Jennifer Cluff - Throat tightness

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

A problem with THROAT NOISES or throat tightness when playing flute

Q: I have just taken the flute up again after a 14 year break. It's taken a few months of hard work to get back up to standard. However, I have a problem that I need to iron out before taking grade exams next year. Sometimes when I play, the sound catches in my throat and I make a kind of "nng" sound. My flute teacher can't work out why this happens. She's even asked her own teacher who doesn't know either. Any advice would be appreciated. _______________________

Jen Answers:
This topic of throat noise comes up often.
The problem is caused by your throat trying to help you blow the flute with faster air. Your abdominal air-speed is a bit on the flabby side, and so your throat tenses as a last resort to getting faster air-speed.
The solution is two fold: Blow more sustained-ly using the abdominal exhaling muscles, and become more aware of the openness of your throat.

There's one quick solution that works for everyone who's begun to use better abdominal air-speed; Singing and playing simultaneously.
 What you do is learn to deliberately sing and play at the same time so that you're humming through your flute playing.
Hold a long, gently produced note with your voice (don't strain; quietly singing a single note is fine), while continuing to play the flute. This makes the rock-flute sound (like Jethro Tull or Roland Kirk), and is an extended technique in classical flute to boot.

You can sing just one note, or even many notes (first time you do this your voice will tend to follow all kinds of meandering patterns---fun to experiment.). You can even follow Robert Dick's instructions on singing while playing in his book "Tone Development Through Extended Technique" and sing an octave or more below the notes you're playing, or sing in harmony; or just DRONE through your playing. All are fun, and all are useful.

However, when you then *stop* throat singing, you will naturally have discovered how to disengage the vocal cords because you've felt which muscles actually engage and disengage the throat mechanism.

It's amazing. The body just figures out where the "on-off" switch is for the vocal cords, allowing you to turn them off at will.

If the throat noise returns at any time, just sing for a minute or two while playing to re-establish where the throat "on-off" switch is, and you'll have discovered it again.
Works like a charm.
Try this sing-play technique and send feedback.
Pass it on to your teachers.
A bonus is that your tone will improve also from a few seconds of this.

The vibration that the singing while playing causes in the lips has the added bonus of making the lips feel more flexible and supple, and allowing them more freedom of movement.

Interesting that sing-playing solves more than one problem. Just take a moment to learn the technique. Jen Cluff

Second question on throat noise:

M wrote:
> I tense up in the throat and I make unwanted noises on some of the higher notes. I thought it was from asthma, but maybe not?
> Does anyone else have that same problem?
Dear M.,

Having tension in the throat and tensing up for high notes is one of the most common problems encountered by novices and intermediates.
Do you have a teacher helping you with this?
How long have you been playing?
Are you a steady practiser, or do you only play a few times a month or a few times a week?
If you can answer these questions, and give more details, it would help us to zero in on a quick solution for you (although in order to practice the solution into your body requires daily sessions of practicing until the solution becomes second-nature.) The question you just asked takes ACRES of typing, if I don't have any more specifics, but nevertheless, I'll try:

Here's an overview of throat and upper body tension and release while playing in the high register:

1. If the abdominal muscles feel flabby, and are not sending a jet of very fast air while playing the high register, the throat and lips will try and "help" by tensing up and forcing the air into the flute.
Therefore, use the ab muscles to send very fast air and check that you're continuing to use them.
A good warm up is to play low register first and then middle register (longtones as outlined in Trevor Wye's book called "Tone" Vol. 1) for several weeks before practicing or even playing in the high register.
A good way to engage the abdominal muscles is to pulse them by saying: "Ah Ah AHHHHHH!" or "Ha ha HAAAAAA!" while holding a longtone. (if you use the laughing muscles to say "HA" do not use the throat to aspirate the "H" at all, just the gut muscles as IF you're laughing.)

The caveat is: Use the BIG muscles not the small ones, as the big muscles tire less easily and can be relied upon for creating the fast air speed for high register playing.

2. The throat's vocal cord vibration abilities are NOT used in flute playing, although since we use the throat for singing and talking, we often don't realize how to disengage it on demand.

Once the abdominal muscles are sending fast air for a long tone, you should be able to sense your throat open as a big wide pipe, and the air moving from the lower lungs to the lips in an unbroken and very wide stream of air.

Yawning gently several times can help show you how to open your throat for flute playing.
Also, deliberately singing and playing while holding a long note (sing low, constant in pitch, and softly, and don't expect your flute to sound normal when doing this; see above) can also show you how to turn your throat's closing abilities on and off on demand.

