Jen Cluff ~ fast fingers, great tone

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

Great tone & fast fingers for novice flutists

G. wrote:
I do believe I have a good tone when I do my tone exercises. It seems good to me. My teacher has helped me a lot here in development, could not have done it without help and my good Sankyo flute. But she has began to make mention of an orchestral sound(?) I can say that I have the ability to flub around technically with a clear sonorous sound. But when I try to play at fast tempi, my good tone seems to disappear. How to I keep my sophisiticated tone, and add fast fingers and technique to it?

Dear G:

You are asking two things:
1) How to have your fingers move more quickly
2) How to get an "orchestral tone quality"

1) For fingers to move more quickly, the intermediate or novice player needs to find out three things:
a) Are there any leaks in any of the pads?
Take your flute for a clean/oil & adjust at a reputable repair shop (ask your teacher.) Leaking pads are the number one cause of heavy fingers.

b) Learn how to balance the flute with almost all the fingers off. The idea is to free the fingers that are moving up and down on the keys
Exercise One:

The easiest method to begin investigating the balance of the flute is to do it when you're practising longtones. I like to introduce the use of the Bb side lever to help with this concept.

You know how you start your longtones on B and then slur to Bb?
Well, if you use the Bb side lever (the one just above the F key,
that's operated by leaning on it with the RH index finger) for the Bb, and then leave it down for the A, the Ab, and the G, you will find that you can lighten the pressure of your right hand fingers, and that the flute stays very balanced prior to the addition of any of the other right hand keys (for F#, F, E etc.)
Exercise Two:
Next, if you are learning chromatic longtones or scales that are ascending, you can use this trick:

Start a mini-chromatic scale, all slurred, ascending, beginning on low D, and go up five notes:
Slur slowly upward: D, Eb, E, F---pause on F#---sense the balance of the two hands. Breathe.
Slur upward: F#, G, G#, A,---pause on Bb played with two index fingers---sense the balance of the two hands.

Slur: Bb, B, C, C#, ---pause on D--sense the balance of the two hands.
When I first start students on these chromatics, I start with these sets of five notes of a chromatic scale pausing on the final note, and relaxing the hands and resting, breathing, then continuing on the paused note for the next chunk of chromatics. Eventually they are working toward playing a whole octave, all
slurred, chromatically, with the two hands feeling equally relaxed and easy, and all notes even.

What daily chromatic mini-scales develop is eveness and finger independence, and at the same time ask the student to use extremely light fingers (more on this below.)

The balancing of the two hands, with neither one taking more weight
than the other is something I practice when warming up on "The Orange Juice Warmup" in Paula Robison's warmup book. I start each practice session with these all-slurred two-octave chromatic scales, with the metronome set at 120 per quarter (chromatic scales are in 1/16ths.)

As you progress from five-notes, to eight, and then finally two octaves, the faster you wish to go, the more lightly you use each finger, never raising it very high off its key. When you pause on a note, you relax the hands almost completely so that the entire exercise feels easy and balanced.

[NOTE: The manner in which you balance your flute overall can be further improved with considering the three-point hold as found in Rockstro's Treatise on Flute playing. There are also several articles on this in my Files at Flutenet. Do you use Rockstro or modified Rockstro now? Just curious.:>) If you want to read more about them go to my
alignment article.]

The third thing that is helpful to consider at this time is:
c) How to use almost no finger pressure so that the fingers don't have to undo the downward pressure of closing a key PRIOR to lifting up.
This concept may literally blow your mind as to how easy and how obvious it is, and yet how often overlooked. The only pre-requisite is that you have *no* leaks in the pads of your flute whatsoever, and that the key-closure-mechanics are in perfect adjustment (for those of you readers not able to know this as a fact, have your teacher check your flutes for leaks by playing chromatically with minimum pressure on every flute key.)

Someone on the net once said: "Use only enough finger pressure to overcome the spring tension holding each key up" and that is the simplest possible formula to comprehend. Take your flute down and lower and raise each key, one key at a time, while watching and feeling the key action.
How much pressure does it REALLY take to overcome the spring tension that holds each key up? Almost NONE, right?

Now, put the flute up again and toy with each individual key in turn starting with a very slow F to G trill. Trill the F key so lightly and with so little finger-pressure that if feels as if you're playing by lifting the finger only. Think: "Lift---lift---lift" instead of "depress-depress-depress."

Then in turn play slow and then progressively faster trills between all other pairs of notes (G to A, E to F, B to C etc.)
Tell your hands and fingers that they never need to have any more tension than this, and that they can all remain relaxed and curved, with finger-tips very close to the keys ready for a tiny, relaxed and extremely light movement.

I find that as soon as students actually experience this lightness of fingering, they almost never go back to depressing the keys heavily or with more pressure, as it is just such a mental BREAKTHROUGH about how easy putting the keys down really is, and immediately grok: "Why ever do it any other way?!"

