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Flute/Flute tone, tuning, etc


Hi Holly!
This is my fourth year playing flute and I am currently in my high school's senior band. I got braces in grade 8 (I'm currently in gr10) so that might affect some of my playing. I don't take private lessons since I am in level 10 piano, I'm worried that if I have two instruments on the row, I might not have enough time to practice well on both (though I am planning to do a bit of flute after I'm finished piano.)
I've noticed I haven't really practiced in a while and now when I play again, my tone has gotten a lot more fuzzy. I think it might be because I've been playing so little, and then I had my braces adjusted, etc, that might have impacted my embouchure in some way? I've just decided to probably practice a bit more to see will that help my tone more, but also wanted to hear your opinion. Another thing is that honestly, my high register isn't "bad" (could be better if I practiced of course xD), and my low register also isn't "bad" (also could be better if I practiced more xD), but lately my middle register seems a lot more fuzzy. So it seems like the "easy" notes got harder. I find it especially hard to actually hit the note (G5 as an example again) after playing a passage in the higher register. One exercise/warm up we have in band is this chord study in triplets that are like triads in different inversions quickly one after another, but I find that after I play a D6 or something, I won't be able to hit the G5 quickly. I'll either play too high or if I really try to hit it low, I'll get the low G. Any tips? I also am a bit curious about vibrato, could you give a bit of an overview about it?
P.S sorry for the long questions! But one last quick question. I'm the section leader in my school's marching band, but I am from Vancouver, Canada, so the weather tends to get quite cold in the winter and wet. I know temperature can affect flute tuning, so in very cold winter weather, would this tend to make flutes sharper or flatter, and how should I adjust this? Thanks!!! (:

Hey Janice,

That's great that you play both the flute and piano!  If you're struggling to find time for both instruments, go for efficiency and quality of practice over the amount of time logged on each instrument.   The amount of time you spend on an instrument is important, since it gives you experience, but making sure that you get the most out of each practice session, no matter how short, with thoughtful, focused efficient practice, will make it manageable to be practicing both.  

For instance, trouble with technical passages is one of the things that we spend a lot of time on, so learning hard passages with a minimum of frustration is essential if you don't have a lot of time to spend on them in the first place.   This link on my website,, provides some tips for practicing tricky passages in an efficient manner, so hopefully this might be of use to you.  

Fuzzy tone:  Your tone will get fuzzy when you can't play for a while - the muscles around your mouth have to be so fine-tuned to make a good sound that when you can't practice for a while, they get out of shape and rusty.  Also, the braces will definitely affect your tone, too, until you get used to playing around them.   

For your middle register being fuzzier lately, have you checked the pads of your flute to make sure they're all sealing?  If a note or group of adjacent notes are suddenly fuzzy, a leaky pad is often the cuplrit.  

If it's not a leaky pad, then what I'd recommend for getting your tone back and getting used to the latest braces adjustment is long tones.  Just like you practice your technique to get the notes and fingerings, it's good to focus on tone, too.   Long tones let you concentrate on your sound without anything else getting in the way.   

To practice long tones, set aside a portion of each practice session to work on your tone.  Then, once you've picked what note range you're going to work on that day, take a deep breath and hold out one note as long as you can with as straight and clear a sound as you can.  Focus on getting the note to be clear, beautiful, and full.  When you run out of air, pause for a few seconds, and then take another breath and either work on the same note again, if it needs work, or go on to the next.  You may get dizzy at first, so if you do, take a break until the lightheadedness goes away.  (Once you get used to playing long tones, it won't happen anymore - your body just has to adjust to using air in this fashion.)  

As you play, focus on what's happening with each note and what you can do to make the sound clearer - try adjusting your embouchure and focusing the airstream to refine your tone.  It's different for each flutist based on their lip shape, so since I can't see you play, I can't tell you exactly how to make your sound less fuzzy, but with regular practice and experimentation, it will improve.  

Difficulty with hitting specific notes: I'd recommend some interval and harmonic practice.  What's going on is that your embouchure isn't exactly accustomed to how it has to be shaped for each of those notes, so that's why getting from D6 to a G5 is tricky.  Here's how to practice each exercise:

Interval practice:  The goal is to slur back and forth between notes that are far apart, and make the jump between them as smooth and connected as you can.  It can be tempting to just blow harder to get the higher notes out, but the goal is to figure out exactly how your embouchure has to change to adjust to each note.  One general rule of thumb is this: for lower notes, embouchures tend to take a flatter, "ee" position, and for higher notes, the lips come forward very slightly in an "oo" position.  So, think of the "ee" / "oo" positions when going back and forth between notes in different registers.   

For which notes to play, start with a relatively small interval, like notes that are five notes apart.  Slur back and forth until each interval is comfortable, then try the next interval up or down, depending on what notes you're playing.  When that's easy, increase the space between the two notes, and work until that's easy, too. Keep on increasing the distance between the notes you slur - the better you can slur between notes that are very far apart, the easier it's going to be when you're playing an actual piece.

Harmonics: A harmonic is defined as any of a series of musical tones whose frequencies are mathematically related to a base or fundamental tone.  This is a complicated way of explaining why you can play the same note in different registers on the flute with the same fingering.  There's a lot of math behind it that I won't get into, but suffice it to say that for every low note fingering, you can get a lot of other increasingly higher tones above the "actual" note.  For example, if you play a low C, the harmonic tones available are: middle C, middle G, high C, high E, high G, and, if you try really, really hard, high B flat.  All these notes can be played from that one fingering.  

Just like in the interval exercise, you're going to get these notes to speak from adjusting your embouchure, not from blowing harder.  You can play harmonic tones off of any of the notes in the lowest octave on the flute.  As you go higher, though, less harmonics will be available just due to the range of the flute, so that's why practicing harmonics in the middle or upper registers isn't really as useful.

I'd recommend starting on a low C, and slur up to the first harmonic (it should match the pitch of the C an octave above).  Practice slurring back and forth between these two notes - remember, it's not about forcing the air harder, but figuring out what has to change in your embouchure to switch from one note to the next (remember the "ee"/"oo" tip).  When this is comfy, try slurring from that first harmonic up to the next one (it should match the G that rests on the top line of the staff).  Get comfortable with these two notes, then go up again, and so on.  Once you've gotten all the harmonics to speak, try to link them all together from the lowest to highest.

It's all about working for tonal control via your embouchure.  If you can do this slurred, using harmonics and wide intervals, it's going to be much easier when you play actual music, where there may not be slurs or the intervals may not be as wide.  

Vibrato:  Vibrato is a method of making the tone "wiggle" slightly, and it uses the exact same muscles that you use when you whisper "ha ha ha."  It should sound very free, but in order to make it sound relaxed and natural, you have to practice it a lot and be able to perfectly control the speed and depth of your vibrato.

First, practice it away from the flute: get comfortable whispering "ha ha ha, etc." very evenly.

Then, use the metronome (there's a free online metronome at if you don't have one).   Set a very slow tempo at first, at around 80 or 90. Using a triplet grouping, do three "ha" pulses to each click.  I recommend doing 4 triplet groups in a row, then holding the note perfectly steady and even for another four counts.  Then relax, take a deep breath, and go to the next note.

As you play, work for absolute control and evenness.  Obviously, your finished product isn't going to be so robotic, but the more you can control it and make each pulsing sound exactly like the previous one, the more you'll be able to vary it the way you want to in the future.

As you get comfortable with this exercise, and once the vibrato pulses are perfectly regular and even, speed the metronome up little by little.  "Real" vibrato is generally around 116-120 on the metronome (3 pulses to a beat), but this varies according to the flutist's preference and the style of the piece you're playing, so there's no hard and fast rule about the exact speed you'll use.  Since you'll use a variety of speeds when you play music, this is why you need to gain absolute control over your vibrato as you learn it, so you have the flexibility vary it.  Deciding what speed to use and where will be up to you and what you judge to be musically appropriate.   

