The most important and fundamental of playing any wind instrument. Not everybodys lips or embouchure we make with the lips are the same so you must take from this what may be appropriate for the individual and apply this to your own playing. With so many variables such as mouth cavity, position of the teeth, lip sizes and thickness there is no absolute definitive rule, however I have successfully managed to get my serious students over the years to aquire a beautiful singing sound and believe it is possible nomatter what their physical makeup entails.
Firstly, lets approach the lips and lips only. One must firstly imagine the bottom lip as the basis for the tone. Having a good solid spread of this lip across the lip plate will give the player a good stable position for creating a solid tone. You must find a way to stretch this bottom lip whether thinking of eating a bitter lemon or creating a smile or saying echhhuuuu thinking about your worst food imaginable. If thinking the smile, one has to be careful that the lips do NOT turn upwards too much at the corners. If the lips are turned upward at their corner it takes the entirety of the bottom lip away from the flute which will not maximise flexibility in the future. The bottom lip must be firmly planted against the chin and I cannot urge enough how firmly. I have yet to meet a flute player who has a nice tone who uses the loose approach. Perhaps practice the smille then concentrate on turning the corners or edges slightly downwards. Again we need to be careful that they are not overly exaggerated and turned downward because that will ultimately give a flatness to the core of the sound in terms of colour in the tone. Slightly angled downward at the corners is all one needs. You can practice against your finger to start with.
Once you have mastered this then it is imperative to push the lipplate beneath the lip (indent of chin) and then slightly upward into the edge of the bottom lip. This pressure against the lip plate is just as important for a good tone than the shape of the lips. I again acnnot reitterate this enough. The pressure holds the bottom lip flat and keeps it stable, and this stability will be most appreciated when one gets onto playing some of the quicker passages.
On mastery of this it is time to apply the top lip. I like to think of the bottom lip creating the fundamental of the tone whilst the top lip is the one responsible for refinement of the sound as it will be easily movable. This top lip should sit arched slightly downwards over the bottom lip and the corners again meeting the bottom lip in an ever so slightly downward position. We now have the basic embouchure or lip position.
Now for the aperture or hole between the top and bottom lip that the air must depart from. Lets take a middle B or third octave B if we assume the low B and call that B1 with a flute that has a B footjoint. On my studies with different students and professionals alike the size of this aperture should be about 3 millimetres in diamater and be perfectly round in shape. The tricky bit is controlling the top lip to make this hole but it becomes easier with the air pressure as one blows as the lip has some resistance against the air to make the shape with.
Lets take Moyse de la sonority which in my opinion is the only book one needs in their library for tone alone. Don’t go any further than the first bar for a week or so to get this new setup into your subconscious and muscle/lip memory. You must practice ever so slightly manipulating this top lip forward so you can just about feel the air rushing past the inside of it. This also helps to angle the airstream downward into the flute rather than accross. Try not to overdo this but more so in your mind. You will immediately know when it is overdone as the tone will have no focus and sound somewhat ‘airy’.
How much air?
Let me firsty dispell any confusion one hears about the diaphragm. I say confusion because in my experience I had many teachers rave about it and I never quite understood why. Although I didn’t say to them at the time, I strongly disagreed with many of their principals. In reality the diaphragm is only a band of tissue that moves naturally when we breathe anyway. We have it to seperate the lungs from the intestines. When we breathe inwardly it moves downwards as the lungs expand so please once and for all dispell this notion that this tissue can actually help us play better! Perhaps the intercostal muscles can which we will dwell on later but I assure you after much consultation with great singers and medical doctors, I am convinced that we firstly cannot feel the diaphragm nor control it voluntarily apart from when we breathe and the aforementioned hapoens. Actually, breathing correctly from the word go is the important aspect here and the best way I find to do this to realise what happens is to lie flat prostrate on the ground on my back. Place some books on your stomach and breathe in. If the books rise and your stomach inflates outward like a balloon you are breathing correctly, if not then you are probably sucking the air in and lifing the ribs upwards in the process. The only type of breathing that will maximise your potential to playing the flute is the former. Practice this untill it is perfectly natural and its actually a good idea to do this every day to aide relaxation anyway.
