First things first! All too often, I have parents or students ask, “Why do I need private lessons? I can just learn at school in band and be fine.” Or, “Lessons cost too much. I’m not sure if my son/daughter is that invested in the instrument right now.” While I can’t tell anyone what to do, necessarily, I am prepared to argue my case for taking private lessons at any stage of musical training, especially from the very beginning. Even for students just starting out on the flute, lessons are critical and extremely beneficial. Private instruction ensures that good habits are in place, and speaking from personal experience, it takes a lot of work to undo bad habits.
Here are some great resources for parents of music students:
Okay, I’m getting off the soapbox now. As a teacher, I find the three most important areas to be addressed for any level of flutist are breathing, tone, and hand/body position. These concepts are the most critical because they are the building blocks of great ‘flutistry.’ Only when these three things are in place can we even begin to talk about the foundations of music, including pitch and rhythm (which, no doubt, are the most important parts of music). Below, I have briefly outlined the three building blocks of flute playing that I emphasize for beginners. And just because I say beginners does not mean that these skills cannot be revisited by any great flutist!
Breathing is important because playing the flute requires so much air. However, there are good ways to breathe for flute playing as well as some not so good ways. Using air efficiently is key as a wind player, so it is crucial to inhale on an open vowel (think ‘oh’), fill up the lungs from bottom to top, and control the exhalation for maximum efficiency. Young flutists who are not used to this kind of breathing need to be careful and not overdo it since this is much more intense than average, everyday breathing. It is very easy to get carried away, and we don’t want anyone hyperventilating! Therefore, at the beginning, young flutists should only practice in small chunks for 20 minutes or so per day in order to prevent themselves from passing out while also building up lung capacity.
Alright, here it is. Tone. Let me get on my soapbox here because tone is the number one most important part of flute playing. Again, TONE IS THE #1 MOST IMPORTANT PART OF FLUTE PLAYING. Got it? Good.
So how do you create that gorgeous, healthy, vibrant flute sound? Start simple. I have all my students start with just the headjoint of the flute (that’s right – don’t even touch those other parts). Using the headjoint allows for fewer mental and physical distractions, including fingerings, hand position, and an overwhelming amount of information. It is extremely useful to use the headjoint to find the best lip/chin placement, the sweet spot, the optimal lip plate coverage, aperture size, air direction/angle, and overall core quality of sound. In addition, the headjoint can make some pretty funny noises (think slide whistles, trombone clichés, and sirens).
Hand Position/Body Position:
Once a great sound has been achieved consistently, it is time to put together the whole flute and examine the different body dynamics involved. Playing while sitting in band is very different than playing while standing (which is the most common way to practice). The way a flutist sits or stands is directly connected to the ability to breathe well. Always bring the flute to your face and not your face to the flute. This way you aren’t craning your neck forward and causing unnecessary tension as well as keeping good spinal alignment from top to bottom. A complete body scan will assist in this as well. Think 12:00 and 2:00 for those feet, hips loose and aligned, tailbone tucked, knees slightly bent – it’s a power stance!
In terms of hand position, it’s important to note wrist angles, thumb position, and the height of your fingers from the keys. The goal with all of these things is to avoid tension whenever possible. I know too many colleagues who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis because of their hand position and practice habits. So in order to avoid any sort of pain or tension, wrists should be nice and straight, the thumbs should also be straight, and fingers should never travel far from the keys (when they’re not being used, they should be resting on top of the key, NOT sticking up in the air). Healthy flute playing comes from healthy body alignment and awareness.
These three big areas are the foundation of great flute playing. When you have a good basis in breathing, tone, and body position, other aspects of flute technique can be learned in a healthy, successful manner. We could all use a refresher course every once and a while, so let’s get to work!