Jen Cluff ~ Teaching forte flute playing

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

How do I teach a student with a small sound to play forte?

A. wrote:
> For the first time in four years, I have a flute student again! So far I've felt very confident in helping her with her questions, but she's really stumped me when it comes to dynamics. She has asked me how you play louder and softer to follow the dynamic markings. Dynamics werealways something I struggled with, so I'm really having a hard time explaining to her how to interpret them. In her lesson yesterday, we were experimenting with crescendoes and decrescendoes, and happily discovered that she can decrescendo and stay in tune but she can't seem to start from any volume and get louder. This was our first attempt, so I'm not really concerned, but I'd love some ideas to suggest to her.

Jen replies:

The easiest way to get a student to spontaneously play with a full and rich tone is to play back and forth, matching tone quality with the teacher. Unconsciously or consciously a student will almost always begin to match the sound they hear, even without being told. :>)

Playing duets with the student often has the same effect.

Telling the student to play in a resonant space (bathroom, kitchen, stair-well; anywhere where there is increased echo) is also good.

For other practical advice, bloware some excerpts from my articles on "Dynamics for Novices" which offer practical suggestions. And since your student has natural ability to play diminuendo and stay in tune, most of what you're reading for below is about how to play powerful crescendos without going sharp.

Scan down and look for **asterisks** around info. aimed directly at teachers concepts that surround this particular case.

Also, most importantly,get help for your own teaching from a pro-flute-teacher. Let them oversee your work with youngsters and give you pointers.

Next: go to your nearest music library (or ask a pro flute teacher) and look for a copy of "De la Sonorite" by Marcel Moyse. In this book (about $30 U.S. new from but well worth investing in) you'll find a section called:


This "fullness of tone" section of Moyse's book "de la Sonorite" has explanations and exercises (all on two pages) that will last a lifetime of learning how to crescendo to create a powerful tone.

The student plays a good solid note at MF, in order to get a nice full tone before beginning the experiments, and to place the pitch of a given note.

Next they play the same note at the softest possible volume of pp and crescendo evenly and without bumps, very slowly to p. When they reach what they consider to be 'p' they pause and finish the note. Then they restart the same note at p and continue to slowly and evenly crescendo to mp; upon reaching 'mp' they pause and finish. This continues from mp to mf, then mf to f, then f to ff.

By the time they have reached ff, the note should sound as loud and as full as possible. Much consideration can be given at that point for pitch and to deal with keeping the jaw well open, the mouth cavity and throat open, and adding to body resonance etc.

A summary of the skills of forte playing by crescendo would be:

Basically a crescendo requires:
- more air speed
- dropped open jaw (pretend there are carrot-sticks between the upper and lower molars at the back of your mouth)
- upper lip may blouse out to aim the air more downward
- steady support from the lungs as if blowing against a resistance---try getting the student to put their finger up to their lips as though saying "shhh" and then blowing quite hard against the finger (not saying shh but actually blowing as if blowing a flute).
As they blow hard against the finger that’s in the way, they will feel the muscles in the belly support the air steadily and strongly.
That is the feeling they will want when playing forte with good strong tone.

More on this below, as Vernon Hill covers it very well and very quickly in his "fullness of tone" extract below from his book:

**Blowing steadily against imaginary resistance for full forte tone**:

Recently I ordered the Vernon Hill "Flute Player's Book" and found a very succinct explanation for increasing the loudness of the flute's tone, that I hadn't come across before. The benefit to this is that it adds "presence" to your sound, and enlarges your pallet of choices for dynamics.
Note: If you normally play very softly, you will have too few dynamic choices, and will be in a real pickle if the music asks for "ppp" when your normal playing loudness is only really an 'mp.'

However if your normal playing is a full-spectrum mezzo forte, and playing forte is easy for you, then and only then do you begin to develop the quiet end of the dynamic spectrum. In other words:
The more you develop the 'forte' end of your flute's sound, the easier it will be to simply play mezzo piano or piano simply by NOT playing forte, but by just playing easily with no tension or 'trying'.

Also, practice in playing 'forte' strengthens all the flute playing muscles (lips and abs) just enough that they're in good form for when you need them to play soft and sustained passages in the future (muscles will be more "toned" and strong, therefore capable of more subtle and controlled use in the future.)

The instructions for enriching your tone read as follows and this is a clever way of teaching the body to blow forte with more strength:

The ideas are from "The Flute Player's Book" by Vernon Hill [Former Principal, Melbourne Symph.]:
Lower lip should cover 1/3 to 1/2 of the blow hole. Don't turn the flute in too much. Keep the flute's keys facing the ceiling. Keep lips supple, not pulled back or tightened.

**Try this experiment:**

1) Blow a G while holding your flute in the left hand only, and put the first finger of your right hand under your nose (parallel to the floor) exactly as if you were politely trying to stop a sneeze. Very slowly lower this right finger (while still blowing the G) until it gets in the way of the air escaping from the other side of your flute.

You'll notice two things happen if you lower the finger slowly enough. - The pitch of the G will start to go flat.

- The G will actually stop sounding, even though there's air going into the flute, there's not enough allowed to escape to keep the sound vibrating.

2) Blow a G and repeat the above descending of the "sneeze finger" but even more slowly. When you can still hear the G, but the sound has been weakened and flattened slightly by the finger blocking the escaping air, blow harder, with the intention of playing louder and sharper.
Restore the the note to the exact way it sounded before you lowered your finger to block the escaping air.

