Ah, those two infamous words “Woodwind Doubler”. As I’m sitting down to write this article, I realize how funny it is that requests for woodwind doublers are so common, yet requests for say, string doublers, are so rare. But, we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here… A pit gig is a pit gig. Without further ado, here are 10 flute tips for saxophone players (from a flutist).
1. Take Private Lessons (The Obvious Answer)
First things first, I recommend taking lessons. This might sound obvious, but hear me out. Take a few lessons from both a classical flutist and a jazz flutist. I find that classical flutists explain achieving tone very differently than jazz flutists. They tend to favor a darker, richer tone. Jazz flutists, on the other hand, tend to have a lighter, and sometimes even airy sound. It’s really intriguing to listen to flutists of different genres explain their art, and watch them achieve such different timbres. Being able to vary your tone color is essential. So, why not try both perspectives?
2. Activate Your Corners
Clarinetists and saxophonists love to talk about corners. Luckily, there is a big crossover here. When you activate your corners while playing the flute, it does a handful of things. First of all, it creates focus in your sound. Adding muscle tension to your embouchure helps prevent your top lip from covering too much. If you cover too much, you get a fuzzy sound, or, worse yet, no sound at all.
To activate your corners on the flute specifically, here’s what to do: Start out by making a dissatisfied, ‘meh’ face. You can also achieve the same muscle activation by moving your lips while thinking ‘Ooo-Eee’. The switch from the O to E will get your corners up and running. When you first start working on corners when playing the flute, keep the embouchure neutral. By that I mean, don’t smile or frown just yet. Keep your embouchure how it was, and add in one new feature at a time.
3. Check Your Tongue Placement
When playing the flute, use a flat tongue. If your tongue is pointy, it will adjust your mouth shape in a way that is not conducive to playing the flute. When your tongue is pointy, it is tense, and up at the top of your mouth. I think of the shape of your tongue that you use to play the flute like an articulation writing tool.
The difference between using the tip of a pen or pencil versus a thick sharpie marker is a good allegory for articulating with a sharp versus flat tongue. A pencil, for example, is going to be more likely to accidentally punch through the paper (the tone), and lead to an overblown note. While using the large marker (flat tongue articulation) is less likely to punch through the paper (overblow the note) and easier to read (has more clarity). That being said, when you first switch over from writing with a small sharp pencil to a large marker, it is going to feel cumbersome and difficult. So, it takes a while to get used to articulating this way. That being said, the overwhelming majority of the time, using a broader tongue will help both your tone and articulation overall.
4. Pay Attention to The Condensation Shape
One really simple way to check to see if you are being efficient with your air is to play in front of a mirror, and check to see if the condensation on the lip plate forms the shape of the letter, ‘V’.
5. Develop a Comfortable Posture
While flute and sax have a lot of crossovers, posture is really where things start to get interesting. When you’re doubling, remember to keep your right wrist cupped in a ‘C’ position. If you drop your wrist, you drop your ability for good technique. If things go wrong from flute to sax when it comes to hand position, it is almost always something to do with the right hand. Be careful how you distribute the weight of the instrument as well. Much of the flute’s weight will rest on the fulcrum of your left hand. If you find yourself switching most of the weight to your right hand, try and adjust and redistribute.
When holding the flute, don’t fret too much about the angle. Be sure to keep your shoulders relaxed and your elbows out. Having a good, stable posture will help keep your pitch more consistent.
6. Focus on Air Direction
Air direction is everything when it comes to the flute. Let’s talk timbre. When I’m playing flute, I see the air in front of me as a potential palette of colors. If I want a darker tone, I blow down as far as possible. That space between just almost losing your sound/covering too much, and brilliant tone, are less than a millimeter apart. On the opposite end of the spectrum, blowing up just a little higher will give you a lighter, baroque sort of sound. A little higher up yet, and you get a jazz-flutist timbre.
Air direction also varies depending on what range you are in. I think of this more as the flute having three or four different targets for arrows. At the very of bottom your range, your air direction is going to be more horizontal and unfocused. This goes for low C (or B) all the way up until you get to about G or A on the staff. As you go in range, each new group of notes should be played with the same embouchure, until you hit a barrier. Then, experiment and readjust.
7. Practice Bending Notes
Note bending is the best technique to develop sound harmonics in your tone. To bend notes, use your embouchure. You can try moving the sound up and down using your corners, as well as by covering and then slowly releasing the top lip. 5 minutes of note bending every day will do wonders for your tone. Ideally, you should be able to move your pitch up or down by one whole step. The flute is a very bendy instrument. It causes a lot of problems for those who don’t explore the er, bendiness. But, once you know how to flex the muscles that control your pitch, playing and adjusting will be much easier.
8. Try the “Offset” Embouchure
If you are struggling with sound consistency overall, especially in the high range, there is an embouchure known as “offset” that is quite effective for many flute players. I personally play with my top lip pulled slightly to the left. Most flutists who play offset do the same. This embouchure difference is actually quite slight. To see an offset embouchure in action, check out the video featured in the next tip.
Offset means that the embouchure hole that you create between your two lips pulls to one side. The bottom lip usually stays relatively centered, and the top lip favors the left or right. For example, my embouchure looks like this:
- My bottom lip is centered.
- The embouchure opening between my lips pulls slightly to the left, and you can clearly see that my upper lip favors the left side of the flute.
The reason why I play offset is that there is a very slight “teardrop” in the middle of my top lip. If you have a teardrop too, it will be much harder to play centered.
9. Experiment with Embouchure
Tip #9 here is in the same vein of note bending and offset playing. Take a peek at this video of Denis Bouriakov.
In this video, he shows an example of himself bending notes. You can clearly see his offset embouchure. That being said, there are a few other notable things about his embouchure. He covers quite a lot with the top lip. His corners are activated, but not in the way you’d expect. Many flutists have corners that pull down when they play, but it looks like Denis is smiling at moments! A judge at a festival once said to me “Never trust a smiling flute player”. That is, they believed that no flute player should, at any time, have their corners activated and up, in a smile.
I beg to differ. There is so much variation when it comes to bodies, that I think that we all should stop worrying so much about what flute embouchures look like, and more so about what we sound like. Here are a few ways more you can experiment with flute embouchure:
- Try pulling the corners down in a frown
- Trying putting the corners up in a smile
- Try pulling your top lip slightly to the left or right
- Change the vowel shape inside of your mouth
- Experiment with top lip vs bottom lip tension
10. Practice Piccolo (An Unconventional Tip)
Please note that I would never recommend a beginning flutist whose primary instrument was flute use this method. That being said, as a saxophonist, you already have developed a lot of embouchure muscles and have matured your musical skills.
If you have access to the piccolo, try practicing it. Here’s why: the piccolo is like Embouchure Bootcamp for the flute. It requires a ton of corner activation and a very small embouchure hole. If you even just try the piccolo for say, 10 minutes, it will help you understand just how small of an embouchure the flute needs. While the piccolo requires an even smaller embouchure than the flute (think coffee stirrer), there is just something about practicing the piccolo that makes you work extra hard in the embouchure-developing department.
Try a few minutes of piccolo, if you have access to one, along with 5 minutes of note-bending on the flute.
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