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Harmonics for Flautists by Roderick Seed

Harmonics are our best teachers! We can learn so much about how we are using (or not using) our airstream, intonation, note beginnings and endings, legato, and more! Because the flute has many keys and fingering possibilities, we can sometimes neglect what actually creates sound- ourselves! When we play harmonics, however, the fingers are left alone and we can focus on our airstream.

Harmonic series

Harmonics are present in all notes that we play, although we do not necessarily hear them.

We can play the overtones, or pitches of the harmonic series, on the flute by changing the air speed. For instance, when the frequency of a note doubles, we get an octave. The octave follows the ratio 2:1, where other intervals, such as the perfect 5th follow the ratio 3:2 and the perfect 4th, 4:3. The discovery of these pleasing intervals and their ratios has been attributed to Pythagoras 500 years BC!

Warm up exercise

Aim for this warm-up: Match the harmonic’s depth and warmth of sound on all notes.

Holy Trinity of Air

I like to think of our airstream as the Holy Trinity: Air speed, direction, and amount.

These three elements can be isolated and/or combined to help us with pitch, dynamic, intervals, and more. Let us look at the air direction first.

Changing the air direction (pitch)

Blow on your hand and feel the air in a small circle in the middle of your hand. Now, blow up your hand and notice how your lower lip moves forwards and up so that it slides in front of the top lip. Now, blow down your hand and notice the lower lip move back so that it slides behind the top lip. The lower lip is moving with the lower jaw. We can try this on the flute.

NB: Make sure it is only your lower lip moving - try not to move your whole head or roll the flute.

Exercise 1: Pitch bending (note bending)

Pitch bending is a great exercise to practice lip flexibility. Find out how sharp and how flat you can bend the note.

Changing the amount of air (dynamic)

Next, let’s look at how the amount of air can affect the pitch. So, blow a note loud to soft without trying to adjust the pitch. Just observe how much the note changes pitch. Allow the sound to rise and fall and feel how flexible your air is, like a big wave.

Obviously, we cannot play like this, so we now use our lip flexibility to correct the pitch. So, aim the air down for forte and then gradually lift the air as you get softer, maintaining the pitch.

Exercise 2: Changing the dynamic

Changing the air speed

A lot of students will often say they need to “blow harder” to play a note an octave higher, but this is not the case and can lead to being inflexible in the higher register. For example, we need to be able to play all dynamics in the high register, not just loud.

We can change the air speed in two ways. One is by making the aperture you blow through smaller, much like covering the end of a hosepipe to make the water come out faster. The same amount of air is being supplied, but it now travels out of the lips faster because the area of the opening has been reduced.

We can also feel how we change the airspeed internally, by placing one hand on our stomachs and feeling what happens when we blow slow-fast. There is a slight change in pressure, but no tightening/gripping is required.

Exercise 3. Harmonics at the same dynamic level

Practice harmonics in pairs. As we go up the harmonic series we need to lift the air and increase the air speed. Isolate the two elements and practice separately, then put them together again and notice how much easier it is. Octaves require double the air speed, but the smaller intervals will require slightly more subtle changes in air speed.

Exercise 4. Finding the speaking point/soft attack

This is a good exercise in how to start and end notes beautifully. Start the note from nothing. Your lower lip will be forward and then brought back as you crescendo, then forward as you diminuendo.

Exercise 5: Different stress patterns.

To practice loud-soft and soft-loud.

“Darling” is where the first note is stressed and then the second note is released (strong beat - weak beat).

“Deserve” is where the first note acts as a preparation for the second note (weak beat- strong beat, or pickup, downbeat).

“I love you” is an example of preparation- stress- release.

Tip: Practice these exercises alongside Moyse 24 Little Melodic Studies no.1.

Exercise 6: Large intervals

A great exercise that I learnt from Lorna McGhee.

Exercise 7: Taffanel & Gaubert scales

Check sound and intonation of the outer notes before filling in the notes of the scale.

Exercise 8: Reverse harmonics

To find ease in the high register when playing softly.

Exercise 9: Developing a full high register

This exercise combines harmonics and the extended technique of singing and playing

Thanks for reading!

More harmonic exercises can be found in my book, Mastering the Flute with William Bennett


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