The way we breathe is so important because it has a direct effect on our posture and also the tension we dont want to create in our shoulders. The whole movement should be free and relaxed and shoulders should be kept downward when we do this standing upright. Now, with everything we have to find a balance or happy medium. If we only breathe low and dont top up the air in the chest the sound will be somewhat dull and too free if our only resistance will be our free falling stomach on exhalationn of the breath. Some may want thay sound and at times it may be needed but in order to create a beautiful bel canto singing tone with intensity there are some other factors that must come into the fray including the intercostal muscles mentioned. I will explain this in more depth in the chapter on Intercostal muscles. Firstly and before going further one must have mastered the former. On mastery, we need to talk about singing which is a vital part of flute playing. Not just the concept of singing but actual physical singing in the bathtub or if brave enough in public. So often is heard about listening to the great singers and learning how they do it. The best have a beautiful purity, resonance and projection that is so more than just breathing low and filling their lungs. I was always somewhat of an amateur singer but took it more seriously when I realised that this really was the fundamental of my playing without knowing it at the time and only after study and perservenance can I honestly say my flute playing took on another dimension and with many more possibilities.
The good singers that have truly taken the time to think about what they do and understand why they sing so well are rare gems and the seeking out of their knowledge have been absolutely paramount in my understanding of formerly many unknowns. Lets forget for the moment about breathing on assumption that everything in that department has been learned and practiced to the point that its natural. Where does their tone and resonance really come from? We need to take a look at several more places, the inside of the mouth and throat and also the chest. The mouth and the placing of the voice is perhaps the most important. The air that is exhaled must go to or reach certain places inside the mouth cavity in order for them to create the exact colour or sound they want. For example lets take a basic singing warm up exercise. Try singing with four beats to each notes on a single tone that is comfortable for your voice. Meeeeeeeeee Maaaaaaaaaaa Mooooooooooo Imagine you are a famous tenor and really sing these notes in your best soloistic and singing voice possible with your hand placed on your upper chest just below the larynx. Observe how you feel the resonance changing as each note or tone is employed. Also take a mental note what is happening inside your mouth and the shapes the mouth will naturally take on to attempt to sing each of these tones. From this very exercise, we have a new approach to playing the flute that has not really been talked about in any flute study books. To create beautiful tones on the flute we must use exactly the same principals and although we have to keep the lips shut whilst using the correct aperature to place the air stream in the chimney or riser of the headjoint while a singer will open the mouth,we must learn and employ these invaluable principals with the shaping of the inside of the mouth. Lets now take our B3 and play the note as if we are that operatic tenor whilst thinking Meeeeeeeeee Maaaaaaaa Moooooooo. Perhaps Eeeeeeeeeee. Aaaaaaaaahhhh Euuuuuuuuuuuu We now have the basis to colour changing and placing of the notes. I had one very good teacher who always used to make me say and think a long ‘tuuuu’ but this only the tip of the iceberg and the colours that can be explored. It is merely the start and eventually we will go on to employ this principal throughout the entire registers of the flute aiming to create different colours and matching them from semitone to semitine. This now takes us back to Moyse’s de la sonorite where we start on B3. I have always found that the first exercise is the most important and it should be approached exactly with this singing tone in concept and in reality. I have heard unfortunately too many players talk about how they spend 30 minutes to an hour on sound every single day but yet in reality they still dont sound fantastic. Why is this? How can it be if they spend this amount of time on practice? I will tell you the answer. Before we start any type of practice we must have in our mind a clear goal and our ideal. Practice should not be spent mindlessly for three hours infront of the mirror in your studio, aimlessly wandering around all these different asoects of technique and the greater art of playung. You must simply know what you are trying to achieve. If you dont know, it perhaps would be more beneficial for the time being spending more time listeninng to your heros and picking out the bits you like from each one.
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