Last week, the conductor of a pro concert band in Sydney that I play the flute in, said to me at the rehearsal: “Hey Jane – I arranged a new piece for the band and I especially wrote you out a ripper of a jazz flute solo!!”
I braced myself.
For I am not a jazz player…
I am a classically trained flutist… And this solo sounded like a potential nightmare to me.
Bracing for Embarrassment
Basically I saw this as a sure way to be embarrassed by my “classical” sounding swinging on the flute, in front of some of the best jazz sax players in Sydney who also play in the band.
So off we went, we sight-read this top-speed piece (called “Ya Gotta Try”, in case you know it), and the two jazz sax players joined in – also playing flute.
And the most unexpected thing happened…
Firstly, there was no time to be embarrassed – the solo was so freaking fast and complex, I just needed to concentrate to sight read it. And here’s a little spoiler alert: I never once ran out of air. Breathing was something I wasn’t even thinking about.
So here’s where it gets interesting.
Comparing Our Lungs
Peg, one of the amazing sax players who was playing flute, said, “yeah, wow what a great solo, but there is nowhere to breathe. I just couldn’t get through those mega-long phrases on flute”.
I said “oh really?!” – implying that I had no trouble with the breathing. And actually, I didn’t – the breathing was no problem at all. (In retrospect, I’d hoped I hadn’t sounded a bit arrogant with my comment. Luckily, I found out later, it wasn’t received that way!)
Afterwards, she asked for some help with her flute playing. She said that she was pretty confident, but is playing in a musical soon, so thought she’d fine-tune her flute playing a bit and get a lesson off me.
I said that I’ve got something better than a lesson for her, and [shameless self promotion alert] gave her access to an online course I created called The 45 Day Flute Transformation.
Within two days of starting the course, she realized she’d been missing some fundamental flute techniques, and was able to correct them (including effortlessly playing a B major scale for the full two octaves) after waiting 49 years to do so!
My point is – the following information, whether you get it from here or elsewhere, has been “road-tested” and brings consistent results for those act on it.
How doublers fix their “lung capacity” on flute
It’s something that I see a lot in doublers of the flute. They are amazing at the saxophone, and are pretty excellent at the flute, but never seem to really “crack” their flute technique.
Generally I’ve noticed doublers say they have a fluffier sound than they’d like, and they tend to run out of air quicker than they’d like!
In fact they often say to me: “Yeah, the flute needs so much air” (which is actually not true – more on this in a moment!).
Now for the life-changing flute tips!
To help you with your flute playing, I thought I’d now take you through three of the most common flute technique mistakes that saxophone players make when doubling on the flute.
(Why you can’t play really long phrases)
Even though the flute embouchure is obviously very different to the saxophone, there is a common theme that seems to run through the flute embouchures of sax players.
And it is this:
Nearly every sax player’s flute embouchure that I have seen has too large an opening.
This causes a fluffy sound, and it causes the player to run out of air too quickly. These two issues – an airy tone and not having enough air – are directly linked.
What I mean by directly linked is that if you fix one, it automatically fixes the other. For example if you get your embouchure hole slightly smaller, you’ll get a clearer sound, and you’ll instantly be able to get through longer phrases.
This is great news because it means you can efficiently fix two parts of your playing with just one little tweak of your embouchure!
2. Not getting dizzy
(“The doubler’s super power that disguises a problem”)
Not getting dizzy is something that saxophone players do extremely well on the flute!!
I often see the flute embouchure of a sax player, and I say “you must be getting really dizzy when you play!”
And more often that not, they reply that no they don’t! For a while it surprised me because seeing an amateur flute-only player using the same embouchure would result in them getting so dizzy they’d barely be able to stand up.
It seems that the bodies (ie the brain) of good sax players are insanely well adapted for avoiding dizziness, even though they are often breathing in a lot more than ideal when playing flute.
The sax player’s super power
As wind players, doublers are just so used to breathing in frequently that their brain doesn’t even react when they start taking really frequent breaths (that would send me into a head spin!) on the flute.
Yep – super power.
The problem with this super-skill of doublers (of not getting dizzy) is that it masks the fact that they’ve got a problem with their flute embouchure.
And it means that doublers don’t necessary seek help because they’re not uncomfortable enough from dizziness to really explore why they can’t play longer phrases.
Sounding stronger – with far less air
Like I mentioned above, I often hear doublers say that “the flute needs a lot of air”.
The opposite is actually true. I can hold a note for at least 25 seconds – which, in 4/4, at a tempo of quarter note = 60, is at least 6 bars without breathing.
And I don’t have big lungs.
That’s because the magic is in the embouchure.
Long phrases come from an accurately formed and positioned embouchure. That’s it. It’s not your lungs! The flute actually doesn’t need much air to play with a good sound.
3. High notes
(Why you don’t actually need to blow harder for high notes)
I love teaching flute players (both doublers, and regular flute players) how if they’re blowing harder for high notes, they’re playing high notes the wrong (and difficult!) way.
Blowing harder for high notes might seem like the right way to get them out, but you might have already noticed – if you blow a lot harder, you’ll be sharp, you’ll find it hard to control your playing, and you’ll run out of air too quickly.
Even many good flute players never learn this skill. They rely on blowing harder for high notes, which is basically a “crude” way to get high notes out – making them out of tune, loud, and, as you know, will make you run out of air quickly!
The real way to play high notes on the flute
To make your high notes easy to play, effortlessly softer, and actually in tune – you will need to tweak the way you are using your embouchure.
Quite simply, for high notes, use the corners of your mouth to create a very subtle pout shape, effectively shortening the length of the air jet (that’s a little bit of some simple physics) and you will instantly produce a controlled high note.
No kidding – it’s effortless.
High notes become easier
As evidenced by years of consistent results with countless students at all levels, this approach causes high notes to speak with much less effort, allowing for a much greater range of expression. In fact, by developing their skills in that daunting upper register, they’ve seen improvements in just about every other area of their flute playing.
Faster progress through proper technique
Saxophone players make fantastic flute players.
I also find that most of them feel as if there’s a “piece of the puzzle that’s missing”. And it holds them back from being as amazing at the flute as they are at the sax.
My goal in writing this article for you has been to hopefully enlighten you to the fact that it’s not the instrument itself that is a challenge to play.
My motto when I teach the flute is “Faster Progress Through Proper Technique”.
It’s a very to-the-point way of saying that it’s not about how many hours you practice the flute for, it’s about learning the little tweaks to your technique that make all the difference in how easy it is for you to play.
The right tiny adjustments instantly make your high notes easier, your long notes longer, and your tone stronger.
I wish you all the best with your flute playing!
Jane is a music educator from Sydney, Australia.Her speciality is showing adult flute players exactly how to progress faster on the flute by teaching them the small “tweaks” of proper technique.
Jane’s online program The Flute Academy, shows her students how to easily get faster progress on the flute – by learning proper technique.
A highlight of The Flute Academy is that the students get to go through The 45 Day Flute Transformation – which takes them through a series of tweaks and exercises, teaching them the fundamental playing techniques that players often miss when they initially learn the flute.
Jane particularly loves showing saxophone players the specific adjustments to their flute embouchure and use of air that result in their flute playing becoming just as amazing as their sax playing.
Join Jane in the free mini-course to instantly fix your own flute embouchure in 3 simple steps. You’ll hear yourself get a clearer, stronger sound, and instantly be able to play longer phrases (by learning to use less air!)