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The Top Tips to Great Flute Playing

Josh Harris • Performance • May 15, 2013

By Jennifer Cluff

A flute clinician collects and distills the tips and tricks that instantly work to help young flutists reach a higher skill level. These tips may be particularly useful for those educators who do not have years of flute-playing experience. Display these great secrets from flute experts, with their “at a glance” illustrations, in the rehearsal room, or keep these tips on hand when your flute students have technical questions. Here are the top tips I’ve amassed from a quarter-century of flute teaching.

Chair Set-Up for Flute Players

Flute players should always turn their chairs so that they point 45 degrees to the right. This leaves room for the right elbow to extend forward, in front of the chest and relaxes the left arm. Like the violin, which also is played diagonally across the chest, the flute requires the proper angling of the flutist’s lower body to lend strength to the tone quality and flexibility to the arms, hands and wrists. (Figure 1) Sitting forward on the chair so both feet are flat on the floor helps breathing and balance. Allowing one music stand per player also helps leave sufficient room for the length of the instrument.

Figure 1 Left: Chairs parallel to music stands strain the arms and shoulders.Right: Angled chair allows both arms to be in front of the chest.Headjoint Alignment on Flute Body

Always line up the flute’s headjoint so that when playing all three octaves with good tone quality, the tops of the keys continue to face the ceiling. Key tops should not tilt backwards. Flutists with thinner lips or less dip in their chin may find when assembling the flute they should line up the far-edge of the blowhole with the center of the keys. Roughly 75 percent of all flute players will find the chin plate and the hand position more stable this way. Flutists with deep chin concavity or thicker lower lips may want to start with the center of the blowhole lined up with the center of the keys and gradually experiment from that headjoint alignment position. (Figure 2) Finger length and hand size also play a role. The ergonomically correct headjoint alignment can also help keep more chin plate in the skin of the chin, and the shoulders down and relaxed.

Figure 2 

25% of flutists will use the center-to-center alignment of the headjoint. 75% of flutists will line up the far edge of the blow hole with the center of the keys.Mark the Headjoint Alignment 

Unlike a clarinet, which has sections that click into place, flutes are aligned ergonomically to suit each player as he or she gradually adjusts to an asymmetrical posture. Instead of turning the whole flute inward with the wrists for stability, flutists should turn only the headjoint inward at the barrel and then mark it with ink or stickers. After each headjoint adjustment, the body is again rolled outward with the hands so that the key tops remain parallel to the ceiling. By gradually experimenting over time and marking the best alignment position found, each flutist can custom fit his or her own headjoint alignment. Small stickers, spots of nail-polish, or semi-permanent “shiny surface” markers can be used to create matching markings on barrels and headjoints. Spot clean with isopropyl alcohol before applying and use the alcohol again to clean off ink or adhesive. This allows the flutist to change markings or keep consistent markings as the embouchure and hand position develop.

Figure 3

Figure 3

When experimenting with gradually turning the headjoint inward, be sure and roll the flute’s keywork outward. Note how the elbows drop into a more comfortable position when the best alignment is found.Tuning the Flute

Cold flutes need to be warmed with the keys down and by breathing warm air into them before flutists check their tuning. The cork in the flute’s crown should be permanently set at 17.3 millimeters during annual maintenance and then left undisturbed. Tuning the flute’s three octaves requires modifying the length of the draw of the headjoint in very small increments over several practice sessions, using an audible tuning aid such as “The Tuning CD” (

Ink markers made for shiny surfaces can be used to mark the insertion line on the flute’s tenon for quickly assembling the instrument once the best draw for pitch is ascertained. (Figure 4)

Figure 4 

Cork is set at 17.3 millimeters and students can mark ink on tenon to set their headjoint’s draw.

Although rolling the flute inward and outward can a method to locate sharper and flatter pitches as a brief experiment for the ear, tuning with the wrists is to be avoided during normal playing. The study of embouchure position and air speed is more flexible and reliable once the octave length is set.

