your flute in tune in Ensembles:
Question: I have
an outdoor concert this weekend, and I've been noticing in rehearsal
that my flute sounds particularly out of tune, especially sharp in the
highest register where I have to play for much of the concert. Besides
warming the flute up before my entries (to bring the pitch up, because
when it's cold it plays flat at first.) what else can I do to help my
Jen replies: Here
are a few ideas to help with pitch problems in ensemble performances,
some of which you may already know about. Let me know which help:
1) pre-warming the instrument with hot air stops it from being
flat while cold, then turning sharp as it heats.
I pre-warm the flute a LONG time before tuning and then about 4 bars
before each entry if I've had bars rest of any moderate length. ( I
realize you know this already, but it may help to air-heat the flute
with all the keys down, even more frequently at concerts that are
2) The flute embouchure hole in general needs to be 'not too
high' on the lower lip, or the intonation never really gets
"centered" and a lot of jaw and lip over-corrections begin to
happen. In your regular daily practice, spend time on each of the
following to be sure that you've found a position of the flute relative
to the mouth that allows MOST notes to come out close to "in
tune". You'll want to do and re-do these experiments for a lifetime
of flute playing. But in an emergency, see if one or more gives you the
"centered" sound you need for now.
a) Experiment with opening your jaw more; imagine there
are blackballs between your back molars, so that you drop your jaw open
and say "Awe". This really works to bring down the pitch of
sharp high notes, especially
altissimo notes (notes above high B natural or B3 as it's called).
b) Experiment with rolling the flute out 1 to 2 millimeters more
than usual, increasing the amount that you pull out your headjoint by a
few millimeters, and then poking your upper lip over in a
"beak" shape to aim the air downwards. It also helps to
imagine there's an air-pocket between your teeth and your upper lip that
aims the air downward for high notes.
c) Experiment with getting more contact between the embouchure
plate and the chin area. If the lower lip is pursing forward
too much, you may be aiming too high for the high register, and thus
sharpening by too acute an angle. Instead of aiming high, narrow the
hole in the lips by gently pressing the bottom lip against the upper to
reduce the size of the aperture for high register playing.
d) Experiment with keeping the pressure of the lip plate as low
as possible on the chin (against the roots of the lower teeth
possibly) to allow the bottom lip a great deal of freedom. This goes
along with more chin contact on the lip plate.
e) Experiment with aiming up for the lowest register, and aiming
more downward for the highest register. When we're beginners we
often are told the opposite, to angle the airstream higher for high
note, and angle down into the flute for low notes. At a certain level of
advanced playing, it's best to picture a bit more of the opposite in
order to place the notes "in tune". Don't over-do this
angling: sometimes all you need do is "think" the angle change
and that'll cause a tiny shift that is sufficient to tune the notes.
(see also number 5, from the Physical flute, below.)
In Roger Mather's book The Art of Flute Playing, he suggests
that the final, lowest contact point (after much experimenting) will be
against the roots of the lower teeth on silver flute headjoints (piccolo
placement will be a touch higher). This works especially well for those
flutists who have thin to medium lips in thickness. Those with thicker
lips may find alternate placements using Mather's experiments (see
here for overview). But for the average
lip-size it's typical that the embouchure hole edge will be at the red
line of the lower lip, but the "pressure" point will be much
lower, to allow the lip flexibility.
When I went thru' his book and
gradually lowered the pressure point, I lost my tendency to play sharp.
This is done, however, over time...and not quickly to be ready for an
outdoor concert this weekend
3) "Blow from the belt." A lot of shifting
intonation problems really stabilize when you do the "belt
trick". Pretend there's a belt done up two notches too loose around
your waist. When you breath in, and also as you blow out, keep the belt
taut around your waist. (try with a real belt to see if you're doing it
right.) This really works!!!
4) Sing the pitches you're playing one or two (or even
more) octaves below, and then play the flute parts while "silently
singing" the pitches you're playing. The lungs will resonate
deeper, because their size for a pitch is matching the flute's size for
the pitch. You wouldn't believe the deep harmonics you'll hear when you
silently sing your flute parts, and it really brings sharpness down in
5) From Wilkinson's "The
Physical Flute": Picture the harmonic series of possible
notes above and below the sounding pitch as a ladder. (for example
on a low C, overblow as high as you can to recognize the ladder avail.
with all fingers down.) Now visualize this ladder when you play any of
the notes on it. If you're playing a high G, aim your air so that you
can still get an aural inkling of that low C; if you're playing a low D,
aim the air so that you still hear an inkling of a D3. This lets high
notes sound less sharp, and lowest notes sound less flat.
