Finding a more focussed sound is something that I think we all strive for and set as a goal in our daily tone practice. One has to be careful setting such a goal, since there’s the potential for what Alexander Technique practitioners might call “end-gaining” (disregarding the means whereby/process and fixating on the end result). One can try all sorts of things to try and focus the sound, but this can lead to bad habits and/or tension if not done with care or patience. With this in mind, I will suggest below some exercises and processes I practice regularly that I find useful.
Firstly, a focused sound is all about the airstream and how it is directed when we blow over the embouchure hole of the flute. The sound is created when the air divides at the back edge of the embouchure hole. A lack in focus can be caused by:
An airstream that is too spread out, where the aperture between the lips is too wide/open. This results in a slow airspeed.
Misdirected air. When the air isn’t centred, but travels off to the side. This could be a result of different factors, such as lip plate placement on the chin, or simply blowing off to the side. For this, try some whistle tones exercises. Whistle tones are great to use as target practice, as the tiniest change in air pressure or direction can influence the whistle tone's quality and pitch.
Overblowing. When we use too much air, the air escapes around the edges, causing a distortion in the sound. True resonance is found not through blowing hard, but by opening and making space for the sound in the body.
Undue tension. This is tension in the lips and body from tightening or holding muscles, which inhibits resonance. Tension in the throat or mouth doesn’t allow a free passage of air from the lungs out of the mouth, but rather distorts it so the exchange is not as smooth as it could be. Too much tension in the lips creates airiness in the sound. Try the following exercise:
Observe the shape of your lips when you say “pooh”. Also notice how your lips are closed on “p” and then how the air makes an opening in the lips on the “ooh”. Try elongating the vowel sound: oooooo and notice how your lips stay in place.
Now without vocalising the word, almost whisper the word “pooh”, so it’s purely blowing air through the lips.
Next take the flute and try a short “pooh” on one note. Play each note of a melody (e.g The Swan by Saint-Saëns) like this. No force from muscles, just a simple exhalation, like gently blowing out a candle. I suggest breathing in through the nose for this to avoid opening the lips each time.
Next, make the poohs gradually longer – think of the elongated vowel you did earlier. So, start with very short notes and gradually get longer and longer, making sure the airstream is steady.
Then join all the “pooh”s together to form a slurred melodic line. This is muscle memory, starting simple.
This is also great for soft playing. Try it with the slow movement of the Poulenc sonata.
Core of the sound
Finding a “focused sound” can often be frustrating and I like to think of finding the core or essence of the sound, so as long as we have that core, any air around the sound caused by tension or even dry lips doesn’t detract from the message we want to give. One teacher used to use the imagery of a pencil, where the lead is the core. What creates images and writing is the lead and so that is the most important thing to cultivate. One can then have different shades of sound, depending on how much core (or harmonic content) one uses.
Exercises that help find the core:
Pitch bending. Video
Muscle memory. On a long note, start from a very unfocused sound, with the lips quite loose. Gradually introduce the lip muscles that you used in finding a whistle tone (think of creating the vowel sound “ooh” with your lips). This takes away any habit of tightening lips before playing which might be causing airiness and gives you a sensation of what you do when you hear the sound focusing. This has to be done very slowly in order to gain muscle memory. You can then reduce the time it takes to reach your desired sound by starting with your lips more formed.
Paper on the wall/straw. Use a thin straw and blow a piece of paper on the wall. Notice how the straw perfectly directs the air into the middle of the paper so that it stays up. Try the same thing without the straw, making sure you feel the opening between the lips like you did when the straw was there and not letting that collapse. Keep the air speed constant and well-directed and the paper will stay up. Now blow a note on the flute as you did with the paper and hear the difference!
Removing tension. Do some singing and playing at the same time to open up the sound and remove tension. Allowing your true sound to come through by not tightening the jaw, throat, lips, abdominal muscles etc will give you a greater chance of finding the core of the sound. One can try and try to focus the sound, but if you are not letting the air through smoothly without interruption, you will only get frustrated, tense up more and just get further and further from the core.
One needs to be quiet in order to play loudly.
Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting