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Flute/Airy sound and loud tonguing (Need Help ASAP!)

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Question
Hello Holly!
I am a beginner in flute. I used to play in middle school band and was quiet good but I had stopped playing for about three years and just recently started up again. I'm going to be playing the Star Spangled Banner at a beauty pageant for my talent and I really need your help!
Whenever I play there is a slight airy sound. My tonguing sounds really loud too. My notes sound staccato when they are supposed to flow. How can I improve this?
Thank you so much!!

Answer
Hey Anuka,

Good luck in your pageant! :)  It's natural to find that you have an airy tone after you've been away from the flute for a while.  The muscles in your mouth have just gotten a little rusty in term of the precision and finesse needed to create a good sound.  Your sound will come back with practice - how quickly varies from person to person, but I'll give you some tips which will help you work on your tone efficiently.

AIRY TONE IMPROVEMENT

Long Tones:  The best way to work on your tone is by practicing long tones.  Just like you practice hard technical passages by themselves to teach your fingers their patterns, tone also has to be worked on separately, and is best done without any distractions from playing lots of notes.  When you play long tones, make sure you take a deep breath (to maximize how long you can hold the note), and don't use any vibrato in your sound.  The goal here is to work on pure, clean, straight sounds without any distractions.  

Play one note per breath, and take your time in between notes if you start to get dizzy.  As you play, focus on the sound you're making.  Try experimenting with your embouchure to make it clearer.  If it helps, try playing each note note a few times - often, your tone will settle in as you work on the note, and the tone will improve as you instinctively adjust it.

How long you spend at each practice session on long notes is up to you - 5-10 minutes should be sufficient, though.  How many notes on the flute you get to per session doesn't matter - just pick up where you left off the next time you practice.  Make sure that you work on long tones every time you practice, because only with regular practice will your tone improve.  

Creating your embouchure:  Since it's been a few years since you regularly played, think about your lip position (embouchure) and see if tweaking it slightly improves the sound.  For most people, the aperture between your lips will be more of a slit than a round opening.  Other instruments like the oboe or trumpet channel the air via very small reeds or mouthpieces, but on the flute, our lips form the sound, and it's usually a very narrow, fine opening.   The exact shape and size depends partly on the shape and size of our lips - for each person, it's going to be a little different, so you'll have to experiment to see what shape sounds best for you.  Try looking into a mirror to see what your embouchure looks like, and see what happens to the tone when you make it narrower, wider, smaller, etc.  

Also check how you are positioning the flute on your chin, because this can affect the sound, too. Try positioning the flute so the edge of the hole on the lip plate lines up approximately with the edge of your lower lip (where the color starts).   This means that a little bit of the hole in the lip plate will be covered by your lip - that's okay, as long as it's not more than about 1/3.  If the hole gets covered too much, the sound will be muffled and flat.  If not enough is covered, the sound will be harsh and sharp.  

Focusing the airstream: Your airstream should be very, very focused and compact.  The more scattered and diffuse your air is channeled, the fuzzier your sound will be. Blow across the embouchure hole so a little air goes down into the hole and the rest splits across - this is what creates the sound.  Your embouchure should be firm, but not pinched or strained. It's similar to the way we blow across a bottle or on a hot spoonful of soup, but there needs to be more control and firmness in the lips to enable the airstream to have the compact solidity it needs for a clear sound.

Flute condition: Also, I'd recommend checking that the flute's keys seal tightly, especially since it's been a few years since your flute was regularly played.  If you notice that only a few notes are fuzzy, or are a lot fuzzier than the others, then one or more of the flute's pads may not be sealing properly.  If this is the case, your flute may need a quick checkup at your local music store / repair shop.

TONGUING

Something that may help your tonguing sound less harsh and disconnected is to change the syllables you use to tongue.  For firm, spiky, staccato passages, I recommend using the "ta" syllable of attack (and "ka" as the off-syllable, if you doubletongue, although you wouldn't need to in the Star Spangled Banner).  But for something that's smoother and more flowing, I'd recommend using the gentler "da" attack (pair it with "ga" if you doubletongue).  It's good to be able to use a variety of tonguing attacks to match whatever style of music you play.

When you tongue, make sure that whatever syllable you use to start the note, that you're using your tongue just like you would if you were to speak the syllable without the flute.  This keeps your attacks natural sounding and they don't interfere with the air flow as you play.  

Tonguing is also necessary to be practiced by itself.  To work on smooth tonguing, try tonguing repeatedly on the same note, so you can make it as connected and flowing as possible.  Keep the airstream going smoothly, and if your tonguing is still too staccato and loud, try using just the tip of the tongue to make it lighter.  Your tongue should be skimming the airstream, not blocking it.  

Practice tonguing slowly at first, so you can refine it to be as smooth as you want before you start working for speed. The problem with practicing tonguing is that your tongue will get tired pretty quickly - once it tires, don't force yourself to keep going, as it's just not going to be effective.   If you feel you need more time, practice something else for a while and come back to it later when you're refreshed.  

One final note, about playing the flute & wearing makeup - I'm not sure if you know about this already, but I just wanted to mention that there's a common phenomenon where flutists' chins get a dark smudge on them after playing for a while, usually when wearing makeup. It's just something to do with how the skin reacts to the metal, and it washes right off, but since you'll be in a pageant, you may want to experiment ahead of time to see whether this will be a factor for you.   If it is, the easiest solution is to put something on the lip plate which will help prevent your skin from coming into contact with the metal - it can be a stamp, a small bit of surgical tape, etc.  I use surgical tape (available in drug stores) myself, as it gives the mouthpiece a bit of grip and prevents slippage if one's chin gets sweaty.  So, that's just something to think about as you prepare for your talent portion. :)

I hope this helps!  If you have any other questions as you prepare for your solo, feel free to write back. :)  

~Holly~

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Holly

Expertise

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: silentgalaxy.com/buyingflutes.html. Thanks!

Experience

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 silentgalaxy.com. I love the flute, and I love helping people, so I welcome your questions!

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

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