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Gordon Palmer has been a regular contributor to Sax on the Web's Discussion Forum (SOTWF) since 2000. He is a woodwind player and a repair technician from Auckland, New Zealand. This is a follow-up to his previous flute article.
Harri Rautiainen
   January 2005

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First note from a Flute

by Gordon Palmer

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Different teachers will have quite different ideas on this, of course. Here I offer my own approach which seems to have worked well for many students.

1. Carry out the instructions in front of a mirror.

2. Never at any stage pull your lips tight around or against your teeth. (Imagine some small pins between your lower lip and your teeth.) See "Note 4" below.

3. Smile very slightly, just the corners of your mouth - just enough to take any slight wrinkles out of your lips, and make the lips gently contact the teeth . Make sure you NEVER bunch the lips up, even slightly, into a wrinkled 'pout' (which is what many people do when blowing across a bottle.)

4. Hold your head up. Ensure that one lip is directly above the other, without the upper lip overlapping the lower lip. You may need to slide your lower jaw slightly forward to achieve this. Both lips should be touching against an imaginary VERTICAL line, which for most people, would also touch the chin. Make sure that this lip position does not change as you work through the following.

5. Blow gently, STRAIGHT AHEAD, to create a tiny slit between your lips, say 14-15 mm wide, and 1 mm high in the centre. Do not blow hard. You should barely hear the air coming out. (See Notes 2 & 5, below.)

6. Make sure you have not altered 2 to 4. If you are doing 2-5 correctly, and you hold the palm of your hand directly in front of your lips, say 80 mm away, you should feel a cool wind against your palm, STRAIGHT AHEAD. Now for the flute position against your chin....

7. Get the flute head. Hold it vertically in front of you, with the open end pointing down and the embouchure hole ("EH") facing toward you. With your left thumb vertical in front of you, place it gently over the left part of the EH so that it covers 1/4 to 1/3 of the EH hole. Your thumb is exactly what you lip should soon look like in the mirror. It is IMPORTANT to note that you cannot see the edge of the hole that is covered by your thumb.

8. Hold the head in the left hand, keeping the hand away from the EH area. Completely block the open end of the flute with your right palm, or a cork - NO LEAKS! Without using the head, do a final repeat 2 - 5, checking all points in the mirror. Stop blowing. Do not alter your lip position. Bring the flute head towards your chin, making sure that the EH points upwards AT ALL TIMES. Rest the 'lip plate' of the flute against your chin, just below your lower lip. Wriggle it upwards or downwards until your lower lip covers 1/4 to 1/3 of the EH, and looks, in the mirror, JUST LIKE YOUR THUMB DID BEFORE. Make sure that the edge of the EH covered by your lip is nestled under your lip sufficiently that IT CANNOT BE SEEN IN THE MIRROR. If it can be seen, then it probably means you are forgetting No 2... Go over 2-4 more carefully!

9. Blow STRAIGHT AHEAD, as you did in No 5. Do NOT be tempted to blow DOWN into the flute. (see Note 1 below)

10. The note you get should be about the first Bb above middle C on the piano, or A if you used your palm instead of a cork. If it is lower (flatter)than A, you are blowing down, or blowing too gently, or covering too much EH, or looking down. (See "Note 6" below) If the note is a lot higher, about the third F above middle C on the piano, then you are blowing much too hard, &/or the hole between your lips is too small.

11. Check everything mentioned above, make VERY slight experimental adjustments, until you have a loud, clear, reliable, low note.

12. Now take the cork out, and do the same again. The note should now be the 2nd Ab above middle C, loud and clear. Push your finger in and out of the end, to give a wailing siren-like effect. (If your note is the THIRD Ab above middle C, you are blowing far too hard.)

13. Now block the end of the flute head again. Blow the air a lot faster, and press your lips a little more firmly together to make the slit a little smaller, to get the high note mentioned in 10.

14. When you can play these notes reliably, loudly, and clearly, you are ready to assemble the flute and try fingering different notes form a fingering chart. The easiest notes to start with are B, A, G in the first octave, and D in the second octave. As you go higher or lower from this area, your embouchure becomes more critical. As you go higher you need to blow the air faster, and through a smaller gap between your lips.

Note 1: Some players may be surprised about what I wrote in 10. Try this... Blow straight ahead into the palm of your left hand, without the flute. Now, WHILE you are blowing, place your right index finger under your lip as if it were the flute. You will notice that the presence of the finger under your lip AUTOMATICALLY diverts the air a lot lower on the palm of your hand, even though you are still blowing straight ahead.

Note 2: You cannot get a clear note if there are obstructions within your mouth that make the air turbulent as it gets to your lips. So make sure that your jaw is sufficiently open so that the teeth are nestled against the lips. Try closing your teeth nearly together to see what I mean - the tone gets VERY fuzzy. This turbulence can also be produced if the front part of the tongue is not lying at the BOTTOM of the mouth during a note, or if the back of the tongue is raised almost to the roof of the mouth. If you blow into the palm of your hand, using a flute embouchure, the sound of the wind should be almost nil. If it loud, then you have probably somehow created turbulence in the air stream. Try creating it on purpose, to better understand this issue.

Note 3: I have not attempted to cover the issue of tonguing. There is enough to think about initially without that too. However it is very simple... Whisper "Toooo" into the flute to begin every tongued note, remembering Note 2 while the note is actually sounding. During playing, including before and tonguing the gap is normally maintained between the lips. The TONGUE is the 'tap' which allows the air to flow or not. Breath pressure is maintained behind the tongue before and during tonguing.

Note 4: To get a clean, non-turbulent airstream, that gets a clear note and does not waste air, there must be sufficient length of 'windway' from behind the lips, to the front of the lips. Think of a recorder and the approx 30 mm of windway needed to get such an airstream. Be aware that pulling the lips tight against the teeth greatly shortens the length of this windway.

Note 5: Some people have a small lump or 'tear drop' in the centre of their upper lip. If this is problem, then it is quite OK to blow through a lip gap slightly to the side of this. Many top professional players have done this. See www.larrykrantz.com/embpic.htm for photos.

Note 6: Three factors dramatically affect the pitch (tuning) of notes.

  • The higher the speed of the airstream, the higher the pitch.
  • The closer the airstream is to right angles to the far wall of the EH chimney, the higher the pitch. So blowing down into the EH, or tilting the player's head down (without 'rolling' the flute with the head), or turning the flute inwards towards the player, will all flatten a note)
  • The more the EH is covered, the flatter the note.

These parameters are adjusted in an ongoing manner by the player, note by note, especially as the required volume changes, in order to keep the instrument in tune while maintaining a good tone. This requires a lot of practice and careful listening.

If you have been a sax or clarinet player, you may have special problems relating to going from these instruments to flute. Some of these problems are addressed somewhat in my previous flute article.

Good luck!

Gordon Palmer, "Gordon (NZ)" in the forum

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Created: January 24, 2005.
Update: April 20, 2006
© 2005-6, Harri Rautiainen and respective authors
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