I apologize if these suggestions
seem too rudimentary. I can't tell from your question just how much
training you've had, or how much the fault is the flute's. Sometimes the
fault is the flute's you can investigate it and perhaps trade to another
flute one day. But since 99% of pitch problems are cured by listening
and singing, I'll suggest that the trouble can be overcome with the use
of (human) "body resonances"...and not the instrument but the
player can fix it. Even superbly in-tune headjoints and flutes sound out
of tune without body resonance.
With the concert so close, my best
advice is to just relax and play from the heart. That
will go a long way to making you hear better, and thus play more in tune
just as naturally as you possibly can. If you play as if you were
"singing" you know you'd hit the right pitches with your
voice, so have the same notion: Sing your parts mentally, just a split
second before you play them. This "Pre-hearing" allows the
body to respond in a flash to matching the sound it's hearing to the one
that it mentally WANTS.
In other words: don't worry. Hopefully, no one will notice but
you.....and the more confident you are the more in tune you'll play (not
tensed up= not sharp anymore.) A lot of playing in tune is simply
feeling confident, relaxed, and singing the notes in your head a split
second before you play them. If you're at peace with your preparation,
it's possible you'll just glide right into the "sweet spot' in your
tone, and hence be able to morph it at will and on the spot. :>)
Good luck, and let us know what helped.
(This person did write back 2 months later and said this advice helped
tremendously. I hope others find it helpful too.)
From: Jennifer Cluff, 2000
Alternate fingerings in ensemble settings
The best quote
about using alternate fingerings:
quote about tuning in orchestras---from Suzanne Lord's Dissertation on
Peter Lloyd, Part 5: found
"If you're going to play in orchestras, it is absolutely
essential that you have as many alternative fingerings as you possibly
can find, because you cannot always be switching here [indicates
Because, however perfect your flute is--maybe you've got the flute of
the world. Factory in tune. That's okay. But having got your perfect
flute, you've then gott to play it out of tune with everyone else. So it
doesn't make any difference! Alternate fingerings are so important
because in an orchestra when
you're playing sharp with the fiddles and flat with the clarinets...you
need every possible fingering in the book because you don't want to
control intonation on the lip, because that keeps changing the
color--and you lose your intensity....You want to get fingerings that
are in tune with whatever is happening at the time...."
Lloyd goes on to give all sorts of fingerings for specific
works where the flutist is caught in the cross-fire between sharp
strings and flat incoming woodwinds and brass. Very interesting reading.
This entire article is chock full of fabulously interconnecting ideas
about flute playing. Click
here to read whole dissertation.
orchestras and their crazy pitch
Question: I am
now playing in an amateur orchestra. In order to play more in tune with
other winds and strings, I find myself needing to bend my pitch very
often. Example:very sharp for violins' and clarinet high register and
sometimes low for the oboe. I am sure I am sometimes playing A=445++
with the strings.
I know playing in tune is a priority. However, by doing this, I find it
very easy to lose my control over my sound. Or, I find it hard to get
the center of my sound back after so much bending of pitch. Could
someone please advice me or share your experiences ??
Jen replies: I have spent almost a decade in a
developing pro-symphony wondering what the heck is wrong with the
tuning, and the last three years writing emails with tuning questions to
professional principal flutists.
Here are some things I've found:
1. The worse the orchestra
is the more the flutist, who sits on top of the chords quite audible to
all, has to bend and lift the pitch, until, at times you feel
as if you cannot keep manipulating your lips anymore. This *is* very
The answer, unfortunately, is that you must either wait for the
orchestra to improve or suggest that there be string or brass-wood
sectionals, or more time spent tuning under the conductor as a group.
(Be prepared for no one else to see the point of these requests.)
2. Orchestras *do* go from A 438 to A 445 all the time.
It's quite shocking. But if you find you must push the headjoint in
slightly, in order to play a soft passage, and then moments later, pull
it out to play a loud passage, because otherwise you'd stick out as
"out of tune", then sometimes you just have to do it. I was
doubtful about this practice (was it only for BAD flute players?!) until
the much respected Alexa Still said, on the net, that she had to do this
from time to time in tough tuning situations. So if a player who's THAT
good finds it necessary, some of us might find it necessary too. :>)
Mind you, pushing in/pulling out the headjoint is sometimes impossible
to do (no bars of rest) in which case you can only blow way up, or way
down. Another solution is to reduce the range of your dynamics (Play p
as mp, Play FF as mf.---make all dynamics more moderate.)