Mind you, if you have a fundamental flute-holding imbalance (Like your headjoint is misaligned, or your flute is rolling toward you every time you take your fingers off,) then that problem will have to be addressed first. Ask more if this is the case.
Next, you were mentioning that your teacher is hinting about:

2) A more orchestral tone quality.

Do you want to know the basic components of this tone quality?
On the phyiscal level there are two:
a) The flute stays stable in your hands and does not wobble or become disturbed at the lip
b) The lips act as a LONG aiming device, instead of a short one.
The first (a) is greatly aided by the balancing and finger lightness discussed above, but also by the concept that there are three main lip positions that will serve for a great number of notes, and that the range of these three positions is often less dramatic than some novice players think.

One of our Flutenet teachers first pointed this out to us from the text of "Flute Technique". He was reading by Gareth Morris, a flute teacher from the UK. On page 15-20 of Morris's book is written::
Lip position for low notes:
Range: Lowest C to D2 (the D on the fourth line of the staff) Use: The same lip position as for Bb1 (the lowest Bb middle line of the staff.)

Lip position for middle register notes:
Range: D#2 to C#3 (the C# on two leger lines)
Use: The same lip position as for G2

Lip position for high register notes:
Range: D3 to C4 (highest C on the flute)
Use: The same lip position as for G3 (highest G on the flute.)
If you experiment with obtaining a terrific Bb1 in tone quality, then use that exact lip position for the notes around it (low C to medium D2) you will find that you can keep your lips quite still. Same with each of the other positions; if you can get a great tone on G2, you can experiment around with keeping that lip position for the notes in the middle range surrounding G2.

In this way, we get rid of extraneous lip positions that only twitch our lips around without really being necessary, and in that way can play long strings of notes with very minimal and very exacting lip position changes.
This has the added bonus of really improving the intonation (which can be thrown off by too extreme a lip change).
Finally, the question of using a LONG aiming device.
I cannot emphasize this enough as one of the things that makes my tone immediately more sophisticated, and more "orchestral".
Many novices use the dry, outer tissue of their lips to form their aiming device on the flute. But as Moyse points out in "The Debutante Flutist" (see [pictures in pdf), even from the very start, it can be important to become aware that you can use the moist, inner-membrane of the lips as a LONG barrel down which the airstream can flow prior to the point at which it leaves the mouth.

You can think about African blow-guns or pea-shooters: which allows you to aim better? A pea-shooter that's one-inch long? Or one that is 14 inches long?

Obviously, the longer the 'barrel' that is used to aim with, the more accurate the aim will be. To get this idea across in lessons, I often bring coffee-stir-sticks, those squashed brown straws that are flattened (a regular drinking straw that's flattened for this purpose will also work.)

You insert the coffee stick between the lips, and effect to make the inner surface of the lips kiss-forward, and mimic the shape of the coffee stick so that more inner-membrane is involved in forming the blowing device.

If you can "bouche-out" (nice terminologies we flute teachers invent, huh?) the lips so that they're just slightly more forward, adding more interior lip membrane to the 'barrel' that's directing the air, you will hear the sound on the flute instantly become more sophisticated.

[Note: if you poke your lips out more than usual, you may also find that the flute needs to be rolled out and down on your chin, to accomodate this new, more fleshy presentation of the lips.]
Everytime I forget to play with the lips in this more forward "PU" position, my tone sounds rough and simplistic. When I "bouche forward" with the lips saying "PU", the tone improves, and the problem of sounding rough is solved.

Moyse also mentions that it feels as if the interior lip membrane is slightly blown to the outside (as when you say "PU" forcefully enough to cause a miniature lip explosion). I find that I can really kick-start this lip-inner-membrane vibration by making like Roland Kirk or Ian Anderson and singing at the same time as playing the flute. It's truly a rock-n-roll warmup and one that transfers the buzziness
of the vocal chords to the sympathetic vibration of the lip membrane.

Try this and send feedback.

A lip position that is more forward, and has more inner-membrane on it is much more capable of spanning large leaps than a short-aiming-device. This will help your tone stay good between large intervals.

There are also many many large-interval exercises, tonguing exercises, slurring exercises, and tone development exercises that your teacher may suggest. The best TONE books, in order of advancement in flute level are:

Trevor Wye: Practice books for the flute - Book I - TONE

Marcel Moyse: De La Sonorite &

Fiona Wilkinson: The Physical Flute

Marcel Moyse: Tone Development Through Interpretation

Ann Cherry: Playing in Colour: Improving Tone for Advanced Players

Robert Dick: Tone Development Through Extended Technique

Ask your private flute teacher which of the above work books would be the most help. For more method books, and finger technique books see my fave repertoire list.

Keep up the good work, and keep experimenting. :>)

Hope these pointers help you in your next stage of development, and
let us know what solutions your teacher came up with as well, and how they work for you.

You should be having fun figuring out how to focus on great tone on very small sections of your pieces, and then over the course of several practice sessions, KEEPING that good tone while gradually allowing the fingers to go faster and faster, while still remaining light in touch.

