The Voice of the Flute

February 17, 2015

Some flutes, more specifically their headjoints, will speak easily. They seem to sing if you so much as breathe into them. Others take a bit of air pressure against the blowing edge to get them to resonate. On the surface it seems like everyone would want one that practically plays itself, but there is a downside. Those delicate flowers that require the flutist to 'coax' the sound out, don't like to be pushed around. If you put too strong an air stream the notes may crack and chirp and basically go out of control. Each player has a unique way of making sound, and some prefer one method over another. Players also have differing tastes in what qualities they prefer in their sound.
The less resistant flute tends to produce a clear, clean tone. It generally responds well to articulations producing light staccato, and is flexible when moving between high and low registers. A more resistant flute may make it more difficult to play those crisp light passages.
So again, why do some of us love that resistance so much?
Because, sometimes, we don't want a clear clean sound. When you're able to push against the blowing edge with a stronger air stream you have more ability to get a richer more complex tone quality. This can certainly be done with any headjoint, but it takes incredible skill and diligent work to make this happen with a more free-blowing flute. On the flip side light clean articulations are also accomplished with lots of practice and commitment on a more resistant instrument.
If you're fortunate enough to have a fantastic miracle instrument that handle both with ease, you're set! However, sometimes compromises have to be made until that dream flute finds us.
Its really a matter of preference, and what your strengths and weaknesses are.

Ever since I started to learn to play the flute as a little girl, I knew what I wanted to sound like. I had a recording of a flute duet that I liked to listen to, a Stamitz flute duet concerto. It wasn't that I was a huge fan of Stamitz, I’d barely heard of him at that point. I just loved the way the piece was performed. The two flutists were both fantastic (unfortunately I didn't even know who they were) but they couldn't have been more different from each other.
This was an audio recording, so I couldn't see the players, but I could here a distinction in their styles. (This was when I discovered that I could create a sound of my very OWN!)
One had a fluid clean sound, like trickling water in a mountain stream. Elegant, refined.
The other had a rich shimmering sound like liquid mercury. Intense, Dark.

This was the moment when I discovered that musicians have they’re very own unique voice, and that I could create a sound of my very OWN!

I thought both of these voices were beautiful, (I'm a flute player after all, I love flutes!) but whenever I heard that dense lustrous sound in the second flute, I just MELTED. In fact, I still get completely mesmerized whenever I hear a flutist play with that style.

So the choice is easy now, right? Just choose the instrument set up that will give you what you want.
Not so fast, Sparky! There's a time for hot cocoa, and there's a time for iced tea. You need to be able to have a myriad of tone colors available to you depending on the style that the music requires. Just because I loved that sound, doesn’t mean it’s the only thing I’ll ever want. Music is complicated. It needs to be complicated, with contrasting colors and moods interwoven. Much as I love an intense dark sound, it has no business portraying a fluttering butterfly.

Last year I participated in a concert where I needed to learn a piece that had a rather virtuosic style; fast passages, light crisp notes. I was also still getting used to my new embouchure after having my braces removed. (Having braces as an adult flutist was another interesting journey; you wouldn't believe how much I learned.)
As the concert approached I was getting worried. Out of frustration (and maybe fear :-P) I decided to experiment with my old headjoint from my step up flute. I knew that one was easy to play, although it lacked that depth I loved so much.
The concert was a success. I had a myriad of compliments on my clean sound, and my delicate high register. (delicacy is certainly not my specialty) Naturally, I like hearing 'good job' so I thought I should keep working with this sweet little headjoint. Maybe my resistant powerhouse wasn't right for the shape of my mouth now that my teeth are in the right place.

After playing it for over 6 months, re-learning how to produce  those colorful nuances without making my notes crack and squawk. I seemed to be going alright... but just alright…..

I like to record myself when I practice sometimes. It's a great educational tool to see what you ACTUALLY sound like. It's often hard to hear yourself when you're playing, partly because you're distracted by PLAYING. A few weeks ago I went back to some of my older recordings and gave a listen and compared them to what I'm doing now.
Those older recordings sounded like ME, a voice that I had spent years to achieve. The newer ones... not bad, but not me. I miss my sound.

So my choice is clear. Now that I have a few months ahead without any concerts scheduled, I can dedicate more of my practice time to refining a clean crisp style with my braces-free mouth. It will be worth the effort…. and it certainly will be effort!
As musicians we strive to make every sound we play come from our own 'voice,' regardless of style. We constantly challenge ourselves to expand upon that voice, to achieve new possibilities, and say anything that we need to say through our music. That journey will never end as long as we remember that it will be worth the effort.