3. During passages where the flute is very prominent, you should
play as perfectly in tune within your key center as you can. A
convincing and strong sense of pitch will unconsciously cause others to
follow your lead and begin to rely on you. Therefore, practice linear
tuning with a strong sense of key and a clear, centered tone that
inspires other woodwinds. (this advice comes from John Wion).
For tuning suggestions see:
4. When the strings go
sharp in a tutti, try to hold steadfast with the rest of the woods, and
not follow them sharper and sharper until you really have to.
Of course if you're entering after a long string tutti, and you must
sharpen to blend with the pitch they're handing you, don't make the
mistake of insisting that you're right and they're wrong.
The flutist is outnumbered, as are
almost all the winds and brass soloists.
The strings *MAY* eventually start listening backward to the brass and
winds during full orchestra tuttis, and will begin to hear that they are
going too sharp. But this may take months or years, so just stick
together and stay in tune as a group.
5. Listen closely to professional recordings at A440 played by
good orchestras (if you can find them; try public libraries if
you're on a budget) and even try playing along with the CD, for
orchestral repertoire you may be playing. If you find the orchestra
playing higher than A440, they might be a European orchestra playing
sharper, up at 442 to 446. Keep hunting for American orchestras, if your
flute is set to A440, and you are preparing to play with an American
orchestra (amateur or otherwise.)
Offer to make a practice
tape from these CDs for others so that you're all using the same tuning
reference points during at-home practice. Familiarity with the
piece usually improves the group's tuning. One amateur-orch. conductor I
knew made tapes for everyone for a couple of dollars each and offered
them when new music went out. Not surprisingly, only the true keeners
used to use the tapes, the rest of the orch. didn't even think about
using them. (human beings.......d'oh!!)
6. Sing internally the pitches you are about to play, just a
split second before you play them. Hear in your mind's
ear every note you're ABOUT to play before you play it. Once a phrase
starts, keep singing it silently AS you play.
7. Be prepared to continue
to go in any direction tuning wise during orchestra, rehearsals and
performances (advice from Jeanne Baxtresser) and then go home
and play while releasing your embouchure back to a clear and centered
You may want to experiment with using the lower lip as an agent of
tuning change. Pushing both lips forward, blowing downward with the
upper lip, and using a cushy lower lip brings pitch down. A lower lip
that's pulled up in the center, bunched very very slightly vertically
upward from the lip plate and withdrawn off the blow hole brings pitch
You may find you can change pitch more easily using the motion of the
lips and air-angle in a more subtle way (and reduce the amount of
rolling in and rolling out the orch. is forcing you to do) if you have
more flexible and sensitive lips.
See: The Art of Playing the Flute by
through Extended Technique by Robert Dick and
Practice Book for the
Flute Volume 4: Intonation by Trevor Wye for flute
intonation practice methods.
Very familiar with your frustrations, myself, as was flute designer
Albert Cooper and first hornist with Chicago Symphony, Philip Farkas. Read
their quotes about this topic here.
articles on tuning problems with flutes
Dear Flutenet members:
I found some *truly* good and pithy "how to" intonation
articles for flutists and their fearless leaders:
Firstly there used to be a good flute tuning article by a band
master that very much vindicates flutists for being forced out of tune
by the whole band going sharp and being allowed to continue going sharp.
He argued that the flute is thrown out of intonational realms of
possibility when the headjoint is pushed all the way in, and the player
has rolled all the way out already. Unfortunately, that article has
disappeared (2005) off the net, but if you want to read about flutes
tuning in bands, try using google to search for more band-leader tuning
practices information, or have a look at the tuning articles for band
Another short article for
tuning problems with flutes in bands found online:
Scan down when you arrive there and look for article called: Playing
There is also a brief
video online that helps to explain to non-flutists (or flute beginners)
why they should choose only one position of being rolled-in/rolled-out
to prevent insecure intonation while playing:
The correct way to alter
pitch once the flute's tuning slide has been set is by moving the lips,
not the rolling in or out. This lip motion is described and pictured at:
Other links for
tuning of flutes:
Flute Tuning Articles by
Tuning A Flute
Article on flute intonation by Trevor Wye:
How to check your flute
scale by Trevor Wye:
Flutehistory article on tunings:
more of Jen's flute tuning articles
Back to Jen's