Remember to always slow down and find out WHY your tone quality has diminished. It could be that you're just rying to go too fast too quickly, instead of building up to it from perfect tone and light fingers first.

Jen :>)

Fingers thumping too hard:

Q: I have a young student who thumps the keys so hard that they’re actually dropping the fingers from a height of about three inches. To facilitate this, they're often leaving the right hand pinky off when they try to play fast with the right hand. What's the best way to go about correcting this?

A: This can be a fairly common problem especially among young students who also play piano, I’ve found. Or for those who’ve learned to play flute on an old band flute that has many leaks. I’d check the flute for leaks first!!

Finger the flute one semitone at a time, with no downward pressure on any pad whatsoever. Any note that sounds fuzzy or unclear has a pad leak.

Have the flute sent out to repair immediately, so that it has no pad leaks at all before continuing, and it's in perfect adjustment mechanically.

For young flutist/pianists, I’d explain that closing the flute keys should be effortless, and that the fingers can be low, curved, and gently stay above the keys even after they’re lifted. The flute is the opposite of the piano; the full rich tone of the flute comes from the mouthpiece (the embouchure and the air support and wind-speed/accuracy of aim) rather than from hitting the keys with the weight that pianists are looking for.

For example: When fingering a long slow series of notes (E to F, F to G etc.), ask they student if they could put their brain into their finger tips and sense the exact split-second when the pad actually closes the “tone-hole. You need to sensitise the finger-tips so they become microscopically aware of the moment when the pad is closed, and the note sounds clear, without finger pressure.
Only the weight of the finger itself, without any muscle-power, should be enough to sound a note. Imagine you’re playing a clarinet in which the finger's pad seals the hole in the wood. At the moment of that seal, the note sounds clearly.

Sometimes it takes a few weeks of slow, long-note practice for the student to begin to feel light fingers, and to realize that the big, full, ringing sound on the flute is from the headjoint, and not so much from what keys are being covered or uncovered.
Air support and lip aim are constant---fingers should be as light as butterfly wings.

For those students with right thumb awkwardness (which often leads to poor RH position) I suggest a foam rubber pencil grip (buy at Stationary store) slit with scissors, and lightly tacked into place under the right thumb using Blue-tac, or double sided tape.
This added “traction” makes them less likely to grip with the right thumb, and thus relax the right hand.

You may also want to re-align their headjoint to balance the flute better in the hands, and stay with low register slow melodies, and slow note improvising for several weeks, to help the student get into better sensitivity to the use of their hands. There is more on this topic under "hand position" too, in the posture articles (as hands, arms, breathing and balance. are connected all the way down to how the student stands when playing.)

Playing fast, hard music often leads to flying fingers, as we all know.
Provide some sonorous, slow, short melodies that the student can improvise on, if they need to close their eyes, look away from the page, or look in the mirror while playing, in order to see how high or how low and curved their fingers are.
Good luck, and be sure and read about
longtones done with stabilizing fingerings.
Jen :>)


Tone goes bad when playing fast technique

Q: I’ve been playing for a year, and taking lessons more seriously lately. Recently I've found it tricky to combine having a great tone with fast fingerings. I didn't have any problems with the tone before, but I didn't practice so much finger technique as I do now.

I guess I'm having trouble combining these skills because I'm being too eager about catching up on my technique and forgetting to listen to the tone as I used to, but when I'm trying to make it sound beautiful again it feels like I'm only making it worse. I'm caught in a vicious circle! How do I get out, how do I get my nice beautiful tone back and how do I work on my technique without forgetting about the tone?

A: Some of the reasons that the tone often suffers during fast fingering is that either:

a) the pads are leaking and the fingers are thumping trying to make leaky notes speak more quickly (see
checking your flute for leaks, or have your teacher do so.) or

b) the lips stop hitting the "sweet spot" on the mouthpiece, because the player has stopped listening to their tone because they're perhaps too busy reading fast notes or

c) the mouthpiece of the flute is slightly disrupted from its optimal spot due to balance problems with the flute in the hands, or fingers thumping too wildly trying to go fast, or

d) the octaves or registers are jumping too quickly, and the lips don't have time to find the optimal tone for each octave

Look at each issue one at a time, and determine which of these you may be doing. Your teacher will help you locate the source of the problem.

The tone+fastfingers method is simple if practiced with focus on the key issues:

Play SLOWLY enough for the ears to listen for tone while the fingers gradually learn to play the music without thumping or becoming unbalanced.

Learn to keep fingers low and curved, close to the keys.

Play small enough sections of music so that can focus on light, even fingers while listening carefully for any unclear notes. Coax them into clarity by doing a quick batch of longtones on them.

Play SIMPLE enough music (or simplify tricky music into one-inch chunks) in order to isolate tone problems as you leap through the registers.

All this takes (as Trevor Wye would quote) "Time, patience, and intelligent work."

More articles on the above topics at:



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