Jen Cluff ~ Novice Dynamics

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

Dynamics for flute novices (louds & softs)

Question: K wrote:
> This last year I have started some serious work on dynamics. Before that I worked a lot on tone development. <snip> Before I tried to control air with holding in my stomach, now I'm sort of pushing downward with the muscles - causing a steady airstream upwards through a "open" me, <snip> it works best while playing loud, but I feel it will help when restarting with dynamics, espescially in high and low registers <snip> > Anyone who would care to develop the subject? Clear some things out for me. Help to develop?
Answers: Dear K,
I'm not sure what you're asking---but I am sure that with a teacher to help point the way, and lots of experimental hours on your part, strengthening your muscles in new ways, adding finesse to each skill level, and adding new ideas experimentally, each hour of experimentation will show a gradual improvement.

But if you want an outline of the basics, maybe we can help out with some descriptions.

Learning to play forte, with a full rich tone is usually the first step to expanding one's control of flute dynamics. Most beginner students play with a soft flow of air into the flute, and don't use any abdominal muscles. So good; you've already developed to the next stage beyond the beginner level; you can play a good full rich tone at the loud end of the range.

This means that the air is spinning out quite quickly, and in large volumes, and you're relaxing the embouchure opening, making it slightly larger and looser. Flutes get shrill and piercing when they are too loud, so remember to listen for lots of overtones (harmonics) in the tone, and keep opening and loosening the embouchure in new ways until you have the richest tone possible. (See Moyse's book "De La Sonorite" and the exercise called "Fullness of Tone" to develop this further.)

The next stage will come when you begin experimenting with using the same fast air, and blowing from low in the body, but play with a smaller aperture in the embouchure, possibly gradually changing the lip shape to a more forward "ooo" and seeking a smooth transition to mezzo piano, and finally piano.

The thing about playing softly is that it takes MORE control than playing loudly.So it's virtually impossible to ask a beginner to have the control to use the forte muscles for piano playing; to spin the sound with a beautifully clear, pure and carrying tone, and to impart the illusion of tremendous gentleness in the sound.

Some of the techniques of such diminuendos use vowels to shape dynamics. Prepare by daily holding a long note and gradually, experimentally, crescendo and diminuendo on it. Simple longtone dynamics are standard in even the earliest flute method books.You simply keep the tone pure while blowing more air, and for the crescendos, allow the releasing of all muscles into a looser state, while maintaining good tone, then, when diminuendoing, gradually "Poise" the muscles (lips and abdomen) so that the airstream is more controlled, while listening to keep the pitch and the airspeed constant. The best tone for pianissimo playing does NOT feel as though you are pressing down with your ab. muscles, but you will discover this over time.

Some past posts on these type of "blowing" sensations are cobbled-together below, starting with basic "blowing", forte playing, and finally vowel dynamics.

And I might also suggest that if you want to practice beginning a note softly, start it with the lips saying "Peu". (that's a trick that can often help.)

Also see articles on this site on breathing, tone etc.

Best Jen Cluff :>)

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Start with Simple Blowing

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.
Also, as one of our European Flutenetters pointed out there is currently some German research for woodwinds/brass concerning different human breathing methods. Not yet translated fully into English, these studies have described both "Inhalers" and "Exhalers". One group feels they must use muscular force to inhale, (exhalers) and might need to consciously correct their tension as they do so, and the other group must use muscular force to exhale (inhalers) and may need to consciously correct tension as they do so.

What I learned from reading about this topic, and by trying the experiments is that we often don't use one of the most natural features of air-pressure inside the lungs. High pressure inside the lungs, vs. lowered pressure outside the lungs, means that the air pressure will seek to find equilibrium by escaping through the lips, if we simply allow it to..

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 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.

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Developing your Forte is foremost :>)

Blowing steadily against imaginary resistance for full forte tone:

Recently I ordered the Vernon Hill The 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

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

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
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.

See: Whole note crescendo/diminuendo exercises by many flute method authors. Examples:
Altes, Trevor Wye, Marcel Moyse etc. in exercises in which you crescendo and diminuendo on a longtone in order to discover air control, pitch control, and dynamic shaping.