Result: As you blow harder and stronger (with your finger still under your nose, and lowering toward your flute's escaped-air path) the quality of the sound will become harder and stronger, until it starts to take on the basic qualities of a much stronger, full-bodied flute sound.

After these experiments, make the same strong sound using regular playing techniques.

Only after developing this over several months should you begin work on playing at quiet dynamics (in my opinion) as the muscles will then be toned.
_____________________end Vernon Hill quotes


Jen's take:

Many old fashioned blowing methods featured instructions on which muscles to use, and how to harden or stiffen them. All this ab-work is wasted, and at times actually harmful in that it creates isometric tension and a tight, constricted (constipated :>) sound on the flute.

What one wants to do instead is imagine gently blowing a ping-pong ball down a 70 foot table, and keeping it going the farther it goes away from you.

Stand up and create this imaginary scene right now.
The table is at chin level, and you are blowing a lightweight ball down the length of the table, keeping it moving, even when it's many yards away.

Feel what your body does to produce this. It's a natural gesture that does not require your brain to figure it out.
Give it the task and the body will blow naturally.

The "blowing muscles" already know what to do.

Experiment with the concept of making the ping-pong ball move faster along the table, or very slowly and steadily down the table. These two sensations relate to loud and soft playing.

I reiterate: Your body already knows how to do this. It does not need brain-instructions.

Note that one of the natural features of air-pressure inside the lungs is that the air pressure will seek to find equilibrium.

When your lungs are full, there is more pressure in them then outside. By making a small hole in your lips, and opening your throat, this air will naturally flow out of your mouth with sufficient airspeed to play middle register or low notes, or even high quiet notes (if your lip aim is good.)

Once the lungs become half-empty, you will switch to actively "Blowing" the air out. (as in Ping-pong ball exercise above)

Indeed, if you start blowing very softly, as though playing a long, soft, pianissimo phrase on the flute, it will be as if you simply open a tiny hole in the lips and allow the air comes out by itself, seeking to equalize the pressure outside and inside the lungs.

It is only when the air pressures are equal, that the WILL power to keep the imaginary ball rolling away from you triggers your ab muscles to continue to actively blow.

Now, to consider blowing forte or with full sound and brilliance:

Once the student has understood how the will power to blow a ping-pong ball down a long table slowly,and thus keep a stable sound on the flute without any tension or muscle 'hardening' ask them to imagine a power-ping-pong ball competition, where the object is to make the ball powerhouse its way down the table, but perfectly controlled so that it doesn't fall off the sides.

You need a fast stream of actively blown air right down the middle of the table, enough to keep the ball SPINNING as it skitters down the table top. But you don't want to blow all the air out at once. Sometimes the image of "spinning" the air in a fast turbo is all that's required to make the flute sound like it's powered by a fast and brilliant airstream. Keep the image in mind now, even without a pingpong ball and table. Imagine just spinning a fast spinning thread of air that keeps its speed and pressure all the way to the end of the air in the lungs.

This sound on the flute is actually called "a spinning sound" by those who use this image.

The Belt Trick and other flute power ideas:

Here are a few ideas to incorperate into lessons with students who tend to play with a small sound. They are all of some importance when learning to play with a forte sound, as some of these ideas help control pitch, and others help to add resonance. The true strength of the flute, sd it is often said by great players, is not in playing LOUDLY, but in playing with a brilliant, resonant, spinning and colourful sound. Feel free to experiment with your student to discover the sound by frequent demonstrations and discoveries played back and forth during lessons.

Ideas to try::

1) The flute embouchure hole in general needs to be 'not too high' on the lower lip, or else the student will tend to squeak when they start adding faster air and try and correct the squeaking by holding back and staying 'safe'.

True brilliance in the sound comes from finding the optimal angle and length of the 'air reed' from when it leaves the player's lips to when it splits on the far side of the flute's embouchure hole. For precise experiments on lowering the embouchure hole on the lip, see Roger Mather's three book series (available through interlibrary loan or from ) entitled: "The Art of Playing the Flute".

Some of his experiments are outlined in my Ensemble Tuning page, where I first used this list of ideas. Click here to scan the tuning article for Mather's experimentation ideas.

a) Experiment with opening your jaw more; have the student imagine there are blackballs or carrot sticks between their back molars, so that they drop the jaw open and say "Awe". This allows the powerful airstream to be tempered by the larger cavity of the mouth, and have better resonance, depth and pitch when playing loudly.

b) Ask the student to experiment with rolling the flute out 1 to 2 millimeters more than usual, increasing the amount that the headjoint is pulled out. and then poking their upper lip over in a "beak" shape to aim the air downwards. It also helps to imagine there's an airpocket between the teeth and the upper lip that aims the air downward for high notes or triple forte notes.

c) Experiment with getting more contact between the embouchure plate and the chin area. If the lower lip is pursing forward too much, a student 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.

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 . But for the average lip-size it's typcial 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 sharply and shrilly in fortes.
This is done, however, over time, with slow and careful experimentation and comparison with tuners, and teacher's help.

3)** "Blow from the belt.**" Alot 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 creates a depth of tone that balances any harshness in full, loud dynamics..

5) From Wilkinson's "The Physical Flute": Picture the harmonic series of possible notes above and below the sounding pitch as a ladder. (for ex. 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, and also adds harmonic overtones and undertones to the flute's tone, so that it's rich and full.

For more articles on related topics see Tone, Tuning and Breathing at: intermed.htm

Back to Jen's homepage


© Jennifer Cluff