I HATE Bb major scale warm ups!


Yes, I said it! I HATE taking part myself and I HATE watching young and old concert band flautists expose themselves to "Bb major scale, four beats on each note" as the first thing they play during a given day. It's probably wonderful for brass players, saxophonists and clarinetists (correct me if I'm wrong!) but I think it's an awful, terribly deficient warm up for flautists. And I'm going to tell you why. And I'm going to suggest a solution for you who face the Bb major nightmare week after week, year after year, in your dear concert band.

Think about it! The sound production on the flute differs from every other instrument; the other winds in a band have resistance whereas we have to create our own resistance on the flute. It does perhaps already now strike you as rather obvious that us flautists have other needs than the rest of the winds when it comes to warming up?

I promise you that flute teachers everywhere are pulling their hair in frustration

The flute is by nature a sometimes impractical instrument in concert band, especially because of big dynamic limitations compared to the other instruments. As a flautist, you simply can't compete against e.g. a clarinet or a euphonium or a trumpet or a saxophone when it comes to volume. Forget it. No matter how hard you try you'll drown.

People who arrange music for concert bands often consider this when they write flute parts and have the flutes play in registers where they'll be heard. Suddenly we then have a different set of problems, especially on beginner level: the youngest flute players can't keep up with their peers on different instruments because the notes they're handed are above the register they're ready for. They simply get way too difficult notes too early on in the process! I promise you that flute teachers everywhere are pulling their hair in frustration when their young and hopeful students show up with sheet music that goes way above the register the respective teacher intended to teach 'em for a long while still. As a result there's a lot of weird and irreparable embouchures occurring and the problems are piling up on top of each other. I could definitely write a lot about that, but hey! Before I loose track, let's get back to the warm up issue:

You know the drill. You show up to your weekly band rehearsal and "warm up" with the standard Bb major scale. It begins with two very open notes on the instrument (Bb and C) and you hardly hear yourself at all because of the saxophones behind you. Or the trumpets (equally challenging).

a small step for a man, a giant leap for a flute player

The next thing which happens already, is one of the most challenging things regarding flute sound and beginners' finger technique: the very terrifying register change from first to second octave. During the transition from C to D (a small step for a man, a giant leap for a flute player), half the smallest kids have turned in the lip plate way too much and their right hand thumbs are now too far under their flutes. We're also, without exaggeration, talking about tensed fingers as they have to let go of important contact points, thus lose balance of their instruments and clench very hard in order not to drop their flute. Those who were too sharp on the C (most of 'em!) are now sky high on the D. And many of the kids' postures are so lousy now that their chins are almost resting on their little chests (and a big portion of the adults aren't much better. So I have observed ...).

THAT is a lot of problems after just three notes!! From now on it continues being problematic up to second octave Bb: despite being way too sharp on the D, most are too flat from G and up. Many are using air volume as a mean to get up there (and afterwards everyone's still wondering why it's so difficult to play softer than mf on high notes ... Ouch!!).

For experienced, adult amateurs who's got better control and play more advanced repertoire, spending 10-20 minutes on blasting out long tones from first to second octave Bb (in competition with other instruments and rivaling flautists) is deficient at best if the goal is to be ready for what comes when rehearsing pieces. The blasting style of blowing one set as standard during the Bb major escapade (I see this ALL. THE. TIME.), is in no way advantageous should one have to perform some gracious third register things in one of the lovely pieces of music one's rehearsing after the warm up (not totally unlikely when playing something of a relatively high level, amirite?!). NB! Neither does it help you master the necessary embouchure technique  you need to be able to intonate successfully.

As a warm up, the Bb major scale is of no real value to flautists. And that's why my suggestion, dear flute  playing friend, is that you warm up at home by yourself before the band rehearsal. 

And guess who's made a very efficient, easy-to-do warm up program for you, which only takes 15 minutes and comes with a promise of a lot better control of your sound? 

