Working with community flute teachers as well as with students of all ages and levels.
I'm happy to teach an advanced player or a complete beginner, my interest being to help you become the best player that you can. It will never be a case of "do it like this because I say so". There is always a good and logical reason for the way we should do things. Beginners who are taught correctly from the very first lessons have no bad habits to unlearn, which would always be much more difficult than getting it right in the first place.
Correct posture makes everything so much easier and of course we have to look good. Head up, looking down our nose at the music (and our audience) is the only way to keep the throat open, just like a singer. We make our sound in the head, like singers do, so if we squash or close our throat then sound quality will be similarly squashed and poor. Is your eyesight OK? We can’t maintain a correct posture and read the music with bifocals or multi-focals as we’d then have to move our head up and down as we read from the top to the bottom of the page. Don’t hold your arms up high – they are heavier than the instrument!
Never squeeze the keys - once you do so then you will need to always squeeze as the pads will become compressed. A light finger action is all that's needed. Hold the flute lightly against your jaw - if you press hard then your head & neck will have to fight back, creating increased tension. Use correct hand positions and finger action in order to gain a relaxed and fluent technique. No one has to play faster than a flute player!
How should we breathe? We flute players need all the air we can get, more than players of any other woodwind instrument. A good way to learn how to take a deep breath is to blow up a balloon – you'll have to take a deep breath in order to do that!
How do we Use and Control our Vibrato? Have you ever been told “it will happen by itself”? Maybe it will (maybe it won't), but can you then control it? Can you stop it? We can identify individual players by their vibrato and it makes sense to learn how to control the speed and amplitude. There are speed limits (too fast, too slow) that make for a beautiful sound. We can make one short note sound happy or sad depending on how we use our vibrato. If we can manage that on one staccato note then imagine what we can do with an entire phrase!
First step: Play a steady sound with no “vibrato” of any sort
Second step: Very slowly make a very small and very slow crescendo and diminuendo, taking several seconds to do so with a steady sound and no (other) vibrato. That is, slowly get slightly louder and softer. Continue this pattern several times still slowly in a full breath. Most important: keep the dynamic changed very little, almost not noticeable.
Third step: When able to do this safely, perhaps after several days of practising it, gradually speed it up a little at a time, all the while continuing with very small crescendo & diminuendo.
Count each peak 1, 2, 3, 4 etc.
Speeding this up will produce a very smooth vibrato, over which you have complete control of the speed, over the amount of crescendo (little, or more), and over the character of what will now be a fine and fully controlled vibrato.
Tonguing. We should copy the French, as their language greatly facilitates all aspects of flute playing. Do we want the audience to hear the noise of our tongue? How much air can it push out when we start a note? Which part of our body actually pushes out the air?
Hints for Single Tonguing: (Detaché)
Start a note with NO tongue, firmly using your diaphragm only, as if blowing out a candle.
Slowly alternate, gently using your tongue as well as your diaphragm. Your tongue should move backwards only - to release the air stream. On no account should your tongue move forwards as you start the note. Strong action from diaphragm, gentle action from your tongue.
Exercise - Alternate:
Play one note with diaphragm only - no tongue,
Followed by the same note using your tongue as well
The aim is that they sound the same, that is - there’s no noise from your tongue
Practice. How to use your time and divide it between technical work, studies and repertoire. Most people waste a lot of their practice time. Learn how to do better practice in half the time, and understand why you should practise technical passages really slowly and repeatedly. If you make a mistake then play more slowly, and if there are still mistakes go slower still, as slowly as needed until it’s correct absolutely every time. Do you want to practice in order to be able play it correctly, or in order to never make a mistake? (there’s a difference)
Scales. Why have the grade exams crippled generations of flute players with their meagre requirements for two octave scales even at advanced levels? What is the most difficult area of the flute – the top, middle or bottom register? Most will agree it’s the top. Between the middle and bottom register, which is more difficult – the middle or the bottom? Most will say it’s the bottom. What do you avoid when practicing two octave scales? You avoid the top and the bottom of the range, which are the most difficult areas! All students should learn and practise full range scales in all keys covering the entire range of the instrument. We need to do this as soon as the notes are first learned. This is how reflexes and technical fluency are acquired. It’s a good idea to learn and practise your scales while reading them from music and not from memory, in order to be able to recognize them in a new piece that you’re learning or when sight-reading.
Embouchure control. Learn how to use your embouchure to control sound quality and pitch. Learn to differentiate between air speed and air volume, how to use it in a diminuendo; for example how to make a diminuendo on a high F sharp with a 100% guarantee that you will never fall off the end! Learn how easy it is to avoid the natural tendency of the flute to become flat in a diminuendo, how to use the embouchure to sharpen the pitch and so stay in tune with everyone else. All other winds will tend to become sharper as they play more softly, the flute being the odd one out.
Studies. Not to be confused with technical exercises. A proper and suitable study has musical value as well as being technically challenging. Learn a new study each week, then play it to your teacher and move on to the next one. If you can play it perfectly by the end of the week then it’s too easy. If you can’t get anywhere near it then it’s too difficult. Never spend more than one week per study. This is an exercise in overcoming new technical challenges each week as well as in learning how to sight-read. If you become a good sight-reader then you'll need much less time to learn a new piece of music. It’s also an exercise in making a relatively second-rate piece of music sound beautiful, and we do this by thinking of the study (and indeed everything else) while we’re working on it, as our most favourite piece of music in all the world.
Choosing / Buying a new Flute. Every player has their particular strengths and weaknesses, as do musical instruments. More advanced players should look for an instrument that is strong where you, the player, are weak, and if the flute is going to have a weakness then that should be in an area of the player's strength. For example, if you're not very good with low notes then you need a flute that is easier to play in the low register. If you're really good with high notes then perhaps if the flute has a weakness it may be in the high register. This way you and the flute become a team.
When comparing different flutes be sure to play an identical passage on each. Play something in the low register, then compare by playing exactly the same passage on the other flute. Do the same with the middle then the high register playing exactly the same passage on each instrument and you'll soon find out which one you prefer. If you play random note sequences you may never be able to tell which instrument suits you better.
Basic Maintenance With care your flute will last many years before needing attention from a technician. Learn how to handle the instrument, how to put it together correctly and take it apart again without causing stress to the mechanism or the joints. Be aware that with low price instruments the cost of repair can often exceed the purchase price of your flute.