Developing Your Flute Embouchure

For some of my teenage years, I was the solo clarinetist with the "International Youth Symphony," which was, at the time, an orchestra made up of members from lower southeast Michigan and southwest Ontario. As a clarinetist, I never had to worry much about how my embouchure needed to change to get different notes on those instruments. I never knew that the flute embouchure was such a "different animal" until lately.

Several years ago, I had a saxophone student that would switch registers on her saxophone but never use the octave key. I was intrigued as to why. She explained to me that it was "how you hit the different registers on the flute."

Oh.....

I just always assumed they had an "octave key" like everything else. Just goes to show you we can learn things if we don't assume we just know everything. I quickly helped her with that "problem" in her sax playing.

But as soon as I got home, I pulled out the flute I bought a few years before but "never got around to...." and started digging online to learn how to play it. I've been hit and miss with it until the last few weeks. Call it my Covid-19-induced foray into playing the flute. What better time than when you have all the time in the world?

Anyway, all of that is to say that a result, the stuff I've been posting about saxophone is done from a much different "angle" than the stuff I post about flute. In fact, this is my first "flute-related" post.

As I said, I'm relatively new to flute.

I'm working on it; and I'm actually recording myself as I play to eventually make a "one year progress" video down the road. But I'm a "doubler." My main instruments are sax and clarinet. I'm learning to play the flute from the perspective of an experienced musician with some "closely related experience."

I believe, though, that my approach to this from this "adult learner, already play something close" perspective might bring some unique perspective to people looking to learn how to conquer this wonderful instrument.

So I thought I would share some insights I've found with you; answers to questions like: 

Where do you place the flute on your lips?

How do you find that sweet spot? And if you find it, how do you find it again later on? (I've got a tip for you on that.)

Why is my flute airy sounding?

Getting the sound is one thing. Getting a good sound takes some time, some practice and some good old "experimentation" because each player has a different relationship between lips, teeth, tongue, oral cavity and flute. In short, God made you unique and you need to find out how to make YOUR facial "setup" work for you.

How do I get the high notes with my flute embouchure? Are there any flute embouchure diagrams or videos that can help?

I've found some and want to pass them onto you. I think they will help. I found that understanding what I wanted my embouchure and airstream to do helped me know what I was "aiming for."

Perhaps my insights as to what is good flute embouchure from the perspective of a "flute newbie" will be helpful here.

I don't hold myself out here, by any means, as God's gift to the flute world. In fact, I don't see myself that way regarding the saxophone, either. As I get older, I realize that apart from rigorous daily practice, I find myself ever in awe at how often I have to go back and revisit so many of the basics just so that I don't feel I'm drifting backwards in my abilities.

But I am pretty good at analyzing what helps me learn and what I find most helpful. And regarding the flute, I'm starting to practice it every day during the Covid-19 crisis. Part of what I'm doing to learn is searching for resources.

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My experience trying to figure out how to get a good sound on my flute with "Youtube University."

Jeez, I don't want to be harsh. I know a lot of people mean well. But it seems not everyone who can play well can explain to others how they do it; teaching is a particular gift.

I also realize that I have a particular quirk (and I bring it up because I suspect I'm not the only one). My particular quirk is that I do much better learning to do something when I learn why I'm doing it. If someone tells me "blow like this," I realize that "like this" means different things to different people.

I always do well if I can know what the end game is. And for me, the "end game" isn't just knowing I "blow like this" or "blow like that." For me, knowing how the sound is produced on the flute gives me the why. Once I understood how the sound was created in the flute, I better understood what I was trying to do with the embouchure and the air stream.

I found a lot of bad (well, maybe just not-so-good) videos out there about how to shape the mouth but very little explanation sometimes about why I was doing that.

Something I found that actually worked for me

Everyone has a different way of learning and understanding. Like I said, for me, part of what helped me was understanding how the sound is made on the flute. There were a couple things that specifically helped me with this.

The first thing I found was somewhat of an explanation of the physics of flute sound production at the Yamaha site.

Essentially, when you blow the air into the flute, you are dealing with "fluid pressures" in the air column. You blow in, and it causes a build-up of pressure in the tube of the flute (we are talking hundreds of thousands of times per second, as you blow) where you build up a resonance in the pressure building and relaxing in the length of the tube - between the end where you blow and the "end" where the tube is open - where your fingers are not holding down pads.

The Yamaha video on how a sound is produced on a flute

The "longer" the tube, the slower the resonance. But essentially, the air stream is directed (when you're doing it right) into the flute in such a way that this slight resonating happens. As you see in the video, the result is that the air stream you are projecting into the tone plate is just at that point where it is oscillating between going in and going over the opening in the head joint.

Keep in mind: this video is not telling you that you need to make your mouth move up and down or that you need to make your airstream go up and down. It is showing you what happens to the air you're blowing out of your mouth as you blow the airstream across the opening of the tone plate. The air they show moving up and down is the air column being pushed up and down by the changes in "backpressure" from the standing wave (again, hundreds of times per second). 

I did a little "modification" of their video to show what is happening with the air stream and the pressure in the interest.

So what about the high notes? How do you get the upper register?

