Dr. Christina Guenther

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Tone - It's a Matter of Support

by Dr. Christina Guenther
SFA Associate Professor of Music

SFA School of Music
[email protected]


One of my favorite questions to ask of flutists is, “What is the most important factor in playing the flute?” While there may be many good answers, there is only one right answer to this question: AIR. Without air, you have nothing, no matter how good your technique, your musical sense, or style. With air, then, comes the issue of tone. There are many thoughts regarding how to best achieve a good flute tone, including: forming the proper embouchure, having the “right” flute lips, the angle of the embouchure hole to the lips, as well as the position of flute to the body, and more; but certainly one of the most important factors is SUPPORT. If one properly supports the air, the tone will be superb.

My favorite exercise to work on support, and to show what support is, is sit-ups. Everyone has done sit-ups at some point in their lives, and this exercise works for students of all ages and levels, from beginning middle-schoolers to adult beginners, from advanced high school to graduate music majors. I generally do this exercise with all new students, regardless of level, within the first few lessons.

Exercise: Sit on the floor with your back on the floor, your feet flat on the floor, and your knees up. With one hand on your stomach, breathe in deeply, sit halfway up, and hold. You will feel your muscles come out – they contract to pull you up. Lie back down. Now take your flute. Inhale, sit halfway up, and play the low A in the staff. Do you feel your stomach? Lie back down. Once more, breathe in, sit halfway up, play the low A, then slur up one octave. Do not do anything differently between the low and higher A other than blowing more air. Let your stomach do the work – it is not necessary to change the lips. Next, try this sitting in a chair or standing up; can you still get your stomach muscles to come out? This is support. Where else do you feel it? Your sides? Your back? By using these big muscle groups to support, you can save your face from a lot of unnecessary pain and tension.

Now try playing with your new-found support system. Keep your lips as relaxed and natural as they would be if you simply had them closed (without a flute; observe using a mirror). Let air come into your cheeks, which will puff out a little, especially with higher notes. Let your tongue be low and relaxed – this will also help keep your throat relaxed (“open”).

Also try to support more with your back. If you put your hands on your lower back near the kidney area, on either side of the spine, and try to contract those back muscles toward the spine, you will feel what “back support” is – this may take a little practice. Supporting with your back is especially helpful for large, ascending intervals.

Keeping the jaw relaxed and the tongue low will help tremendously with creating a bigger sound (projection), keeping the pitch down, and avoiding unwanted squeaking or cracking of notes. For further help with projection, roll out. The bigger the embouchure hole in the flute, the bigger your sound (but be sure you can still feel the bottom edge of the flute embouchure hole on your bottom lip!). Remember – the sound you hear around your head is NOT what you really sound like. Get a friend to stand behind you and cover your ears while you play, or play with earplugs and record yourself – it will truly be an ear-opening experience to hear how you sound to the world around you!

Additional help with tone and feeling support can be provided by singing while playing:

Exercise: Start without the flute. If you can blow out through your mouth while humming, then you can add the flute – perhaps starting with just the headjoint. Once you add the flute, be sure to keep your embouchure relaxed. Can you feel how much your stomach is working? Are your lips vibrating? (This will cease to be an issue shortly.) Is your throat relaxed? Try this exercise with Moyse’s de la Sonorite (Leduc publishers), exercise #1. The first time with singing, then repeat without singing, but support just as much and stay relaxed in your face and throat.

With proper support, you will achieve a beautiful, colorful, full, round flute sound, and your face can be relaxed and remain pain-free – plus, your stomach gets a fantastic workout!

Happy fluting!


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