Beautiful Tone for the New Flutist

Mike Lawson • Performance • May 15, 2013

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In preparation for a day of listening to young instrumentalists, a panel of judges were given guidelines on how to keep scoring consistent. One of the suggestions revealed much about the state of flute instruction: “When judging new flutists, be lenient with their scores on tone, because we all know that developing a clear tone takes years.” This is simply not true. Furthermore, it is immensely easier to begin with great tone and flexibility than to attempt to reverse ingrained habits months or even years later. This typical expectation of a hollow and airy sound for the beginning flutist needs to be transformed into an expectation of a full and clear tone.

Set Expectations

To set expectations, students must be able to identify a beautiful tone. Demonstrate airy and focused tones until the students can quickly identify which tone is their goal. Have a flute CD playing as students enter the band room so a beautiful tone can become embedded in their ears.

Teach Correct Embouchure

Begin teaching this embouchure by having students make faces in a mirror. This fun activity will help students to learn to quickly identify the difference between a correct and an incorrect embouchure. Ask them to:

  • Smile
  • Moo like a cow
  • Make their lips disappear like a grandma who has lost her teeth
  • Close their mouth normally with just a little pout
Figure 1 Correct Embouchure

Figure 1 Correct Embouchure


Help students discover the location of the inner, wet part of their lips, and then alternate between putting the outer, dry part of the lips together and then putting the inner, wet parts firmly together. With the aid of pictures and a mirror, demonstrate that a correct embouchure (Figure 1) consists of the following:

  1. Close the mouth normally with a slight pout; and
  2. Subtly extend the lips so the inner, wet parts are firmly glued together.

Students may tend to overcompensate and extend the lips too far forward, much like their mooing cow face. This problem should be corrected in front of a mirror.

The following “Paper Blowing Game” will help students practice their embouchure and will teach them to always begin blowing with the lips firmly closed, by using the syllable “pee.” Students often lapse into making a “who” sound, in which they form a lip opening prior to blowing, instead of letting the air strike the lips to create the opening.

Using crumpled squares of paper (about four inches by four inches), ask the student to form a good embouchure and use the syllable “pee” to blow the pieces of paper across a table. With the paper-blowing technique, the lips can remain closed and maintain the correct embouchure while blowing multiple pieces of paper. Also, have the student blow the paper with the pointer finger placed under the lips to resemble the flute head joint. Have fun seeing how far the papers can be blown in order to encourage a fast air stream. Line up several pieces of paper in a row to see how many can be blown in one breath. This game is fantastic for teaching students to sustain their air column.

Air Direction and Speed

The understanding of correct air direction in flute playing has improved significantly over the past decade. Earlier scholarly articles suggested that the air should be directed straight across the tone hole and then adjusted higher for the upper octaves and slightly lower for the first octave. It is now recognized that blowing straight across the tone hole will either produce a windy sound or no tone at all. To play a full and clear low note, the air must be angled downward. If blowing straight across the flute is a 90-degree angle in relation to the face, then the correct angle would be about 10 degrees. (Figure 2)

figure 2

Knowing that it may be difficult to achieve this angle through adjusting the mouth and lips, many students are taught the “kiss and roll” method of blowing. In this common method, students begin with the embouchure hole facing the lips and then gradually roll the head joint outward until a sound is produced. This technique creates several problems: a tight, covered sound will be produced, and students will not learn how to adjust the air column and pitch with the lips. The adjustment of the air column and lips should not be the result of rolling the head joint in and out. Another misconception in teaching beginning tone is that producing a sound is much like blowing on a pop bottle. A good pop bottle sound (the typical 16-ounce bottle) is the result of an air stream blown straight across the opening; hence, good pop bottle technique is actually the opposite of good flute technique.

If students have difficulty with directing the air lower, draw an illustration that shows the air striking inside the mouth where the gums and teeth meet. From this point the air bounces off, and the upper lip is used to direct this air downward. The air stream acts much like a ball on a pool table bouncing off the side. Of course, the higher the pitch, the more the air is focused directly towards the center of the lips.

The speed of the air column is equally vital to good flute playing. While blowing without the head joint, let the students contrast the speed of their air column with the speed of your air column. Can they feel the difference in speed when using the incorrect “who” embouchure and the correct “pee” formation?

Keep Breathing Simple

Breathing instructions for young children should be kept as simple as possible – after all, they have been practicing efficient breathing since their birth! The extra tension and the classic tight lifting of the shoulders, which often occurs when students are asked to take a huge breathe, must be avoided. Here are several simple suggestions to circumvent these problems.

  1.  Use the “yawn breath.” Yawning is the natural way for taking in extra air. Use yawn breaths before blowing on paper, practice tools, or the head joint until doing so becomes routine.
  2. Imitate the low-pitched “Darth Vader” breathing.
  3. Acquire a new breathing hole between the lungs. Form a pretend breathing tube by cupping hands and place them several inches above the belly button. Using this pretend tube to practice breathing will naturally result in deeper breaths and will help students avoid the common tensions in the throat and upper body.

