Most flute teachers tell their students to 'support from the diaphragm' without really telling them what the physical sensation is going to feel like. A commonly held misconception is that support is an abdominal contraction. This is the exact opposite of what needs to happen. Try contracting (squeezing in) while talking...EVERYTHING feels wrong! (as it should). Support has nothing to do with a static contraction..it's an active pressure that sets the air column in motion: almost like a feeling of pushing gently out or down as the player exhales. It takes a lot of physical energy to create a great sound on the flute: using the 'whole body' to create the tone is mandatory!
It's the competition season and students are working on their memorization skills! It really helps to have multiple 'life lines' and strategies when working by memory. Finger memory is important: carefully learn a piece correctly, so wrong notes are never an issue. Play slowly and also up to tempo to experience the relaxing, correct technique you have learned. Recognize patterns (scales, arpeggios, chord structures). Keep the form of the piece in your mind: is it binary, ternary...where are the major sections? These are important landmarks. Try to 'see' the notes in your head as you play which will help get you back home if there is a tiny glitch in passagework. Sing along with the piece in your head...knowing what comes next is an important skill. Lastly, practice by memory often! Perform for family at home to simulate the performance. Enjoy every moment of the experience.
We're just concluding another symphony season and school year...time to make sure your student's flutes are in good shape. Normal 'wear and tear' issues, such as torn pads should be addressed. Check the cork position and have a qualified repair technician replace the cork if it is worn or sealing improperly. Review good habits with your students: Two necessary things: 1. swabbing the flute after EVERY use (I abhor those swabs that stay inside the flute body, trapping all the moisture) and 2. wiping down the outside of the flute once a day to remove all the finger 'grime' (skin oils, etc). I try to look at every student's instrument quarterly so repair issues are not getting out of hand. Have a list of qualified repair shops in your area to give to parents: make it easy for them to follow thru on repairs. Flutes that work correctly sound better!
Making sure that fingers and tongue are coordinated is the first step in achieving clean articulation. It will help to practice passages slurred first to carefully listen for clean and even finger changes. If the fingers are not even, there is no way articulated passages can be even. Practice with varied articulation: slur 2/tongue 2, reverse that as well, and then try all articulated...SLOWLY. Speeding up can be worked on in small bursts, (using chunking to break up the passage) ...then put each piece back together. Sometimes the problems of coordination are NOT the tongues fault: it's rushing fingers causing the problem. The tongue should not move a great deal inside the mouth and should not cut notes off...Keep listening. Because there is no way to SEE articulation, we must rely on our ears to fix the problems.
Piccolo Finger Technique
Because of the piccolo's smaller size, finger technique needs to be slightly modified. Some tricky third octave passages on the flute can get a great boost by using harmonics, but because of the greater resistance on piccolo, often this option is not quite as available to us, although I am able to use this as an option many times. I try to play a little more on the finger tips, curving the fingers slightly more on piccolo since the keys are smaller and there are no open holes to worry about covering. Think about incorporating trill fingerings for extremely fast passages. Keep fingers even closer to the keys than the flute. Always, start slow and small: slower tempo and small segments of the passage (a beat is enough at the beginning). Link together as you teach the passage to your fingers, and gently ramp up the tempo. I enjoy playing the passage from right to left for a 'new' way of looking at it(this also heightens the concentration). Keep earplugs handy as you do this: Extended piccolo practice is tough on the ears.
Playing in a 'live' hall...one which has a lot of resonance, is a real joy. Many of us might notice that playing in a bathroom, with so many reflective surfaces (tile, glass, marble) is quite an ego boost for our tone! Live halls require more finesse from us: There is no reason to play louder in such a space. Do the opposite: Let the hall help carry your tone by backing off just slightly. Otherwise, you risk sounding a bit harsh with a slightly frayed tone. It will also help to make careful adjustments with articulation...play a bit shorter, because the hall will lengthen notes for you because it enhances the vibrancy of the sound. Dynamics need careful attention as well...bring out the piano side more than usual. Enjoy these live spaces...and let them help you create tonal magic.
Tone and Flexibility and Intonation
I love working on my sound...it's a skill most professional wind players continue to hone, every day. Using harmonics as the springboard to my warm up, I play the entire series on all fundamentals from C1-F1. I usually do some kind of 'vocalise' next: arpeggios of some kind (triadic patterns, or chords) to loosen up before commencing on more static long tones, usually with crescendo/diminuendo work thrown in at the same time. Break this up for students: Working first on long tones with nice tapers, then adding in longer diminuendos, then crescendos, before putting it all together. Remember, the lips are flexible when changing dynamics, as air direction must change too! Keep the tuner handy when doing these exercises...and pay attention to the air pressure...keep it very firm on the soft dynamics. This kind of work will help EVERYTHING you play!
Developing reliable finger technique also requires training the eyes, breath, and brain! Make sure that you have played a passage correctly from the outset. Go slow enough at first to notice all details: dynamics and articulation as well. Allegro should become adagio at this stage. Make sure your eyes are reading slightly ahead: look at the notes about to arrive, not only just right where you are. Sometimes your brain can 'trick' you into stopping if you are low on breath, because that realization that stopping=breathing has been ingrained for years! Mark your breathing spots, and stick to the plan. Now to fingers alone: Slow practice is helpful, but try breaking up passages into two note units, at a very fast tempo. Link them together into longer units as you get more secure. Try different groupings of notes (starting a 16th note passage on the 'and' of the beat and grouping in 4's for example). Move your metronome up a notch, down two notches, then up three, down two, for a new way of moving forward in tempo. Above all, consistent practice cures fingering glitches. Happy New Year...happy practicing!
Piccolo Tone Tips
Building a beautiful tone on piccolo is a separate quest from the flute. Try placing the piccolo slightly higher on the lower lip for starters: it helps to mitigate the smaller size of the embouchure hole. Spend additional time building tonal security in the low and middle octaves before scaling the heights of the third register! I love to slur quick octaves between the low/middle registers to keep flexibility and focus...and I find singing pedal tones while playing arpeggios is so helpful to keep the larynx low. Nicola Mazzanti's book has some great written exercises for singing and playing! Whistle tones are terrific for relaxing the embouchure after spending time in the third octave. Make sure to keep the air pressure stronger than what you are used to on flute, and keep the lips a bit more relaxed than you might expect...this will give you a free and sweet tone. 'Tis the season for Nutcracker performances, with many flutists facing more piccolo playing than usual..hope this post is helpful!
Mold your Tone
Ah, vibrato...such a complex topic, since it cannot be seen but only heard. In general, if the ear is drawn to vibrato initially, it is probably too wide or too slow...a beautiful tone is shaded with vibrato, not dominated by it. In general, there should be 4-6 pulses of vibrato per quarter note pulse. Experiment with different speeds, especially on diminuendo exercises. Take the vibrato out as you go softer: next time, keep the vibrato spinning smaller and faster as you get softer. PLAY! Make your long tone exercises a laboratory for success by trying all kinds of speeds/widths of vibrato in each register and in different dynamics. Remember to keep the vibrato on the low side of the pitch so that you are not going sharper as a general trend when using vibrato.