If you ever witnessed the iconic “jazz flute” scene from the Will Ferrell comedy, Anchorman, then you’ve heard my flute playing. My improvised flute solo for that scene has since become a great calling card, which is interesting because I’m primarily a saxophone player.
My Journey to the Flute
I began playing the saxophone when I was 12, and the thought of playing the flute never crossed my mind, even though I started listening to Cuban music at around 13 and developed a deep appreciation for flute players. During my childhood, I was involved in acting and occasionally played the saxophone with my friends’ bands on weekends for fun.
Later, I attended an arts high school as a theater major. Although I had a genuine passion for stage work, I didn’t find satisfaction in the professional opportunities typically offered to a young surfer kid, like sitcoms and commercials. Consequently, I decided to quit acting. At the age of 17, I made the call to my agent and announced my departure.
Having always loved music and playing the saxophone, I made the choice to pursue an education in music. While I had some reading skills and the ability to play by ear, I was unaware of jazz improvisation concepts like the ii-V-I progression.
When I joined the Grove School of Music, the esteemed trombonist, composer, and arranger, Rob McConnell had recently arrived from Canada to teach. They inquired whether I played the flute, to which I responded negatively (and thought, “I don’t play the banjo either, so why should I play the flute?”). I was informed that the lead alto part in Rob’s band featured a substantial amount of flute music (his lead alto player in McConnell’s big band, The Boss Brass was the accomplished doubler, Moe Koffman). I was advised to acquire a flute and start practicing.
I took the advice to heart and began studying the flute with my saxophone teacher, the legendary doubler and master educator, Bill Green. He was not only an exceptional flute player but also laid the foundation for my flute journey with proper techniques.
My mom had purchased a $300 closed-hole C-foot Armstrong flute for me, and I quickly developed a strong affection for it. In less than two years, I played that very same flute on Dr. Dre’s timeless record, The Chronic. On one of the tracks, “Lil Ghetto Boy,” I had the opportunity to riff throughout and even deliver a short solo during the outro.
While it might not be the pinnacle of my flute playing, it holds its own considering I had only been playing the flute for a couple of years. (I also played the flute on “Let Me Ride” and saxophones on “The Roach,” both from the same album.)
The key factor was that I had established a solid foundation early on, enabling me to avoid the common pitfall of trying to approach the flute like a saxophone (attack mode, anyone?).
Four Tips for Avoiding the Most Common Flute Pitfalls for Sax Players
- First up is the infamous “death grip” of the hands on the instrument is counterproductive. Instead, maintaining light fingers and a relaxed grip allows the flute to vibrate freely.
- Similarly, mashing the lip plate against your face restricts proper flexibility across registers and inhibits full flute vibration. Visualize the flute as a resonating bell (credit to my longtime friend and brilliant flute player Sara Andon for this apt analogy). Think of ringing a bell and immediately pressing your arm against it – you’ll grasp the concept. When you gently place the lip plate against your lip, the bottom lip compresses naturally. To counteract this, slightly advance your jaw a few millimeters (ensuring the top and bottom lips remain somewhat parallel).
- Another common pitfall among doublers is using excessive air. Optimal technique involves a thin stream of air evenly split across the sharp edge, with half of the airflow entering the flute and the other half exiting.
- Sax players often don’t realize that the optimal aperture between the lips isn’t stationary or inert. When transitioning from lower to higher registers, your aperture needs to reach forward toward the sharp edge, as if you’re aiming to kiss it. This technique promotes stability and prevents the prevalent mistake of attempting to play octaves (or higher notes) by overblowing. This approach yields cleaner sounds, correct tuning, and the ability to play softly without cracking.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here. While the flute is straightforward, it demands precision. However, you can certainly become a proficient flute player by adopting the correct approach and mastering fundamental techniques.
Looking to Dive Deeper?
Just doing the steps I’ve outlined above is going to make a major difference in your flute playing, but if you’re looking for a more detailed, step-by-step path to getting your flute playing up to the level of your sax playing (and beyond!), check out my video tutorial course Flute Tips for Sax Players: Complete and Expanded. Find more info here.
Stay classy! (I couldn’t resist ending with an Anchorman reference!)