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Vowel sounds for shaping dynamics from Fiona Wilkinson's "The Physical Flute"

Quotes from Fiona Wilkinson's Book "The Physical Flute" about using Vowel sounds for dynamics. For ordering information about The Physical flute, call in Canada: Waterloo Publishers: 1 800 563-9683 or order from

Aren't you supposed to move the jaw for dynamics? (out for p, in for f)
Jen writes:
I was taught to make a diminuendo just as you describe...with the jaw gradually advancing until finally the lower lip is so far forward that the air going to the flute is less and less, and then "tapered off" or "feathered off" by the jaw's final forward position pushing the lower lip in front of the airstream. It's tiring, and there's a hiss to the sound when you get to a certain point of the air 'missing' the flute's blow hole.

Even Trevor Wye's fairly recent book: Volume One: "Tone" has exercises where he suggests a combination of the use of the jaw, lips and tilting the head back, to uncover the blow hole. He's vague about how to exactly do it, and just says: "Keep practicing."

I taught that method too, until I read "The Physical Flute" by F. Wilkinson where she says, I quote:


The flute's inherent pitch problems can be summed up as follows:

The low register is usually flat.
The high register is usually sharp.
The quiet dynamics (pp-p) are usually flat.
The loud dynamics (f-ff) are usually sharp.

Here we want to establish a method of practice to keep every register and every dynamic level consistently in tune. We must first start by understanding the relationship of jaw, lips, air and mouth cavity in the forte to piano dynamic ranges. A mental concept of a vowel shape in the mouth will help accommodate the different air pressures for forte and piano.

For forte the jaw must be dropped and relaxed, the lips are loose and flat against the embouchure plate. The oral cavity must be large. Try two mental orders:

1) Arch the roof of the mouth
2)Say the vowel "O".

For piano the jaw comes forward (as do the lips) keeping the flat contact with the embouchure plate (ie: don't pucker).
Try the two mental orders:
1) Let the roof of the mouth fall toward the tongue.
2) Say the vowel "E".

All the vowels in between are merely small changes on these two shapes.

To learn these changes, use the exercise below easing a natural reflex between forte and pianissimo. Don't demand that you incorporate it all at once with great success. Go through all vowels and dynamic levels; by gentle repetition your body will develop the right balance of "how much". Demand that you listen to the relationship between the physical changes and the sounds you create.

Develop a physical memory of your successes.

Exercise shows a very long low 'G1' with dynamics marked

f...> >p....pp

underneath are written the vowel shapes:



By the time you've changed to the AY vowel, you have closed the mouth cavity enough, more is unnecessary. By doing the last two vowels, you are bringing the sound forward in the mouth. The basic concept here is that the pitch will remain constant by allowing the air to adjust inside the mouth. The loud dynamics need a lot of room for the sound to respond without forcing or becoming sharp. The soft dynamics need a small amount of room to keep the sound froward enabling it to project and keep from becoming flat.

Change the process to pp -p -mp -mf -f

Change the register.

Points to remember:
1) Vowel shapes inside the mouth do not affect the lip formation (embouchure); they merely change the size of the mouth cavity which acts as a resonating chamber.

2) The air moves just as quickly in the p dynamic as in the f dynamic. This is how we keep constant pitch.

3) the bottom lip must keep flat to the embouchure plate. Puckering pushes the flute away from you giving you much less control especially in terms of colour.

4) The jaw moves only in very small amounts as a result of the lips moving. Too much movement only causes undue tension.

(end quote).

Seriously, this information changed my entire method of dynamic control, leaving it a practically effortless maneuver.

It's great to discover that diminuendos work equally well with only the lower lip advancing (diagonally forward and up) at the very end of the diminuendo, and you don't need to "jaw" at all. (preventing jaw-strain and hissy sounds to boot.)

If you need to enter on a piano, you just assume the correct vowel shape, form your lips, and emit the note with fast and well supported air.

Try it, and tell us what you think!! :>)
Jen Cluff.

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