Once you have more control over the speed, you'll also want to think about the depth of the vibrato, too. Besides pulsing the air, vibrato also very slightly bends the pitch when the airstream is changed, although it's fast and subtle enough that we don't perceive it as a bad kind of pitch bending. To visualize this concept, try thinking of the note as a straight line and the vibrato as a wavy line which is juxtaposed on the straight line.  Using this imagery, you can have several different types of vibrato, such as:

- vibrato that spikes above the note line.  Since it pushes the pitch up , this kind of vibrato is good for low register notes, where we have a tendency to go flat.

- vibrato that dips below the note line.  This is good for high register stuff, to keep us from going sharp.  It makes a very rich, warm sound and is a type of vibrato that the famous flutist Julius Baker often used.

- vibrato that's centered evenly on the note line.  This is good when you need shallow, barely-there vibrato that's contained in the center of the note and doesn't disturb the overall sound too much... ideal for very soft playing.

All these different vibratos are made by slight variations in how you pulse your vibrato - the more control you have, the easier it is to do.  As you can see, there's a vibrato type for every occasion.  By thinking of both the speed and depth aspects, you should be able to learn a controllable vibrato that will beautify and vary your sound.

Next, there's the question of when to use vibrato. Your goal is to have vibrato that you can bring in and out of notes, so it's not like you have an "on" and "off" switch where you're either using a steady vibrato or no vibrato at all.  Vibrato on every note is too much, so choose when to use vibrato very carefully. Sometimes on long notes, you might try adding vibrato late, or starting with vibrato and taking it out... there's a whole world of possibilities to try, so try switching it up a lot, according to what sounds right for the kind of music you're playing.  Imitating what other musicians do on recordings is vital for absorbing how to best use vibrato.  It doesn't have to be just classical musicians you listen to: next time you're listening to a song on the radio, listen to how the singer uses vibrato.

Bottom line, just be sure that you can control whatever you do with your vibrato. If something happens involuntarily, the goal is to find a way to be able to control it, so you're making your vibrato the way you want it, not the way it just happens to come out.

The best way to learn is by imitation: it's the kind of thing you really just have to hear a lot of in order to absorb how vibrato should sound. Thee flutists I recommend in particular are Julius Baker, Jeanne Baxtresser, Alberto Almarza, Jeffrey Khaner, and Jean-Pierre Rampal.   A great, great resource for listening to these flutists & more is Youtube.   Julius Baker's recordings have the quintessential vibrato - he's considered the father of American flute playing, so I would recommend doing whatever you can to hear how he played, even if you just listen to what's on Youtube and the freebie clips of his CDs on, that'll help give you an idea of what you're aiming for.   

Weather and intonation:  You're correct, temperature can affect flute tuning.  In cold rooms or in cold weather, flutes tend to go flat.  A way to mitigate this effect is to cover the lip plate completely and blow down into the flute with warm air to make the flute less cold before you begin to play.  This makes no sound, since you're covering the whole lip plate and blowing down into the flute, rather than across it, and the flute should get warm within a few breaths.   Another method, but probably best suited for indoor practice, not marching band, is to hold the flute when you're not playing in such a manner that it's warmed by your arm, side, and lap. Body heat helps keep it from getting icy cold in chilly performance halls or practice venues, so this, combined with blowing some warm air into it before you start to play, should help.  If you're playing outside when it's cold, and you really can't keep the flute warm, you may need to push the headjoint in a little more than usual, so your flute is sharp enough to offset the cold.

I hope this helps!  It's great that you're so diligent about improving on the flute, so keep up the good work! :)



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I can answer questions about learning to play the flute, reading music, problems encountered when playing, flute repertoire, practicing tips, and performing, as well as information about classical composers and their works. Please note that I am no longer accepting any questions about what kind of flute to buy, upgrading, flute brands, reselling, what a flute is worth, etc. I have answered many of these questions in the past, so please either view my answers in the the previously asked questions section or visit my website, which has a page about buying flutes: Thanks!


I've played the flute since fourth grade, graduating with my master's degree in flute performance. I have taught at local music schools, given flute lessons for over ten years, have played in and soloed with several orchestras, chamber groups, and various other ensembles. For more information about me, visit my website at I love the flute, and I love helping people, so I welcome your questions!

Bachelor's and master's degrees in flute performance from Carnegie Mellon University.

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