How To Play The Flute
First off, I will assume the inquisitor refers to the Modern Boehm System Flute used most often in present-day symphonies and band classes through Europe and the United States. “Flute” is a very broad term encompassing hundreds of different instruments across many cultures, but the most common to us in the “Western World” looks like this
As music educator with more than 20 years experience (private lessons, guest clinician, and middle/high school band director) the most daunting and cumbersome of all the instruments to teach is the flute. There are several reasons for this. First, it is the only woodwind instrument requiring the player to hold the instrument without the aid of a thumb hook (clarinet, oboe), or a neck/seat strap (saxophone, bassoon). It is also particularly questionable as to how the fundamental sound is produced – There’s this lip plate thingy, but how do I use it? Hand positions are also challenging, so I will try and be as deliberate as possible, and hopefully not too abstract when explaining the following.
Holding the Flute
The flute is not unlike its other woodwind counterparts when holding the instrument. When holding it upright (vertically) your left hand should operate the keys towards the top (closest to the head joint), and the right hand operates the keys toward the bottom (closest to the foot joint).
Producing a tone
Unlike the other woodwind instruments, which require a vibrating reed for sound production, flutes have an oval-shaped, curved lip plate with a tone hole in the center. The flutist blows air across the top of the tone hole. He/she determines the octave (range/tessitura) by changing the angle of the air stream slightly.
- DO NOT over blow. You flute tone should not be accompanied by “air noise.” Less air = more tone. I know. Makes no sense. It’s Science. Go with it!
- DO NOT pucker your lips. Your bottom lip should rest on the nearest edge of the tone hole, covering up a ¼ of the opening.
- DO NOT press the lip plate onto your bottom lip. The bottom is part of the process. Don’t hinder it.
- DO NOT puff your cheeks. Never ever. Ever. Never.
- DO NOT consciously form an opening with your lips and exhale. Instead, relax and allow the air to naturally break the seal of your lips while in a closed position.
The following are things you should do when attempting to produce a flute tone.
- DO make the corners of your lips (lateral edges) firm. This will allow you have control of the center portion of your lips, which are essential for sound production.
- DO slightly press the inner edge of your left hand in so that it helps anchor the lip plate below your lips. This will keep the flute from moving off your face while you play.
I hope this explanation helps on your journey to flute enlightenment. I find that instrumentalists with knowledge of other woodwind instruments have a more natural understanding of the concepts stated above. It is easier to transfer prior information to the flute from a saxophone, oboe, or clarinet than it is to start from scratch on the flute. However, it is not an impossible task and some of my greatest flute students found the instrument rather natural. In other words, if you are up to the challenge, it will be very rewarding!