerably and with practice, they will find that they can literally bend the pitch by 30 cents or more by opening up. With practice, they keep the shape in their mouth’s round and the jaw down and pitch improves considerably!
Other things to check
- Is the student’s head in a neutral position? Having the head too far down or up results in tone and tuning issues that are difficult to fix.
- Does the student have a cupid’s bow, also referred to as a tear drop? If so they are likely playing off to the side of center. In doing so, if they keep the flute centered on their face their tone will have a lot of fuzz and they will often have problems in the upper register. This can be fixed by adjusting the student’s stance to change how the air hits the lip plate.
Hand position will affect technique, tone, and can create avoidable injuries.
- Right hand in the shape of a “C” and then placed on the flute. The thumb will fall naturally under the first finger or slightly to the left or right.
- Left hand in the shape of a “relaxed C.”
- Fingers should keep that natural curve that they have when you allow your hand to hang at your side.
- Right-hand fingers sliding off the front of the keys creates slower and uneven technique.
- The right-hand thumb pushed forward creating a pronounced bend in the wrist. This creates tension in the wrist which can result in pain.
- The left-hand placed too far toward the head joint on the flute results in flat fingers struggling to reach the keys correctly also creates uneven technique.
- The left-hand pinky should remain above the Ab key to prevent uneven technique.
- How to fix this:
- If a student is playing an open hole flute, begin to pull plugs early. I give my sixth graders a choice as soon as they get comfortable holding the instrument correctly. They can pull them all at once and deal with the adjustment for a day while they fix any hand position issues, or they can pull them one day at a time which spreads the pain of adjustment out over the space of a week. If I’m working with older students who have developed bad habits, I give them the same choice and explain to them why it’s important to remove those plugs.
- If the student has an open hole flute, allow them to keep their left-hand ring finger plug if they are on an in-line flute. If the keys are off set and their hands are the size of a normal adult they can pull that plug.
- Mole skin provides a great tactile reminder for students who are having trouble keeping their thumb in the right place. The same is true if you’re trying to get a flute player to place their left hand further down the flute. It comes off without damaging the instrument and you can use a little bit of alcohol to remove the sticky residue. Mole foam doesn’t seem to remain on the instrument as reliably as mole skin.
- If the student is playing a closed hole instrument then you as the director must remain aware of their hand position at all times. If you fuss on a regular basis and don’t allow them to get lazy with their hand position their lives and yours will be easier in the long term!
- Is the head joint adjusted correctly on the flute? Make sure that the aperture hole is lined up with the first key.
You now have a quick guide to fixing the most common issues that flute players develop. Paying attention to these details will allow you, as the director, to enjoy your “in tone and in tune” flute section!
Danika White is currently the band director at Rayburn MS in Northside ISD in San Antonio. She spent the first seventeen years of her teaching career in Missouri where her bands received numerous I ratings at State Contest, her solo and ensemble students were very successful at both the district and state level, and she had All-State Band members on flute, clarinet, and French Horn. Her marching bands were honored to represent Missouri at the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington D.C. twice in five years. Ms. White holds degrees from Central Methodist University and the University of Arkansas.
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