You'll want the wind channel you make between your lips to be thin as a knitting needle

Most flautists play a B or a G in the first octave as their first note of the day. These are very grateful notes which demand little to no effort in order to sound great immediately. Buuuuuuuut, as what we're actually warming up is muscles, why not go directly to something that will activate those muscles properly? Let's up your game, set a high standard and have your very first note of the day be a long E in the third octave. Wooohooo! You're gonna tell your embouchure muscles "Hey, wake up my dear friends! Come join me for some yoga! It will be fun!".

You'll want the wind channel you make between your lips to be thin as a knitting needle, and thus you pout your lips ever so slightly at same time as you prepare them to say the letter P. I call this the P-position. Keep your embouchure in P-position , take a huge and relaxed breath (don't gasp!) and start the note in mp without any articulation. Play completely non vibrato and hold it as long as you can, as soft as you can. End it while it's still relatively beautiful and taper it if you're able to. 

Repeat many times for five minutes while you close your eyes and imagine you're in a yoga lesson. After a while you start including third register Fs and Gs. When you're starting to feel brave: include A as well. Keep your lips in constant P-position from before you start a note 'til after you stop it. Take care of not turning in the flute too much in the high register; the feeling of turning in = increased control is an illusion (!!).

After five minutes of this, you've already made a considerable effort! You can maybe feel it a bit in the corners of your mouth now? Wonderful! Then you know you've used your muscles! You'd feel it in your gut after doing situps too, right? And just like after a yoga exercise you should now take a few minutes pause before continuing to the next chore.

The next 5 minutes we'll spend on harmonics. Start by playing a mf third register E. While you maintain the E you add the remaining fingers for a first register C. Notice that even though the sound is changing, you're still playing an E. Voilà, you're now successfully playing an harmonic. You might have to increase the air pressure a bit to hold the note up there now and that's completely normal. You can also "overblow" a low C and go via the notes C2, G2 and C3 to get to the E harmonic on the fingering for C1. 

If this is new to you I can guarantee that you'll get a control you never had before by doing this

Are you able to keep your lips in P-position and hit the E harmonic directly? If you can, that's awesome! Play harmonic third register E on the C1 fingering as a long tone, exactly like you did with the initial long tones (Without vibrato, pretty please!). Then you finger first octave C# and do the same thing on harmonic third register F, finger first octave D and play harmonic third register F#, and so on. See how high you can get.

First four harmonics from C, C# and D
First four harmonics from C, C# and D

Can you do the first octave F fingering and play harmonic third register A while staying in a mp-mf dynamic it's impressive. And if you can't right now you'll be able to eventually if you make a habit of doing this everyday.

Now you've done a wonderful effort and deserve to pat yourself on the back. My suggestion is that you play Moyse's La Sonorité exercise chromatically downwards to round off the warm up. Play with an open mf to f sound. Keep your chin up, don't roll in and let the flute decide the limit for how loud it can get at this time.

You're now thoroughly warmed up and it's about time for a well deserved break of minimum 15 minutes. It's going to be lovely to play after this, just wait and see! 

This warm up routine is a GREAT sound exercise and if you find time to do this once a day you'll never fall out of shape. If this is new to you I can guarantee that you'll get a control you never had before by doing this, so I warmly recommend it if you're after improving your flute skills.

Warm up by yourself so you don't have to cry over Bb major scales
Warm up by yourself so you don't have to cry over Bb major scales

"Buuut ...!" you say now. "I still have to play that damn Bb major scale when I arrive at the band rehearsal?!. And yes, it would possibly be a tad asocial to refuse participating, so I think you ought to! It's just that now the Bb major scale isn't your warm up anymore. Now that you're already warmed up (and perhaps also the rest of your flute section as you've showed 'em this blog post?), you can spend the scale time for completely other purposes like e.g. working on a homogeneous group sound and good body posture.

You're welcome! ;-)

#tukutu #flute