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Common Sound Production Problems and Solutions for the Flute and Piccolo

The flute, and respectively the piccolo, have had a storied evolution that has taken place from since before 900 B.C. in China. The flute, created by Theobald Boehm, serves as the basis for this modern instrument. Like many other instruments the flute is not a perfectly crafted invention and has certain innate problems that musicians must overcome in order to successfully master it. In today’s blog post we are going to identify some of the flute and piccolo’s common innate problems.

Common Problems

  1. The aperture is too large or too high. The aperture, or rather the opening in the lips, is often too large or too high. As a result of this the flute tends to sound airy and has an unfocused tone. As a reminder, the flute aperture is not supposed to be a perfectly round hole but rather a slit in the center of the lips. Note that the slit between the lips should be no larger than the tone hole on the flute.
  2. The musician has a poor holding position. Multiple examples of this include:
    • The right arm is resting on the back of a chair. This results in the flute being rolled too far inward and creates a flat and stifled sound. Correct this by having the right arm out, not resting on the body or furniture.
    • The musician is resting their right index finger on the flute rod to stabilize the instrument. Focus on using the three points points of balance for the flute.
    • The right pinky is sometimes used as a point of balance. Again, remember there are only three points of balance for the flute.
  3. The foot joint and lower joint rods are lined up. This a mistake for many beginning students. Continue to remind them to make sure their foot joint rod is in the center of the bottom key of the body of the flute.
  4. Too much of the lower lip is covering the blowhole. This is often caused by the musician rolling in too far. As a result, this can cause the sound to go flat and sound small. One cause of this is the right arm being too low or resting on a chair. 
  5. Too much lip pressure on the flute. There should be minimal lip pressure used. Remember someone should be able to tap the flute, or piccolo, off of the player’s lip rather easily if the correct amount of pressure is being used. 
  6. The use of mid-low range fingering in the highest register of the instrument. Low-mid range fingerings used for the highest notes of the flute will be noticeably out-of-tune. This is a common mistake for young flautists because the pitch almost sounds correct. 
  7. The flute may be out of alignment. This is an easy fix. My recommendation is to get a reliable instrumental technician to make the proper adjustments.
  8. The lip is being supported with the tongue. This is a bad habit that many young students start to make in order to create their first sounds. The danger in this is that the musician never develops a characteristic sound as a result of playing in this manner. In addition, it makes articulation difficult and labored.
  9. Tonguing through the teeth. When a musician tongues on the flute between the teeth it is hitting the student’s lips instead of the roof of the mouth. This sometimes occurs as a result of the Suzuki teaching strategy that recommends “spitting rice.” 
  10. Playing the low and middle F# with the right second finger. Often students who played clarinet or saxophone who added the flute to their list of secondary instruments will accidentally play F# with their right second finger rather than the correct, and more in-tune, right third finger.
  11. Playing flat during soft dynamics. This often occurs when young Flautists don’t understand that they need to keep the airspeed up and blow more across the tone hole to keep the pitch up.
  12. Playing a flute with a tear drop upper lip. This is often an unavoidable issue for flute players who have a dip in the center of the upper lip. As a result, this distorts the “slit” airstream. Flautists have found some success by playing with an “offset” embouchure. Often those that play with a tear drop lip will often develop their embouchures at a slower rate rate than those that have a  standard center-aperture embouchure. 

 Piccolo

In addition to the innate problems associated with the flute, the piccolo also has a shortlist of issues such as the following:

  1.   Too much face pressure. Often inexperienced musicians learning to play the piccolo push the instrument into their face to attempt to play in the upper registers. As a result of this excessive pressure it often makes these note almost impossible to play.
  2. The “buzzing” of lips in the upper register. This occurs as a result of tightening the lips rather than changing the direction of the airstream. Professionals recommend “pointing the upper lip. Since the piccolo is more rolled in and played higher on the lip than the flute there is less playing surface area.

Conclusion

To recap, the Flute and Piccolo have developed and evolved since before 900 B.C. Through the efforts of Theobald Boehm and other countless music enthusiasts the Flute has transformed into a chromatic and beautiful performing instrument. Despite the efforts of instrumental developers the flute and piccolo have certain innate problems that musicians must overcome in order to masterly perform a plethora of music literature. Fortunately, the recommendations identified in this post will provide you and your flute students solutions that will serve you the rest of your life.

Sources

Clardy, M. K. (2015, September 7). Common flute problems. Halftime Magazine. Retrieved June 5, 2022, from https://halftimemag.com/sectionals/common-flute-problems.html

Troubleshooting flute tone. Band Directors Talk Shop. (2019, April 24). Retrieved June 5, 2022, from https://banddirectorstalkshop.com/troubleshooting-flute-tone/

West, C., & Lautzenheiser, T. (2015). Woodwind methods: An essential resource for educators, conductors, and students. Meredith Music Publications, a division of G.W. Music, Inc. 

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