After a few sessions of singing along with your long tones you should be able to locate and *disengage* your vocal cords on demand. Singing and playing simultaneously helps you find the throat's triggers and controls for turning it on and off.

3. Upper body tension in general is often the result of trying to play
in the high register too soon, before the body is comfortable finding the low and middle registers of the flute.

A comprehensive "check list" for releasing all tension in the upper body would be:
a) Preparation for practicing:
Stretch thoroughly before starting to practice, and then lie down on the floor and go through each part of your body engaging one section at a time.

A typical yoga sequence for this is to start at the feet and work up:

- Tense the feet---release the feet
- Tense the calves---release the calves
- Tense the knees ----release the knees, etc.

All the way up to the top of the head, including the face, throat, chest etc.

This way you'll have better daily sense of the difference between tense and relaxed, and the middle ground of :"Balanced and poised."

When you stand up to play the flute, get pointers from your teacher on how to hold it and balance it so that your body remains balanced and poised before beginning your longtones for the day.
Cycle through the body and check each body part as you play each longtone to discover where you tense and why.
Note: All body tension (even in the feet) can end up as throat and upper body tension.
b) Tension release from 10 to 1 :

As you hold a single longtone, tense your embouchure as tight as it can go and call this "10" on the tension scale.
Now cycle down while still holding the longtone:
10---9----8----7---- etc.
With each number representing a milimeter by milimeter loosening off of the tension. For some people the tone will become like blubbering jello by the number 7 or 6, but if you can learn to make the release more gradually you can get to 4 or 3 before the tone of the flute starts to blubber.

As you release the tension step by step like this, you will find an easy and relaxed tone somewhere in the middle of the tension scale, and by releasing the lips and face to this more relaxed state you'll find the throat and upper chest relax in tandem.
Do this daily until you are aware just how little tension it takes to hold a good longtone.
Hint: USE ABDOMINAL MUSCLES TO KEEP THE NOTE SOUNDING. (see top of this page for reminders.)
c) Sensing lip accuracy -- letting the flute ring by itself:

I've met many players who are self taught who do not realize that they are not actually aiming the air accurately onto the "sweet spot" that makes the flute's headjoint *ring*. Because their lips are missing their mark, they force the air harder and harder (usually using the throat muscles or facial muscles) to try and hold up their high register notes with force.

If they had been with a flute teacher when this first happened, the teacher would have probably heard the fuzzy sound that bad-aim makes, and helped the student look in the mirror to find out how they were missing the flute's embouchure hole by inaccurate aim. But since they were working alone, they learned to force to overcome resistance, rather than increase their lip accuracy.

The "sweet spot" is the exact point on the far edge of the embouchure hole where the flute seems to ring by itself. The embouchure needs to find this spot by experimentation, and then can relax into it, leaving the flute to ring simply by the air coming from the abs, and being perfectly aimed with no impedance (no involvement of tension anywhere along the conduit "pipe" from lung to lips.)

If you can find this spot yourself, then great.
If not, use the mirror and consult a teacher.

A lot of unnecessary tension comes from self-teaching and trying to FORCE the flute to sound well in tone, when the lip's aim is off.
d) Further issues worth checking:
You also need to have a teacher check:

- Whether your flute's headjoint is aligned correctly for balance in the hands. If you have to dip your chin downward to reach a good tone angle while blowing, this will put a crimp in your throat and lead to throat noise.

- Whether you are standing unbalanced (on one foot, knees locked, hip jutted out etc.). If you are off balance, your head will be askew, and you'll also have throat tension as a result of neck tension.

- Whether your head is balanced on your spine and then you are LIFTING THE FLUTE TOWARDS A BALANCED HEAD, not dipping the head forward to reach the flute. Again, if the chin is being pulled too far down, it puts a crimp in the throat which can cause constricted throat noise.

- Whether you're covering more than 1/4 to 1/3 of the embouchure hole with your lower lip (too much coverage and the high register will require insane amounts of breath pressure to sound.)

- Whether your flute is leaking, and so you have to clamp your fingers down which leads to tension in other body parts as you try and force the flute to sound well.

- Whether you are using sufficient air support from low in the body for the necessary high air speeds needed for the high register.

- Whether your tongue root is lax and falling back into your throat, causing the throat to "choke off". The tongue needs to be somewhat forward in the mouth so that the root is well clear of the throat.

- Whether you are breathing fully and deeply enough (if you are trying to play the flute with too little air, throat noise will result as the throat tries to push too little air instead of the abs pushing the air.)

Good luck, and for full info. read the articles on tone, flute posture and headjoint alignment. They may be of great help.

Cheers, Jen :>)

Back to Jen's homepage

© Jennifer Cluff