Jen Cluff ~ Flute Bad Habits

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

Bad Habits on Flute

What are some of the "bad habits" that self-taught flutists might have to undo in order to progress faster when they start private lessons?

A year or so ago, someone asked "What are the common mistakes?" or "bad habits" that flute teachers keep talking about when they say: "Self-taught players usually have several bad habits that have to be changed before improvements are possible in private lessons." ????

In response, I wrote the following list. Links are included so you can quickly eradicate the 'bad habit' through reading about the "right way". The main point is that we all have bad habits unless we've had good coaching, just like any athlete or artist. So help yourself to un-do them more quickly, by recognizing what they are and how to re-learn a manner that doesn't include any physical habit that will slow your progress.

General list of flute "bad habits":

What are the bad habits of flute playing? There are so many possible mistakes to make (a flute teacher witnesses even more than  thought possible when one has taught for a decade or more) that it would take longer to type out the mistakes than to type up the correct way to proceed. :>)
However, here are some of the most common flute-learning mistakes:

1. Developing an idiosyncratic method of playing the flute (ie: strange, individually different, awkward, odd method of playing flute that makes more work for the player.).

The self-taught flute student could have idiosyncratic ways of....

-assembing the flute (The headjoint could be on incorrectly, or the footjoint is on incorrectly; both these misalignments can make it ten times harder to play fast notes with good tone. A good indicator that the flute is put together wrongly is that keys tilt backwards instead of being parallel to the ceiling etc.)

- flute hand position (The fingers could mistakenly overhang flute keys,  or the thumbs could be in the wrong place for fast and accurate fingerings etc.)

- flute arm position (elbows too high, flute played parallel to chest with head not turned to the left etc.)

- flute body position (flute holding is uncomfortable, body is either too straight or too twisted; foot stance could be unbalanced and affect the hips and back.)

- playing jaw position (jaw can be jutted uncomfortably forward, or strained too far back etc.)

-breathing/blowing method (player is either out of breath, has too little breath, or is using too much air to produce an 'airy' tone.)

- lip or embouchure formation (tone of the flute is not beautiful or refined. The student may play lots of fast notes, but all with fuzzy tone).

Articles that give corrections can be found at: Posture & Hand position; Lining up your flute during assembly; Breathing; Tone and how to work on it.

Also, rare but does show up every hundred flute students or so: some self-taught players have unknowingly learned how to tongue without actually using the tip of the tongue. Instead they've braced their tongue against their teeth, or anchored the tip of the tongue behind the teeth, or even against the lower lip. They then attempt to tongue using the middle or back of the tongue. This is a tricky habit to break, and tricky, too, to diagnose, as it is taking place inside the mouth with the mouth closed. For more on tonguing the right way click here.

2. It is also fairly common for the young self-taught flutist to be playing using incorrect fingerings. Consult a fingering chart to be sure.

Common mis-fingerings shown in a two page PDF article. Click here to download misfingerings and print out for your band students.

Flute fingering charts can be found here.

3. Playing a rarely repaired flute that isn't working properly and forcing it to work by straining the fingers, then hands and finally straining face and body.

Flute repair information can be found here.

4. Standing in an unbalanced way (all the weight on one foot, or spine curved, head bent, neck twisted uncomfortably etc.) leading to the upper body, head and arms having unnecessary tension.

Posture articles can be found here.

5. Breathing too shallowly and blowing too gently. Or breathing excessively deeply, and tensing too much when blowing. Blowing the flute with too much air (leading to breathlessness).

Breathing articles can be found here.

6. Hurling the air by pinching, and tightening  with the lips and jaw, and forcing air out from too high in the chest.

"How to get great tone in the high register" articles.

7a. Overhanging the keys with flattened fingers. Fingertips should be in the center of each key. The fingers should be in a gentle curve that's natural to the hand. Also common is poor flute balance in the hands, or holding the flute inadequately with the stationary holding points. (ie: I've seen cradling the flute in the "V" between right thumb and palm. I've seen students attempt to play *without* resting the flute on the left index finger phalange, but holding it in mid-air like a recorder!)

7b.Another common bad habit is to raise the fingers too high when playing (should only rise 1/2 inch or less. Professionals usually only raise fingers 1/4 inch or less.)

Order this book from your library for dozens of helpful finger and hand position pictures: The Illustrated Flute Player by Soldan and Mellersh.

