Many newer students to the flute get flustered by tones that drift from the ideal pitch. In truth the mechanics of producing a specific note by blowing through the flute are quite complex.
Off key-notes can be caused by everything from a lazy embouchure to poor posture to a loose foot joint.
But there are definitely some things you can do right now to improve your intonation. I’ve put together a list of five ways to start improving your intonation today and stave off the bad habits that can lead to tonality problems later.
1. Practice with a tuner or keyboard
You may hear expert players discuss the many varieties of flutes they play. They never seem to run into any tonality problems even though the differences between playing a Native American drone flute, a 1950 Gemeinhardt and a 2018 Yamaha can be as profound as the Grand Canyon.
So how do they do it? How does someone hopscotch between totally dissimilar instruments and almost subconsciously hit A440 every single time?
It’s the same old answer that no one ever likes to hear: practice</u>.
Digging a little deeper though, there’s another mechanism that allows the great flute player to effortlessly transition between different flutes or even other woodwinds. It’s something you can find among all great musicians, athletes, pilots, surgeons and other skilled performers. It’s called muscle memory.
Muscle memory serves as invisible scaffolding that’s always there to guide your movements. In many ways, how good a musician becomes is determined completely by how sturdy their muscle memory scaffolding is.
That scaffolding will be slowly erected and solidified through practicing good habits. Eventually your body will perform the necessary complex tasks as automatically as you breathe. But developing the right forms and habits are the key to this process.
Use A Tuner App
A good way to learn the habits that lead to correct notes is to play along with a tuner. Try cycling up or down the entire scale chromatically, making sure that each note is within 10-25% of the distance in hertz to the next half step.
There are many tuner apps and free online tuners such as this one.
Try quickly running through all notes once before every practice session. Make sure to always use the most natural posture and positions that occur to you, within reason.
You’ll hear much talk of the “correct” or “incorrect” ways to finger sostenuto notes or arpeggios. In truth you should just play in the way that is most natural and which facilitates the most efficient playing.
Often times this will be within an established range but I believe it’s important not to get hung up by other people’s standards. It’s important to develop your own style and that extends to not just how you play the notes, but how you produce the sound.
That said Youtube is a great resource for learning the fingerings and techniques of master flutists. There are also videos that can help like this one:
If you find a note or groups of notes or even entire registers that are giving you difficulty you must stop and figure out what the best correction is.
The best correction should be natural to you yet not awkward while playing fast arpeggios. Once you find a solution to the off-key or otherwise problematic note that you keep that same fingering combination the same every single time you practice.
That is how you build the muscle memory scaffolding that with years of practice will harden into the glass and steel of a towering world class flutist.
2. Develop robust air flow
Many top flutists contend that the biggest single thing you can do to improve your intonation is to produce a strong, concentrated and directed air flow through your flute.
The way to do this lies in strengthening your embouchure, making sure all air is expelled through the mouth and to a lesser extent increasing exhalatory strength. That last item is possible to some extent with years of practice, even lung capacity can be slightly increased, but most improvement will come from the first two.
As with everything in music there’s no magic potion to make this happen. The best route is simply to practice. But there are some specific things that can cause a weak, interrupted or misdirected air stream.
Many newer players will cover too much or too little of the lip plate. The bottom lip should rest gently against the lip plate but should not obstruct air flow through the hole. This is often a matter of experimentation and seeing what works for you.
Another aspect is the embouchure itself. Your lips should be slightly pursed but not overly taught.
The bottom lip should be as relaxed as possible and should have enough room to move forward without obstructing the hole for playing in the higher registers.
Sitting with a straight back also promotes the maximum air capacity. Another thing to watch out for is inadvertently allowing air to escape through the nose. This can cause the airflow to attenuate and become uneven. That’s all but guaranteed to cause tonality problems.
3. Don’t blow super hard to play loud
The obvious thing to do if you want to play a louder note with most woodwinds is to blow harder. Unfortunately with flutes that will often lead to notes going sharp.
Instead you should try to focus the airstream and blow as directly as possible into the core of the instrument.
4. Make sure the head joint is well placed
If you’re playing an A440 flute the embouchure hole should be between 17.3mm and 18mm from the point where it attaches to the body.
If it’s pulled out too far that will produce flat notes and if it’s jammed in too far the notes will tend to go sharp.
5. Find a great flute teacher
Producing a good tone has so many variables that it’s really difficult to list them all.
The problem that new players run into is that if any one of the many factors that affect intonation goes awry their playing can go from good to bad in a hurry.
Then they start to compensate and the compensation leads to bad habits that they may be forced to break in the future in order to progress.
But breaking ingrained habits can be extremely tough. In the worst case this sort of thing can cause a new player to not be able to progress or even to give up completely.
A good flute teacher can instantly identify what’s wrong with a player’s intonation. This saves not only lots of time and effort by solving the problem immediately but also prevents hard-to-break bad habits that can cause real problems later in a player’s flute career.
Finding a great teacher shouldn’t be terribly hard either. Almost all local music stores will have lists of teachers and with a little prodding you should be able to figure out who’s the best.
While lots of people like the satisfaction of learning things on their own, the time and headaches a good flute teacher will save you will often be more than worth the investment.