Play on the Flute Head Joint

The head joint should be centered under the lower lip just low enough so that the lips have the flexibility to move between covering a fourth and a half of the embouchure hole. To ensure students’ success with playing their first note, the teacher should position the head joint so that only a fourth of the embouchure hole is covered. Students then can concentrate on the correct embouchure, the “pee” sound, and the air’s direction and speed. For most students, the easiest note to produce is the low note with the end of the head joint uncovered. Once the students produce a single tone, they can quickly begin playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” by sliding their right pointer finger into the open end of the head joint as shown in Figure 3. Students are always delighted to hear their single-pitched tone morph into a real song!

Figure 3

After students can play a full and resonant sound with the end of the head joint uncovered, cover the end of the head joint to produce a pitch a major seventh lower. This lower note tends to be slightly more challenging than the low note with the end of the head joint uncovered. Offer the following suggestions to assist in producing this low note: use the “pooh” or “poe” sound instead of “pee”; blow warm air as if attempting to steam up a window; and drop the jaw as if saying “awwww” in surprise.

 Embouchure Flexibility

Embouchure flexibility is essential for beautiful and expressive tone in all octaves. If beginners are confined to playing in the lower octave, their progress will be greatly stunted. Learning embouchure flexibility should begin within the first few lessons. Have the students use a mirror and place the pointer finger under the lip, while concentrating on making the lip opening smaller as the lips are brought forward for the higher note.

Make sure students are “gluing” the wet inner part of the lips together and using the air to create the opening. Next, with the end of the head joint covered, students should first play the low note and then adjust the embouchure to play a fifth higher, as described in Figure 4.

Figure 4

The aim of the exercise shown in Figure 5 is not just to produce the upper pitch, but to produce it by using the correct embouchure changes. Great care must be taken to not over-blow to reach the upper note. Though this practice will certain produce the upper partial, over-blowing will not achieve the desired embouchure flexibility. Encourage the students to play the higher notes a bit more softly than the lower notes. Clever students may discover that the upper notes are easier to play if they simply roll the head joint in for these notes. To avoid letting this “rolling in” develop into a terrible habit, compare it to something awful: “Rolling in to reach the high notes is as bad as [XXX]. Can you imagine how much trouble you would be in if you did that?”

Figure 5

Low and High Note Embouchure 

The lower lip only moves forward a short distance, but that distance can seem like a mile to beginners. Suggest the image of a piece of chocolate hidden on the far inner wall of the embouchure hole. To play a high note, simply reach forward for the chocolate. This mental picture seems to work well with students of all ages”]

Figure 6

 Learn B, A, and G First

When students begin playing with the entire flute, the notes B, A, and G should be learned first. These easy finger changes allow students to concentrate on producing a beautiful tone. They also promote the practice of embouchure flexibility between the octaves without the need to learn new fingerings. Students can easily apply the same embouchure changes learned on the head joint to play octaves in a piece like “Hot Cross Buns Octave Variation.” Finger movement is limited to the left hand, so the right hand can assist in balancing the flute by holding the foot joint (or the D# key if they are playing a smaller flute without a foot joint).


figure 7 I’m Dreaming of a Great Flute Section

The foundation for a “Dream Team” flute section begins with the expectation of beautiful beginning tone. When students begin with a clear concept of a beautiful flute tone and a crystal clear understanding of how to produce that sound, their success rate will be greatly increased. Playing in multiple octaves right from the beginning will create embouchure flexibility, a key element to having a flute section that plays not only with great tone but also with exceptional intonation. When started correctly, the dream of a flute section that plays in tune and with great tone can become a reality.


kathy-blockiA former member of the Fort Wayne Symphony Orchestra, piccolo soloist with the American Wind Symphony and a faculty member at Goshen College, Kathy Blocki graduated with high honors from Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and highest honors from Arizona State University. Blocki created a flute practice tool, the Pneumo Pro Wind Director, to help her students to direct the air column correctly, sustain the air speed through technical passages, and learn the flexibility necessary to play dynamic changes in tune. The Pneumo Pro was awarded SBO‘s “Best Tools for Schools Award” in the “Best Practice Tools” category at the 2012 NAMM Show. The new “Flute Tutor,” which assists in balancing the flute and developing a flexible embouchure by preventing students from rolling the flute in and out, is currently being designed in collaboration with Belgium flutist Ludwig Lapauw. 


Blocki is also the creator of the award-winning Blocki Flute Method books and the KinderFluteTM program for teaching young children. Though formal teacher training for KinderFlute began only two years ago, there are now KinderFlute classes available in the Netherlands, Canada, and ten states in the USA. 

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