Blowing Well

To sustain the flute’s sound with a rich, full tone quality, trigger the abdominal muscles by using a mental image called “The Belt Trick.”

Fill up with air, as described above, and pretend you have a belt around your middle that is far too large for you. Make the imaginary belt taut by pushing gently outward all around the lowest ribs, and keep the imaginary belt taut the whole time you sustain a rich tone on the flute. This engages those extra abdominal muscles that help control the exhalation. After a few moments of deliberately engaging these muscles, forget the “belt too big” image, and let the abdominal muscles relax into their new role.


When tonguing say “tu tu tu” as in French. For a less hard syllable, say “du du du.” The tip of the tongue should be used on the roof of the mouth just behind the top front teeth to lightly interrupt a fast stream of constant air. After each “tu,” the tongue tip should move vertically downward to rest lightly behind the front lower teeth. This leaves the tongue tip in the closest possible position to say “tu” or “du” again.

Flexible Lip Centers

The lip corners move forward as the flutist ascends to the highest octaves. Moving the corners of the lips allows the lip centers to move gradually closer and closer to the far side of the blowing edge and this shortening of the length of the “air reed” allows easy high register tone and tuning. High notes may require over one-half to two-thirds of the blowhole to be covered by the lower lip. Do not roll the flute inward with the wrists to achieve this shortening of the air reed length. Instead, move the lips gradually, gradually forward at the lip centers as the flute ascends. (Figure 5) 

Figure 5 

Lip centers actually move forward across the blowhole during ascent. Eventually this movement takes place in the very center of the lips, for finely controlled flexibility.To descend, slowly move the corners of the lips back again. Low notes need only one-quarter of the blowhole covered with the lower lip to sound well. Eventually, with practice, this flexible embouchure movement will take place almost unnoticeably in the very center of the lips creating a longer and shorter “tube” between the lips.

Dynamics and Tuning

The flute is naturally sharp in pitch in loud dynamics and goes flat when playing softly. To counteract this, use this trick by Walfrid Kujala, which he calls FULP and PLOT. Forte-Upper-Lip-Pulls (down) and Piano-Lower-Teeth (rise). The pulling down of the upper lip or the raising of the lower teeth can be practiced anytime with the hand in front of the mouth. (Figure 6) Notice the jaw opens and closes naturally as the lower teeth rise and fall in slow motion. The air is angled more deeply or shallowly into the flute with this simple movement.

Figure 6

FULP & PLOT For Forte: Pull the upper lip downward and aim the air down into the flute. Jaw opens. For Piano: Raise the lower teeth gradually vertically upwards so as to counteract the downward pull of the upper lip.This method does not require the flute player to decrease their air speed to achieve great pianissimo dynamics. Soft dynamics in fact require more air speed than most intermediate flutists tend to use, and using PLOT allows quick experimentation. In loud or high playing with very fast airspeed, the FULP technique stops flutists from being sharp or shrill by aiming the air downward. Pulling down the upper lip and opening the jaw gives a mellow quality to the high register that’s easier to tune and tame.

Director To-do List

Have all student flutes repaired annually, being especially aware that minute pad leaks cause flutists to force down keys, which in turn causes finger slowness. Flute pads are not forgiving. Pad leaks occur on all flutes through normal use but are more frequently found when flutes are assembled and disassembled with the student unknowingly bending the keys and rods by clasping them in order to twist the sections together.

Teach students the correct way to assemble and disassemble, handling the smooth tube sections only. Play-test student flutes using a feather-light touch, and be sure that all the notes speak without any downward finger pressure. A free flute care information sheet that students can download can be found at: students to take weekly private flute lessons with a qualified flute teacher who can help with fingerings, high octave tuning, expressive playing, and the technical facility that developing flute players need in order to excel.

Jennifer Cluff is an instructor of flute at Vancouver Island University and holds a performance degree from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music and The Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto. Principal Flute of the Vancouver Island Symphony from 1995 until 2006, Jennifer now performs as a soloist and chamber musician, teaches, arranges for flute, and writes a popular flute blog, which can be found at:

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