SCARED OF HEIGHTS?
The high register ... are you in control?
Many notes on the flute have the same or almost the same fingering in different registers. What do you do differently in order to get e.g. a third register C instead of a second register C? And why is it easier to get the second register C?
How do you make a diminuendo on a high note without the intonation sinking or even that it falls down?
How DO you play soft in the high register?
an explosive amount of air will guaranteed send you up into the sky, maybe even further up than you intended.
I'm going to be ballsy and claim that most of those who read this don't know the answer to these questions even though they have played the flute for many, many years. To many it's a huge mystery how someone can play suuuuuuuper soft in the high register and make a perfect diminuendo on a high note. Or play problem notes like F# and G# softer than f. Or control the sound on the piccolo. I'm also gonna dare to say that the majority of those reading this turn the flute in too much in the high register. One thing I'm 100% certain of, is that the non-flautists who's found their way in here have absolutely no clue at all. So if you're a concert band conductor or instructor and work with flutes, there's a lot to learn if you continue reading.
In this blog post we're going to demystify the high reg on the flute. Additionally, I'm going to present you with a couple of exercises that you can use to improve your high reg skills and develop an even more beautiful sound throughout the entire range.
Let's get down to bis: What do we do differently when we play high notes compared to when we play low notes and why are the low notes easier to manage?
sounding as pathetic as a 13 year old boy in the middle of voice change
Many will say "Oh, it's just the airspeed" and they're certainly on to something. But "airspeed" alone is not going to take you there. You'll definitely hit a high note if you quickly send a lot of air into the blowing hole; an explosive amount of air will guaranteed send you up into the sky, likely even further up than you intended. Buuuut will it be beautiful?! 🤷🏻♂️ Nope, this way you'll get a hollow, rough sound. You won't be able to play softer than f without falling down an octave at the end of the note, sounding as pathetic as a 13 year old boy in the middle of voice change (No offence 13 year old boys! We've all been there ... 😅).
The problem occurs when you speed up the air without involving the embouchure. An untrained embouchure is a sloppy embouchure and that's also part of the problem. The low notes are easier simply because they demand a lot less finesse of the muscles.
You see, the high register demands that the aperture (= the wind tunnel between your lips) is way narrower than in the low reg. You're dependent of an extremely (!) centered, supported airstream to play soft up there and the ability to controlled vary the size of your aperture is key to getting a beautiful, flexible sound. To achieve this you have to train your embouchure muscles. If you're going to get REALLY good at this you need to practice targeted, smart, evenly and be fit!
This is just as much technique as moving your fingers is technique and it takes time to develop it. It might not be necessary to say that expecting excellence from someone who's never got the proper training is asking too much? Well, I'm gonna say it anyways, and this goes out to the BDs out there: expecting excellence from someone who's never got the proper training is asking too much!! The flute is NOT a clarinet; it's difficult to play softly in the high register on the flute!
There's a lot of talk about technique, but the embouchure technique is often neglected
The good news for those of you who find this bloody hard is that it doesn't mean you are stupid. It's just that there's not too many explanations given in the pedagogic flute literature. The books you used in music school was merely collections of melodies paired with a chart of the standard fingerings, right?! And even when you advanced, the method books (read; étude books) you used well into your music studies were quite exclusively focused around how to move your fingers. There's a lot of talk about technique, but the embouchure technique is neglected. Personally, I've asked teachers about it in the past, and gotten the answer "you just have to practice it more". And what kind of explanation is that? 🤷🏻♂️
He calls it "the garden hose principal" and asks you to picture a garden hose where the water is flowing with quite mild pressure.
There ARE some exceptions in the literature and one of them is a fabulous textbook written by professor at Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, Philippe Bernold. It's called La Technique d'Embouchure, Technique of the Embouchure in English. The book contains over 200 targeted exercises and I nothing but recommend owning a copy of your own.
