One of the most common beginner challenges is understanding how to subtly modify your playing technique to produce the lowest and highest flute notes and still maintain beautiful sound. In this short article I’ll explain the note range of the flute, how you can develop a flexible embouchure to leapfrog between high and low notes effortlessly, and I’ll share some tips to help you troubleshoot problems.
The range of notes playable on the flute span three octaves from middle C on the piano (also called C4 ) to C7. Note that having a longer B foot joint will allow you to reach a low B (B3) and very experienced flute players may be able to reach notes even higher than C7. In both cases, pieces featuring these notes at the very extremes of the registers are few and so they are rarely required. 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 airspeed and embouchure shape is the key to moving between these octaves, and keeping quality sound.
The Low Register (First Octave)
The low register is described as having a warm, soft and dark sound. Generally the angle of air required to hit these notes should be directed low towards the ground. To do this, the back teeth should be apart and the top lip overhangs over the bottom lip to more accurately direct that air. 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. Overall the embouchure should feel relaxed and not pinched. Your aperture size tends to be relatively larger than the higher registers, but still elliptical. The tricky thing with low notes is often using too much/ too fast air which can result in overblowing the note and leaping up to its harmonic. (Notes contain multiple sound wave frequencies and you’re simply tapping into one that’s related to the original note you’re trying to play). So whilst there’s a natural limit to the dynamic range of this low register, you also need ENOUGH air to make the sound full and not airy and weak. Experiment to find what these dynamic limits are for you (so you don’t play past it!).
The Middle Register (Second Octave)
The middle register notes are brighter and more vibrant and can be better projected than the lower register. To play them with a nice tone, the angle of air can be directed upwards from the floor 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.) This slightly 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. But once again its possible to leap up an octave or into your harmonics if you give it too much ‘oomph.’ 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. 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 most of us tackle as we are learning. The corners of the lips need to move forward even further into that kiss shape. This motion actually decreases the distance the air has to travel to hit the far wall of the embouchure hole and decreases the aperture’s overall size. Once again this helps you to increase the air speed yet again. You need much faster air and strong air pressure to make these notes sound well. Ensuring that your breathing is in good shape will help. 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 try and imagine plastering a piece of paper suspended in front of you against a wall, sustaining the strength of your air jet with your abdominals. Some players can overcompensate poor breathing technique (a lack of breath support, volume and air pressure) by squeezing the outer lips together to force the air quickly through a tiny aperture opening. All this does is fatigue your lips and facial muscles really quickly, makes playing with any dynamics almost impossible and your tone sound strangled and thin.
Beginners usually start learning their first notes in the low and middle registers as the fingerings are more simplistic (and often repeated), and they are just plain easier to get a good quality sound relatively quickly. Trying to learn your flute notes is not like learning the alphabet. You don’t need to know them all before you can play flute. Attempting to play the highest notes too early can quickly frustrate beginners and it’s very difficult to play high notes with a good quality sound without first succeeding on the low and middle notes.
How to develop a flexible flute embouchure
Being able to play with great flute tone in each register is not accidental or just ‘comes naturally.’ As I’ve explained, there are some intentional and very subtle changes that need to be made that will make playing each register easier. Increasing the flexibility/ movement of your embouchure during playing can be done by incorporating some of the following simple exercises into your practice time…
Overblowing notes to their harmonics is a great way to get acquainted with the changes in lip position and air speed required to leap up octaves and between registers cleanly.
Use the low register fingering for a note (try a low D) and play the note with a rich, full sound. Then keeping the same fingering, make those changes to the lip position and air direction explained above and the note should leap up an octave to the next D in the middle register. You can also do this in reverse. Use the real note fingering for the upper octave note. Then switch to the low note fingering while continuing to sound the upper note. This will help you practice those lip changes. The lower the note you start on, the greater number of harmonic notes you can overblow to.
Using the low note fingering you can overblow once again to a a perfect fifth above that second octave, and then again to the next octave (now in the high register). Work on obtaining the best quality tone with the least amount of strain in your lips and cheeks by experimenting. Note that because you aren’t using the correct fingerings, the higher octaves probably won’t be in tune, but in this case it’s not relevant. Harmonics will help you to understand the speed and direction of air necessary to sound notes in the middle and high registers with ease. Once you’ve achieved a nice sound with the harmonics, you can test the real note fingerings in the high octaves using the same technique. Go slowly and take breaks and breaths between harmonic overblows.
Long tone exercises in each register
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 are so simple (there are no ‘rhythms’) they give you the opportunity to 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: http://jennifercluff.blogspot.com/2012/02/2-higher-longtone-warmups-free-pdfs.html), but you can make your own up if you like. Start by playing 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. This is more representative of playing low passages with lush, rich sound in your pieces.
You can then repeat this process in the middle register and finally in the high register.
Practicing your flute scales
Your flute scales are kind of a sped up version of your long tone exercises. Eventually you will be able to play across all three octaves with consistent sound because of your long tone exercise efforts. But keep it simple to start with . You can just work on your scales slowly, concentrating on one octave at a time!
Leaping larger intervals
So I’ve spoken about walking down chromatically through the notes, but we need to be able to play the larger ‘gaps’ between the notes that are written in your pieces. Arpeggios and broken chord scales are a good place to start (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.
Still struggling?… Try this SIMPLE checklist
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? Feel free to 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? Perhaps your top lip is sweeping the air too far downward and its not striking the far edge of the embouchure hole at the necessary angle.
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 headjoint 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. Visualising filling the room with ringing sound also helps with improving tone. Lots of curtains and carpets can deaden sound.
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).