8. Insisting that one's own way is better (because familiar) than advice given by the flute teacher; resisting change because it will mean, for awhile, not being able to sound fluid, or play certain music, or just having to do formative exercises that don't sound like music. Instead: trust your teacher until you've learned all that they know, and then move on to the next level of teaching expert.

9. Not practicing all week, and then panic-practicing just before lesson (body is "hurled" at a complex task, and becomes over taxed with the effort). Instead practicing should be done daily, in twenty-minute, focused sessions, with goals.

10. Using too short a music stand so one is leaning over and peering at the music, or tucking the chin down, which crimps the wind pipe. Music should be at eye level during daily practice.

11. Putting the flute's headjoint on differently each time you play (alignment of the headjoint to the keys is not stabilized) It is better to mark the flute with a marker or blob of nail-polish, or a sticker in order to keep a marking of the BEST alignment after much experimentation.

See Flute Alignment articles.

12. Crushing or bending moving parts during assembly/disassembly leading to key leaks (Note: Do not touch moving parts when handling the flute, handle only by smooth parts of each tube.)

See flute care articles.

13. Constantly changing embouchure by making hugely different lip movements through all three octaves (lip changes must be minimal) or overusing the jaw by shoving it forward and backward to play high and low notes. Embouchure changes should be very fine, and very small.

14. Playing "too rolled in" therefore, no resonance from headjoint. (Note, blowhole must be only covered up from 1/4 to 1/3 or less by lower lip.) The best sound on the flute is usually from rolling out "two millimetres more than you think you need to."

15. Crushing lip plate hard into chin or lower lip, or pushing the flute too hard with the left index finger that the left hand is immobilized, painful, or calloused. Alternately, young flutists can also be playing with the flute too high on the lower lip, forcing them to overly tense their jaw and move it excessively to play high or low.

16. Breathing noisily or making throat noises while playing.

See throat noise articles.

See breathing articles.

17. Making sudden lip-disrupting gestures or alternately, playing in a slumped and/or braced position, either by bracing the flute on the left shoulder, with elbows on knees, or practicing while slumped over, or sitting cross legged on a bed, etc.

18. Tapping foot out of time; or other rhythmic problems like guessing at rhythms without knowing what they are etc. Alternately, tapping foot excessively without even noticing they are doing so. Rhythm needs to become gradually internalized instead.

19. Playing music that is far too hard and causes overally face and body tension. Music that is very slightly too easy but played with attention to detail, and with good style is far better for rock-solid development.

20. Pinching lips together to get high notes or angling inordinately to "force out" high notes because blow-hole is over-covered by the lower lip. Instead the high notes should be approached one at a time by gradually expanding the longtones upward, chromatically.

21. Practicing in marathon sessions without stretching or resting leading to aches and pains. Practice sessions of twenty minutes are recommended, followed by stretching.

22. Swaying, dipping and diving while playing the flute. Movements like this are usually being made to release the pent up tension of holding up a cross-body instrument, and to help the player feel like they are "emoting." These movements are fine if done in very very tiny versions so that tension can be released slowly and gracefully.

23. Other basic "bad habits" for flutists include:

- Playing out of tune

- Not tonguing but saying "hoo" for each note.
- Breathing between every few notes.

- Playing without dynamics (no forte or piano, no mezzo piano or pianissimos possible.)

- Playing at the wrong tempo (speed) or in the wrong musical style

- Playing with faltering fingerings

- Not knowing scales and arpeggios that make up the piece they are playing (leading to faltering fingerings.)

- Playing with too hard tongue attacks

- Playing with indistinct tongue attacks

- Playing staccato notes too short or too long.

To hear corrections to these problems, listen to sound samples of excellent flutists performing your pieces.

Listen to great flute playing here.

Personally, I'd rather simply avoid the problems, or call them what you will (sometimes we have to call the "strange gargoyle-face-making" epidemic when we see it) wherever these 'bad habits' arise. :>). It saves HOURS and YEARS of a flute students time to follow the time-held advice of expert teachers everywhere, and not develop these problem habits in the first place.

Go for lessons with an expert teacher, and endeavour to practice what they suggest. Go slowly and carefully. Take frequent breathers and rests. Listen to lots of great musicians.

It's easier to say that, isn't it? :>)
Best Jen :>D
Hope this helps---I know it sounds harsh (and this list isn't even *complete!* it's just a basic starting point---and the reason we flute teachers know how to quickly recognize and RE-TEACH these basics is because at some time or other in our lives, we've HAD half of these "common errors" :>)

For information on WHY every self-taught flutist should take private lessons read this article.

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Copyright © 2005 Jennifer Cluff