Consistent, daily tone exercise is an important step in tone development and maintenance. This doesn’t have to mean hunching over a book and wearing yourself out with tedious exercises, though! Find a consistent routine that you enjoy – you may find that once you’re doing it every day, the progress you notice is its own reward, and that exercises you formerly found tedious are a joyful sort of meditation. For some this concept of joyful meditation may seem like – and ultimately BE – a bizarre concept that won’t apply to you. SO – while it’s important to do some sort of consistent work, do choose a strategy that you personally find inherently rewarding.
At the most basic level, just start with playing the note B natural (I like the one in the middle of the staff for starters). This note tends to be more easily responsive than other notes – there’s a shorter length for the air column to vibrate, it’s in the relatively low range (which is the foundation of tone quality overall – maybe I’ll explain more about that concept later!) – above the generally more difficult lowest range and below that awkward and transitional middle range. If for some reason, there are other notes that are easier for you in particular to produce and sound closer to the way you’d like, in general you can feel free to start with that note. Just do it consistently from day to day and also come back to the B for regular comparison.
Play some Bs (or other note of choice) short, play some long, play some in between, and always (for the beginning) play it LOUD!!! Trying to be soft (piano) before you’ve developed a consistent and solid forte (loud) sound is generally a very bad idea – so stay loud until you and your teacher are satisfied with your forte. DON’T be overly concerned about cracking the sound at first. Go for it with power, volume, and energy. I can’t emphasize this enough. Flutists who start by playing softly before they’ve developed the solid loud sound will have tremendous difficulty developing a full and focused sound in general. Once you’ve developed a solid and consistent forte tone, the transition to a pure, focused and controlled piano, and a full palate of tone colors, shapes, and dynamic range, is relatively easy. But going the other direction basically requires starting from scratch at any level of technical skill – SO BE LOUD FOR NOW!!!!!! And no worries about the cracking just yet – it’s relatively easy to back off from that, not so easy to add to it.
Beyond the initial B, the world is your oyster. A beginner may choose to play Hot Cross Buns as a daily tone exercise. I think this is an awesome tone exercise for many reasons that I won’t bother you with right now. At any level, you may wish to choose a favorite tune to play each day as your tone exercise. And it’s ok to switch tunes after a couple of weeks or so. Just make sure to 1) Listen, 2) Check your posture and positioning, 3) Line up your embouchure hole with your air stream, 4) use your diaphragm and also apply other concepts I’ll be writing about soon regarding embouchure, particular challenges of low, high and middle register, dynamic variation, and a general trouble shooting list.
Additional exercises I particularly like are the Suzuki “Tonalizations” – they really cover a lot of ground – as well as Trevor Wye’s “Practice Book for the Flute: Book 1, Tone.” I’m currently using Taffanel & Gaubert’s “17 Grands Exercices Journaliers de Mechanisme” for my own tone work – and much more.
Whatever material you’re using, the main idea is to listen for the tone you’re hoping for – really fine tune your listening – and stop to work on anything that’s not working as well as it could be. For example: I’m currently working on Devienne’s “Duo 1 for Flute and Viola” and am finding it very difficult to maintain a consistent tone slurring from second octave E flat to second octave A flat – so that measure has become part of my daily tone work. Last week I was having difficulty with my 2 octave slurred chromatic scale when starting with E flat – the transition from the top E flat to the D at the speed that I was going was tending to “fuzz out” – it was a split second of fuzzing, that went by quickly and might not have been noticed in a performance – but this is the fine tuning that counts big in developing your overall control and consistency. If you bypass these steps, it will show up in performance on some level.
If you’re at the stage of just improving your B and Hot Cross Buns from day to day, then you may not need to worry about the fine tuning stage for a while – and that’s fine! You’re at the most important stage of tone development – so listen, compare with other flutists, and see if each day’s B can be purer, fuller, warmer, rounder, more vibrant than the day before. Don’t be overly hard on yourself – this is a process that involves occasional steps backward and numerous plateaus before the step forward. But with consistent and daily tone exercises, applying all of the above – especially fine tuned listening – have faith that you’ll get through the plateau and gradually on to the tone you crave!
Next entry will cover: challenges of the low range