Around the beginning of every school year, it gets crazy busy here at the Indy Flute Shop. Since I am a Paige’s Music employee, I also help beginning customers start their students on brand new instruments, which always comes with lots of questions! In between phone calls and lines of customers, though, I always find myself thinking about all those new flute students and how important it is to get them started properly. There’s so much to think about, and it can be difficult to decide what to focus on. For band directors who start multiple students on different instruments, this is even more challenging. Below are some suggestions from Carolyn Keyes, educator and clinician for creating good habits in your beginning flute students, along with some of my own input.
Holding the Flute
Holding the flute properly is one of the most critical habits to instill in beginners. Techniques such as embouchure and headjoint placement are all for naught if the instrument is not being held correctly. For example, is impossible to produce a good tone if the flute is slipping every few seconds. It is also impossible to play fast passages if the hands are tensed or if the student is “flat-fingering” the keys, as I so eloquently call it. This is especially challenging on the flute because it is held asymmetrically. Because of this, I spend a significant amount of time establishing proper posture and hand position. I discussed several aspects of hand and playing position in previous posts about my own struggles with tendonitis and fibromyalgia.
If a beginner flute student is having a very difficult time making a full sound at all, the answer is usually headjoint placement and alignment. To check for this, be sure that the tone hole is lined up left to right with the center of the student’s aperture. This is not always in the center of the lips! When the student blows across the flute, you should be able to see a small area of condensation on the opposite side of the tone hole. This area of condensation should be directly in the center of the tone hole. Since this is visible, students can verify this alignment in a mirror fairly easily. They should also be able to feel the bottom edge of the tone hole just below their bottom lip. If there is still a struggle, make sure that the jaw is open enough to aim the air into the flute and that the aperture is small enough to focus the airstream. I usually use the analogy of a garden hose: if you start to cover the hose with your thumb, the water comes out more quickly–and a fast air stream is what is needed to make a full sound.
Use the Tongue to Articulate
If you are a band director or sectional teacher with a large flute section, it can be tricky to catch the students who aren’t using their tongue to articulate. Many students will use their throat or simply break the airstream between articulated notes. Once they slip into this bad habit, they often blend into the cacophony of the band (or blend into the top chair players who are articulating properly) without realizing that they are not tonguing. This habit manifests in a flute sections that sounds muddy and diffuse. To make matters worse, this habit is incredibly difficult to fix if it has gone unchecked for several years. To combat this, be sure to do individual checks to monitor very carefully in the first several months to make sure that they are tonguing consistently.