The upper register is attained when you change your embouchure to affect the intensity and "aim" of the air column to where you cause this resonance to happen at a "harmonic frequency." The fundamental frequency of the lower register is the frequency corresponding to the "length" of the tube (distance to the point where your fingers are not pressing down keys).

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The frequency of the upper register is twice that of the lower register (and half the wavelength) of the lower register.

So where you get a single standing wave in the flute when you play in the lower register, you get two of them in the flute when overblowing to get the upper register.

This might help you. Sometimes seeing the idea of a harmonic in different ways will help you to understand. Look at how this works with the standing wave created on a guitar string:

Hopefully, you'll find this entertaining. But don't worry if you don't get it. If you do, have fun with the concept. 

But this is just to give you another way of trying to understand (if you want to) of what is happening in the instrument when you switch between the registers.

Anyway, all of that to say this:

When you're trying to switch between the lower and upper register on the flute, you're trying to get the air to oscillate at a faster frequency by hitting one of those "harmonic waves."

So that is what makes the sound on the flute. You are blowing in a way that allows the air column out of your lips to "vibrate" due to the oscillations of back-pressure of the standing wave that you are creating in the flute. The air periodically going over and into the flute (hundreds of times per second) creates the "frequency" of the note.

Those videos might help. What helped me to form a better flute embouchure was a page out a book that is fifty years old.


There is a book written in 1970 called, "The Art Of Flute Playing" by Edwin Putnik, who was, at the time, professor of flute at Arizona State University.
Even though it is 50 years old, one page in this book answered the questions for me so that I knew what I was trying to get my mouth to do.

Let me give you the essential bits from the book, on pages 9 to 11.

"A sound can be produced by blowing partly into and partly across the embouchure hole of the flute.... In adjusting [the] basic mouth formation to the embouchure hole on the flute, there are two prime factors to be considered and developed: (1) where the air is centered, and (2) how much of the embouchure hole the lower lip covers.

"The column of air must be split approximately in half by the far edge of the embouchure hole. This adjustment often requires constant and considerable effort by both teacher and student before satisfactory tone and control are achieved."

(In other words, don't give up.)

"In principle, the flute is placed so that an average of one-fourth to one-third of the embouchure hole is covered by the lower lip. If too little, the embouchure hole is covered, the resulting tone tends to be empty or shallow... Covering too much of the embouchure hole results in a tone that is small and thin..."

"Having adjusted the lips to cover the correct amount of the embouchure hole, it is then necessary to turn the flute in or out to discover the best angle for producing a tone..."

"To ensure placing the flute in exactly the same place on the lips every time, many students and professionals find it helpful to place the entire embouchure hole against both lips first, then turn the flute down to the proper angle.

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Just a tip here from me. This is a little "reverse engineering" of sorts, but it will help in the long run. As you're fooling with the flute position and find a sweet spot, roll the flute back up to this "starting position" and see what it feels like - in other words, where the part of your lips is in relation to the center of the hole; or, where the bottom of your lower lip hits the bottom of the hole. Keep it in mind for where to start the next time.

I did find this gentleman to be very helpful in how I needed to form my flute embouchure.

Not just the embouchure, but a lot of other things as well.

Perhaps you will find this series of videos from Dr. Selfridge Music on youtube helpful.

This guy walks right from the basics - like how to open the case - all the way through sound production and fingering different notes on the instrument and all the good stuff on how to form proper embouchure and hold it properly.

For some good stuff...

Be sure, also, to check out Sir James Galway's videos on sound production on flute - particularly on how to successfully form your flute embouchure to hit the upper register.

This video is very good for several reasons: the guy is a master on the flute. He is also a master instructor. And the other thing I like about him is that his technique seems to run counter to the instruction given by most of the other folks on youtube. But the proof is in the pudding. His sound is absolutely extraordinary to say the least.

Watch this "masterclass" video to see what I mean.

This video is a good resource for "fine-tuning" some things if you're already fairly competent.

Specifically, what I like about this lady's videos is that she touches on some aspects of shaping your embouchure that I've not often heard discussed (yet) on other sites so much.

For instance, in covering the fact that everyone's embouchure is unique, she discusses how she discovered that the "side-to-side" aspect of mouth placement on the instrument is critical - as not everyone blows straight forward; some people blow a little to the left or right of center and how to find your "side-to-side sweet spot."

A great flute resource: Ory Schneor

Ory is Principal Flutist with Münchener Kammerorchester and Tongyeong Festival Orchestra. His site has multiple resources for developing flute technique.

One particular point he raises is understanding your embouchure in "3D." On his site, he asks an interesting question:

Have you ever considered the position of your aperture in its 3D position, its depth? Have you ever tried to check what would happen when you change the depth of your aperture?

Here's the idea: much of the instructional material about flute embouchure is concerned with the shape of the opening as you blow the air through the aperture formed by your lips. There is discussion about the shape of the hole and the direction of the air stream.

But an important consideration is the DEPTH of the "hole" through which the air travels. Check out his page on this.

The important point is that it has to do with the clarity of the directionality of the airstream: think of the difference between the accuracy of a rifle vs a pistol - the bullet travels more accurately with a rifle because there is more force in the direction of travel before the bullet hits the air.

There is a similar condition that occurs when you can increase the depth of the aperture in your lips. Check out his article HERE.

More to come! stay tuned!

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