Jennifer Cluff

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

Tuning in ensembles

Playing 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 pitch?

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 outdoors.)

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 the high.

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

Back to top

Using Alternate fingerings in ensemble settings

The best quote about using alternate fingerings:

Interesting quote about tuning in orchestras---from Suzanne Lord's Dissertation on Peter Lloyd, Part 5: found here.
"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 embouchure]....
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 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...."

Jen adds:
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.

Jen :>)

Back to top

Amateur 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 tiring.

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:
[404 Not Found]l

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 one.

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 up.

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 Roger Mather

Tone Development 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.
Jen Cluff

Back to top

Internet 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 flutes at:

[404 Not Found]

Another short article for tuning problems with flutes in bands found online:
Scan down when you arrive there and look for article called:
Playing in Tune:

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 Joseph Butkevicius
Tuning A Flute
[404 Not Found]

Headjoint corks:
[404 Not Found]

Article on flute intonation by Trevor Wye:

How to check your flute scale by Trevor Wye:

Flutehistory article on tunings:

Enjoy! Jen

Back to top

To more of Jen's flute tuning articles

Back to Jen's homepage


© Jennifer Cluff