Monsieur Bernold writes about how to achieve playing the high notes without simply playing louder (and "thereby producing a forced and unattractive sound" (Bernold, p. 34)). He then paints a picture I find very describing. He calls it "the garden hose principal" and asks you to picture a garden hose where the water is flowing with a quite mild pressure. Imagine what happens if you reduce the size of the opening of the hose (e.g. by using your tumb)? Right! The pressure will naturally increase (look that the illustration bellow). The same goes for the air that we send through the aperture as well; if you make the aperture smaller/more narrow, logically the pressure will increase.
Okey, got it? Now you're good to go, right?
Nnnnno, it's not that simple. To quote notre bon ami, monsieur professeur Bernold: "I cannot insist enough on the patience required (...) to achieve a good result in this area: it is the (...) muscles surrounding the mouth which lead to success. These muscles take a certain time to develop." (Bernold, p. 55)
Sooooo, my dear flute friend. I hope you now choose to get motivated and not discouraged from all of this. Especially since I'm now about to introduce you to two harmonics-exercises you'll use to strengthen your embouchure so that you'll eventually overcome your fear of heights.
The first exercise is one of Professor of flute at the University of Tromsø, Lars Asbjørnsen's cheval bâtons when it comes to teaching sound production. He whipped me with this every week for more than a year, and it went from feeling like a necessary evil to becoming a dear part of my daily practice. There's a Eirik before and after this exercise and I really prefer the latter.
How to do it: As always, breathe in well. Play a first reg. C in p. Keep the fingering for C1 as you ascend step by step up to third register E3, exclusively by making your aperture (=the wind tunnel that you make between your lips) narrower/thinner/smaller. The best way to do so is by moving your upper lip downwards at the same time as your lower lip moves forward. Then, you do the first reg C# to third reg F the same way, and so on. Keep a good posture, good support behind the tone a make sure you don't turn the flute in (I've said it before and I'll say it again: the feeling of control one gets from turning in is a counterproductive illusion!). The goal is to get from one noe to the next without getting stronger dynamic-wise, with gorgeous, tight transitions so that you almost can still hear the previous note as the next one comes.
If the corners of your mouth start shaking when you do this it just means you're using muscles you haven't used before. It's NOT dangerous, but don't overdo it; let's say you shall use maximum 10 minutes à day at this. Most importantly is that you give it a shot every day, not that you're able to do it perfectly on your first attempt. Personally, I spent several months managing to do this relatively well and there's still some days when I do it better than others. From experience I can tell you that you'll notice a big difference on your sound and control of the sound in the high register long before you can play this exercise perfectly, and that is the overall goal after all.
I often improvise sequences which are useful for the placement of the notes in the high register. The next exercise I want to introduce you for I've made for myself, and now YOU get it from me. I'm giving it to you free of charge, but the deal is that if you teach it to someone else you must tell 'em where you got it from, all right? :-)
For some weird reason it feels simpler playing the lower sequences after already having played up in the stratosphere. ;-)
How to do it: As always, breathe in well. Play the second octave E with a comfortable mf and slide up to harmonic second octave B using "the garden hose principal" (cf. Bernold). Go on to the original fingering for B legato while keeping the embouchure placement and the necessary support. Challenge yourself to follow the dynamics I've written. Continue as high as you're able to. (NB! When you play harmonic F on the Bb fingering it's best to use short Bb/thumb on the Bb key). The result is that you play the high notes without turning in, thus with much better intonation and a lovelier sound than before.
A very good tip is that when you've done this exercise all the way to the top, you do it again starting from the top and the other way around. For some weird reason it feels simpler playing the lower sequences after already having played up in the stratosphere. ;-)
Dude! I'm challenging you to do this everyday for 3 weeks to see what it does to your sound! I guarantee you that you'll cash in!
If you lack practice motivation in these times of Corona, what is more motivating than discovering that you've become better and stronger?! I BET that if you do these exercises for two-three weeks you'll continue doing them long after that too! 😉😚
NB! My exercise is also SUPER for building piccolo chops! (Remember to use ear plugs when you go higher than third register E on the piccolo, so that you don't develop tinnitus!)
Lot's of good luck, have fun and please let me know what your results were after trying this for some weeks! 💞