The flute embouchure is one of the most talked about and potentially difficult concepts to master in flute playing. How do we as unique individuals form the embouchure and how does it influence our sound? This article will outline these two important questions, as well as help you avoid six common flute embouchure mistakes that lead to future tone and playing problems. Watch my step-by-step video tutorial to find your own unique embouchure and start you on the path to terrific flute tone.
What is the flute embouchure?
The word embouchure is rooted in the French for ‘mouth’ and refers to the shape of the facial muscles, tongue and teeth when we blow into a wind instrument. The flute is an interesting member of the woodwind instrument family, having no reed like an oboe or clarinet. When air is blown into a reed, it encounters a resistance from the reed which vibrates and causes a sound to be produced. With the flute our mouth is effectively the reed – the conduit through which the air travels into the instrument. The shape and size of the opening in our lips (called the aperture) helps to channel our breath and regulate its speed and direction. Obviously this makes it one of the vitally important factors in solid sound production (together with the material and cut of the head joint itself).
How does the flute embouchure affect sound quality?
Three major factors – embouchure shape and size, its positioning on the flute’s lip plate as well as breath control all play a part in sound production and its quality. Very simply, to obtain a ‘sound’ on the flute the air needs to travel diagonally down across the hole, focused through the aperture. The length, thickness, angle and speed of this air jet all act to produce the vibrating column of air within the flute that makes sound. Changes in any one of these parameters will produce changes in pitch, volume and flute tone. For example, playing with too little air speed means you’ll play flat (under pitch), softly and with a raspy, weak sound.
What is meant by a flexible flute embouchure?
As we mature in our playing we expand to playing notes at the extremes of registers, playing over a large dynamic range as well as the expectation that we are able to play in tune. In order to do this well, our embouchure needs to remain ‘flexible.’ This means it’s necessary to make subtle modifications as we play. Our face and throat shouldn’t feel tense or be locked into just one position.
For example, to make a leap between octaves we need to increase the air speed and modify the direction of air into the flute. Instead of just ‘blowing harder’ we can modify the aperture size to become smaller, thereby forcing the air through a smaller hole and increasing its speed. We also need to angle the air higher by moving the centre of the lips and jaw ever so slightly forward, covering more of the embouchure hole. In another example, to increase the volume of a note, you need to use more air. But if you simply blow harder and faster you will begin to raise the pitch and eventually overblow into harmonics. Instead you compensate by increasing the size of the aperture.
General guide for embouchure formation
Some people find their playing embouchure easily, allowing them to make a solid sound relatively quickly. Others struggle for longer for any number of reasons (wearing braces, large lips or even a cheap, badly cut head joint). Because this is one of the very fundamentals of flute playing, there is a real danger that the frustration of the process turns people off flute playing altogether! To prevent this tragedy, here are some general pointers to start with…
- Work in front of a mirror so you can recognise the subtle changes in embouchure shapes as you adjust
- Use only the head joint to begin sound creation initially
- Generally about one quarter to one third of the hole should be covered with the bottom lip
- The lower lip should be slightly flattened and the upper lip sit jut slightly over your bottom lip
- The corners of the mouth should be slightly turned down and relaxed, rather than pulled back and up as if smiling.
- The hole in your lips should be a squashed oval and should not be longer than the embouchure hole on the flute
- The inner wet part of your lips should be touching
- The aperture should be aligned approximately in the middle of the embouchure hole of the flute
- Sound the syllable ‘mmmm’ and then release a ‘p’ sound to create the correct mouth shape. Once you have found this shape, use the ‘t’ sound while breathing out to mimic tonguing notes
- Use a steady stream of air (equivalent to playing moderately loudly)
Six Flute Embouchure Mistakes to Avoid
But of course, we are all unique! Our lip thickness, the straightness of our teeth, wearing braces, the shape of our chins and jaw bite will mean each embouchure shape will be a little different to the next. So it’s often a case of trial and error to find it. In this search for sound, there are some common embouchure mistakes many beginners make. Here are six of the most common mistakes to avoid…
- Covering too much of the hole with your lips by either rolling the flute inward or pressing the flute into your chin too hard.
- The smiling embouchure. This pulls the lips away from the flute’s lip plate, increasing the length and angle of the air stream, causing pitch and tone problems. It also tends to lock the lips and cheeks in place, and also makes it more difficult to anchor the flute under the bottom lip and against the chin.
- Not supporting the breath enough (air speed too slow). This makes you overcompensate by squeezing the aperture smaller, tensing the facial muscles
- Placing the flute too high on the lip or too low on the chin means that not enough of the air jet is directed into the flute
- Blowing directly across the hole (as if blowing across a bottle neck)
- Holding the flute at angles (too far forward, backward or downward) will disperse too much air and result in an airy tone
Still searching for your sound? Don’t give up! Click the button below and I’ll send you some easy strategies to finding your correct flute embouchure. But most importantly – I demonstrate how subtle changes in your embouchure can make a big difference to your tone!
Blocki, K., Performance: Flute Tone – Beautiful Tone for the New Flutist. School Band & Orchestra, 2013. 16(5): p. 36-40.
Criswell, C., Creating and Maintaining a Good Flute Embouchure. Teaching Music, 2009. 16(5): p. 49.
Solis, J., et al., Development of an anthropomorphic musical performance robot capable of playing the flute and saxophone: Embedding pressure sensors into the artificial lips as well as the re-designing of the artificial lips and lung mechanisms. Robotics and Autonomous Systems, 2016. 86: p. 174-183.