How to Play Lush Low Notes and Heavenly High Notes Effortlessly

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...

  • Learn the note range of the flute
  • Break down each register
  • Learn the unique approach to playing each register beautifully
  • Exercises to build embouchure flexibility
  • How to quickly trouble shoot tone problems 

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.

The three octave range of notes of a flute. Image Source: http://www.composeforums.com/index.php?topic=5.0

The three octave range of notes of a flute. Image Source: http://www.composeforums.com/index.php?topic=5.0

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).

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The Registers

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 angle of air should be directed low towards the ground.
  • Your back teeth should be apart and the top lip overhang over the bottom lip. That way you channel air downwards.
  • The bottom lip can be stretched back against the teeth to make a nice smooth edge to blow over.
  • Think of the vowel sound ‘AWWW’ as you play to create a nice ringing resonance. 
  • Your aperture size should be relatively larger than the higher registers, but still elliptical in shape. 
  • Overall the embouchure should feel relaxed and not pinched.

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.

The harmonic series possible starting from a low D. Image source: www.flutetunes.com

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. 

Here's how...

  • The angle of air should now be directed low upwards from the ground. Picture a spot a foot in front of you. 
  • Shift the angle of air upwards by moving the corners of the inner wet part of your lips slightly forward, almost as if to kiss. 

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. Check to see what the other three are by clicking here.)  

  • This forward movement compresses the aperture to become slightly narrower and taller (more ‘O’ shaped than elliptical).
  • This change in aperture size will naturally help to increase your airspeed. 
  • The wet inner parts of your lips should be directing the path of air and your outer pink parts of your lips shouldn’t be pinched.

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...

  • The corners of the lips need to move forward even further than the middle register (but mind overdoing that kiss shape). 

This motion decreases the distance the air travels to the far wall of the embouchure hole and decreases the aperture’s overall size.

  •  Use faster air and stronger air pressure (this is a byproduct of your smaller aperture)
  • Breath well with good posture. Play standing up or sitting up straight in a chair with a ‘long spine’ to maximise the amount of air you can breath in. 
  • Picture filling your lungs fully from the bottom to the top. When blowing out, imagine plastering a piece of paper suspended in front of you against a wall, sustaining the strength of your air jet with your abdominal muscles. 

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.

flute embouchure tips

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...

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...

1. Harmonics

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.

developing a flexible flute embouchure

The harmonic series possible starting from a low D. Image source: www.flutetunes.com

Use the low register fingering for low D and play the note. (Remember my tips for the low register)

The low D fingering

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...

Try to match the tone of the ‘real’ note fingering to that of the overblown harmonic. The harmonic note produced has the open note head, written above the fundamental note (in this case low D) that should be over blown. Image source: http://indyfluteshop.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Jennings-Harmonics.png

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. 

Here's how...

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.

Flute scales

flute scales

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.

  • Check you are using the correct flute fingerings, particularly for the high register notes. If you happen to leave off the right pinky by accident, some notes won’t sound! (Click to access my flute fingering chart plus my user guide)
  • If you have an open hole flute, are you completely covering all the holes in the keys? Temporarily re-plug them with the silicon plugs whilst you work on your embouchure.
  • Has your flute ‘sprung a leak’? Pads that aren’t sealing and allowing air to escape will make smooth transitions between high and low notes almost impossible. Notes can sound ‘fuzzy’ or not at all!
  • Low notes not coming out cleanly? Are you covering too much of the embouchure hole (i.e. more than half) by rolling the flute inwards towards you?
  • High notes not coming out cleanly? In your efforts to blow too ‘hard’ are you squashing the flute into your face and covering too much of the embouchure hole?
  • Keep your head joint rolled out so that no more than one third of the hole is covered. All three registers should be able to be played without constantly rolling inwards and outwards.
  • Use a light touch and the minimal amount of force for finger changes to avoid accidentally bumping the flute out of position and disrupting the smooth flow of air
  • Give yourself the best chance of ‘sounding good’. Find a resonant room to practice in for a few minutes if you can. This might sound strange, but playing in a tiled room such as a bathroom can help you hear differences in the balance of overtones between notes. Lots of curtains and carpets can deaden sound.   

Still struggling to get great sound?

Watch my Embouchure Boot Camp Video 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...

flute embouchure

This is my most popular free learning resource by far,

and there's a good reason.

The strategies I teach are super simple and actually work.

References:

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).

http://jennifercluff.blogspot.com/2012/02/2-higher-longtone-warmups-free-pdfs.html

https://www.jennifercluff.com/tone.htm

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