These are some of the questions I get asked the most...
"How do I play high notes easily?"
"Why aren't my low notes sounding properly?"
"Why do my notes keep cracking between octaves?"
If you're struggling with any one of these playing challenges, this article explains the common solution - developing a flexible embouchure.
Here's what we're covering today...
Let's get started. (Feel free to skip to the register that's challenging you most)
The Flute Range
The range of flute notes spans three octaves from middle C on the piano (also called C4) to C7.
If you've got a longer B foot joint, you'll be able to reach a low B (B3).
In the pic, you'll see the C foot at the top (standard on student model flutes) and the B foot below (standard with intermediate level flutes).
The flute notes are divided into three groupings or ‘registers’ - cleverly named low, middle and high. Each register has its characteristic tone.
A combination of varying air speed and embouchure shape is the key to moving between these octaves, and maintaining great sound.
The Low Register (First Octave)
The low register is described as having a warm, soft and dark sound.
Here's the notes in the C major scale from C4 to C5.
How to play the first octave
Here's my easy pointers to have those low notes sounding gorgeously lush...
The problem most people run into when playing low notes is using too much air.
Air that's moving too fast can mean accidentally over blowing the note and leaping up to its harmonic.
(Notes actually contain multiple sound wave frequencies. When you over blow you’re simply tapping into a frequency that's a part of the original note you’re trying to play).
Here's an example of the harmonic series possible when over blowing a low D.
So its a balancing act.
You need to balance between playing with ENOUGH air to make the sound full (and not airy and weak) but also within the natural limit to the dynamic range so you don't over blow.
Experiment to find what these dynamic limits are for you (so you learn not to play past it!).
The Middle Register (Second Octave)
The middle register notes are brighter and more vibrant sounding than the lower register. And you can play them with greater dynamic contrast.
Here's the C major scale from C5 to C6.
How to play the second octave
OK, this isn't rinse and repeat from the first octave.
These middle register notes need a different approach so you can play with a nice tone, first time EVERY time.
Beware this is only a very subtle forward movement, the outer lips shouldn’t be puckered across and covering the embouchure hole.
("The Kiss" is actually one of four FATAL embouchure mistakes that can wreak havoc on sound. I show you what the other three are in my Embouchure Bootcamp series)
Once again its possible to leap up an octave or into your harmonics if you give it too much ‘oomph.’ You’ll notice that the note fingerings for some notes are the same as the low register so all the changes you need to make must come from air and embouchure shape.
The High Register (Third Octave)
The high register is the most challenging and the last register we tackle as learners.
Here's the C chromatic scale from C6 to C7. (That's every note including the sharps and flats).
Going cross-eyed from all the lines above the staff is a definite hazard.
Playing the third octave
Don't panic, I've got you.
Here's the keys to making that final ascent to the Everest of flute notes...
This motion decreases the distance the air travels to the far wall of the embouchure hole and decreases the aperture’s overall size.
Some players can overcompensate a lack of breath support, volume and air pressure by squeezing the outer lips together to force the air through a tiny aperture opening.
All this does is fatigue your lips and facial muscles, makes playing with any dynamics almost impossible and your tone sound strangled and thin.
Which octave should you learn first?
Trying to learn your flute notes is not like learning the alphabet. You don't start from the lowest note and work your way up to the highest.
Beginners should start learning their first notes in the low register.
B-A-G are usually your first notes.
Then you slowly expand up and down the note scale until you reach the middle register.
The low and middle registers are the easiest to get a quality sound, faster.
And fingerings are simpler and often repeated between the registers.
Take a look at my flute fingering chart...
Here's the fingerings for the notes B-A-G for the low and middle registers.
They're exactly the same.
So how can you play two different notes? It's all about embouchure.
(By the way... Need a helping hand to learn your flute notes? Download my flute fingering chart and I'll walk you through how to use this one.)
Once you gain greater control over your breath support and embouchure, you're ready for the high register.
How to develop a flexible embouchure
A 'one size fits all' approach to playing your flute notes doesn't work. If you've been struggling with high or low notes, maybe this is why.
The solution to playing with great flute tone in each register is increasing the flexibility or movement of your embouchure during playing.
By including these simple exercises in your practice time, you'll quickly transform your tone, and leap between registers cleanly and effortlessly...
Over blowing notes to their harmonics is a proven way to learn the subtle changes in lip position and air speed we've been talking about.
Here's the harmonic series of a low D again...
Here's what to do.
Use the low register fingering for low D and play the note. (Remember my tips for the low register)
Then keeping the same fingering, make the changes to the lip position and air direction for the middle register.
Play the note again, and it should leap up an octave to the D in the middle register.
You can also do this in reverse.
Try playing the D from the middle register with the correct fingering. Now switch to the low D fingering but try and maintain the middle register D.
What a work out!
Once you've nailed that first octave leap, you can over blow once again to a perfect fifth above that second octave, and then again to the next octave (remember the changes needed to play the high register?).
Try this exercise...
Work on obtaining the best quality tone with the least amount of strain in your lips and cheeks.
Because you aren’t using the correct fingerings, the harmonic notes won't be in tune, but this is the one time intonation doesn't matter!
2. Long tone exercises
Long tones are simple slow notes to help you obtain the richest possible sound, with the minimum amount of facial tension.
The aim is to slowly walk down the notes chromatically (play every single note including sharps and flats) matching the rich tone of each note to the previous.
Because they're so simple (there are no ‘rhythms’) you'll notice any weaknesses in your tone and learn the subtle movements you need to make to maintain good tone, as well as clean finger changes between notes.
There are plenty of examples of long tone exercises on the internet (one such fantastic resource here...
But you don't need music for long tones, you can make your own.
Play a long B natural and slur down to a B flat. Take a breath. Then play that B flat again and move down to the A slowly. And so on. Play notes mezzo forte (moderately loud) but also experiment playing with crescendo to forte to get to know the limits of airspeed you can use, before leaping into harmonics.
Once you’re satisfied with the tone quality, you can begin to string together three, four and more notes in a slurred sequence with matched tone quality.
You can then repeat this process in the middle register and finally in the high register.
Play smarter and kill two birds with one stone. You have to learn your flute scales... so why not use them as your long tone exercises too?!
Slow them down. Close your eyes and actively listen as you play.
Once again, its all about trying to match the tone quality of all notes across the scale.
But keep it simple to start with . Concentrate on one octave at a time!
Leaping larger intervals
So I’ve spoken about walking down chromatically through the notes.
But in reality you need to be able to play the larger ‘gaps’ between the notes that are written in your pieces.
(Check out the intervals in some of these slurred triplets... yikes).
Arpeggios and broken chord scales are a good place to start practising leaps (stepping up in intervals of a third).
But you can gradually increase the size of these leaps until you can manage the jump between octaves.
What to do when some notes won't work!
There's a reason why something's not working... And the fix can be simpler than you think and in many cases, almost instant.
Here's a quick check list to run through that solves A LOT of note trouble.
Still struggling to get great sound?
Join my Embouchure Boot Camp series. It's packed with insights about the embouchure, troubleshooting poor tone, harmonics and more.
It's a game changer for sound...
Hundreds of players have already taken part and are sounding BETTER THAN EVER.
Here's what they've been saying...
Getting great sound is easier than you think...
This is my most popular learning resource by far,
and there's a good reason....
The strategies I teach are super simple and actually work.
Wilcocks, G.R., 2006. Improving Tone production on the flute with regards to embouchure, lip flexibility, vibrato and tone colour, as seen from a classical music perspective (Doctoral dissertation, University of Pretoria).