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The Beginner is the Advanced is the Beginner

The U.S. Army Field Band • October 2022Woodwinds • October 13, 2022

There’s a saying there is no advanced level music or playing, just great fundamental playing at all levels whether beginner or advanced. Whether one is a flutist of many years, or if you’re in the beginnings of getting to know yourself as a player, or teaching a beginner or advanced student, you’ll always be working on fundamental concepts of sound, tone, and the way we use our air. Here is just one of the methods that can be used at the beginner level and can stay with you at any level of your flute playing to reinforce different fundamental parts of your sound.

Harmonize the Harmonics
Brass players use a single fingering or valve combination, and can play several notes up and down the harmonic series of that fingering by altering the speed of their air, use of the embouchure and their “buzz”, and their air support. Flutists, beginner or advanced can do the same using a single fingering, and it can help develop air support, familiarity with the direction (up or down) of the air stream, tone, and intonation, and development of hearing pitch.

Start by using just the head joint of the flute. This is also a great way for someone to approach getting a sound on the flute for the very first time or for teachers of beginners to help a beginner get a sound on the flute for the very first time. Hold the head joint up to your embouchure with your left hand and place the right hand over the opening at the end of the head joint so it is completely covered. Start your sound and just get comfortable with a strong steady tone on that single pitch. Make sure the embouchure feels neutral and relaxed 9the pitch should be right around A in the second space of the staff). The air stream can be directed generally in a downward direction. Then, experiment with speeding up the air, directing the air stream in a slightly more upward direction, and a slightly firmer embouchure or smaller opening in the embouchure, with the goal also being to make the air move faster. Make these increased changes until you hear a shift in the tone being produced, and it should shift to a higher pitch. The sound will be significantly higher and sound almost like a whistle. The same way you got comfortable with a steady strong sound on the first tone you produced on the headjoint [approximately A on the second space of the staff], get comfortable with a strong steady sound on this higher pitch you’ve produced. Try moving back and forth between these two pitches slowly by changing the speed and direction of air from relaxed and directed downward and then to faster and directed upward, and back and forth. You can experiment with playing notes even higher than these first two tones, or even remove the right hand from the end of the head joint and work with a new fundamental tone and its harmonic series by blowing and overblowing the pitch with the mentioned methods from before.

Whether you are a beginner or advanced player, or a teacher of a beginner or any level of flutist, this same use of playing and overblowing the harmonic series of a single pitch, the same way brass players do, can be transferred from the headjoint, to being used on a single fingering with the whole flute put together. I recommend doing this exercise on a note like “Low C,” “Low C#/DH,” or “Low D.” These notes are just below the staff in sheet music and are at the very bottom of the low register of the flute.

Start by just getting a comfortable sound on Low C just below the staff. Sometimes the low register is challenging when first getting to know the flute. The embouchure can sometimes be too tight initially. If so, start playing comfortably in the middle register of the flute, on a note like third space C with just the left hand first finger and the right-hand pinky/fourth finger, and then take your comfortable sound on that note and slowly and gently work your way down the notes of a simple C major scale until reaching a comfortable and stable sound on low C. The embouchure should feel quite relaxed here, a gentle push in the air stream or a relaxed speed of the air stream, and the air should generally be directed downwards.

Just as before with the headjoint, while playing low C, experiment with increasing the speed of the air and directing the air in a more upward direction as well as slightly strengthening the embouchure. Keep your fingers always on the same fingering for low C, do not change your fingers at all. The changes in your air do all the work and should initially raise the pitch from low C to a full octave higher to third space C. Try going back and forth between these pitches just as before with the headjoint. When you can move comfortably, steadily, and confidently between these two pitches, great. Now, while playing third space C using this low C fingering, then do even more of the changes from before (slightly faster air, direct the air more upward, stronger embouchure and air support) and raise the pitch higher again to either G just above the staff or even C two lines above the staff. You may need to adjust the shape of the embouchure or direction of air to get this pitch to sound in a stable way. In each instance when you produce a different pitch, make sure to get comfortable producing that pitch with a steady tone before moving on to anything else or returning to a previous pitch produced on that single fingering.

These are all notes produced on the harmonic series of the fingering of Low C, the same way a trumpet player might produce an entire series of notes both low and high while pressing down only the first valve of the instrument.

The progression of pitches produced on the harmonic series while utilizing only the fingering for low C, blowing and over blowing from low to high is shown in the following diagram. You can repeat the same exercise on low C#/DH and D.

As before, experiment with getting a stable and steady sound at each pitch once you’ve established a new tone up or down the harmonic series of this single fingering. Also experiment with moving up and down, back and forth between notes, always keeping the same fingering. Even try jumping a wider distance. For example, try getting a steady sound on third space C, and then jumping to high E. Try playing the C first, then hear high E in your mind or in your ear first, or imagine the sound of high E. Then play high E without playing middle G or second octave C to get to high E. The practice of hearing the pitch in your mind or ear before playing it is a skill that has broad implications across all playing, and even improvisation and memorization.

This exercise on the harmonic series of just one fingering, helps to strengthen tone, pitch, embouchure strength and subtlety, strength in air support, hearing pitch and intervals and intonation, judging tonal distance between notes, etc. One can even begin developing improvisation by playing around with different choices in pitch on the harmonic series, while still having the goal of being able to establish the pitch you hear and want to play before playing it. There are any number of skills or benefits not mentioned here you may discover for yourself or your student that can be part of the development or reinforcement of fundamental and advanced level playing by using this exercise from beginning level and throughout one’s lifetime as a flutist.

I use this exercise during warmups, gently getting back into playing if I haven’t played flute for an extended period of days or weeks, or when looking for increased strength and flexibility in high register playing by producing desired pitches using lower register fundamental fingerings. While working on general tone, I will usually use just the headjoint, or on the entire instrument using Low C, Low C#/DH, low D, or maybe low D#/EH or E. You may use low F or F#/GH but these fingerings or beyond that tend to overlap in the harmonic series and you may encounter complications or unnecessary challenges, especially if working with a beginner. Low C, C#/DH, and D are great for working just the tone, pitch, embouchure, and air aspects of this fundamental exercise and will all have a similar progression up through the harmonic series.

Hopefully this one method will be something you can use as a beginner or with your beginning students, and with advanced players. Especially with beginners, this is a great exercise because the fingers don’t change, and they can fully concentrate on tone. The focus is purely on air, sound production, tone, and listening. The benefits to sound production, hearing of intervals and intonation, hearing a sound before playing, air support, even breathing, improvisation, and the beginnings or reinforcement of memorization skills, etc. are quite limitless. Enjoy!

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