It happens to every flutist. You put your instrument together eager to practice, put the flute up to your chin, play your first note, and what comes out? Not your usual sound. No amount of long tones or scales seems to fix your tone. Frustration grows because you have a lesson in a couple hours and you feel like you sound like a beginning flutist.
Instead of letting frustration get the best of you and throw yourself down a rabbit hole of negative self-talk, try my 7 tips for combatting bad tone days.
Before diving into the tips, let me just say that everybody’s different. Long tones are the first thing I do every practice session. If I’m having a bad tone day, moving on to scales and technique work won’t fix the issue. I often use the first tips 2-6 on only long tones. But, if you’re the type of person who likes to do scales or vocalises first, feel free to apply these tips to your warm-up routine.
Let’s conquer the bad tone day blues!
1. Check Your Setup
If you feel you’re not sounding like yourself, check your flute alignment.
First, check to make sure your headjoint is in the right position: not too far rolled in, not too far rolled out.
Second, do a brief scan of your body to see if you’re carrying any unnecessary tension. Check for tension in your chin, lips, base of the tongue, shoulders, neck, and even legs. Leg tension, especially in the thighs, can constrict your sound so make sure your scan goes top-down. If you encounter any tension, try to let it go.
Then, check your embouchure. A mirror is helpful for this. Check to see if you are playing to one side of the embouchure hole. When this happens more air may be passing over the tubing instead of the embouchure hole. You can find your optimal lateral position by rotating the flute across your chin.
Finally, check your playing position. Make sure your feet are hip-width apart. Relax your shoulders and make sure there’s space between the flute and your right shoulder. Check your head position and ensure it’s not tilted too far. I find the image of a tree helpful when thinking about my flute posture: Imagine that your feet are like the roots of a tree and that a string is holding up the crown of your head.
2. Practice Pitch Bends
Pitch bends are my top go-to when I’m having a bad tone day. They help me relax my embouchure if it’s too engaged (I avoid the word “tight”). Likewise, if my embouchure is too loose, pitch bends help me figure out which embouchure muscles need more engagement.
If you don’t know what pitch bends are, you start on a note (I like to start on the B in the staff – B4) and bend the pitch down. I aim for a half-step. But, if you’re just getting started, aim for lowering the pitch by 20 cents.
To make a pitch bend, try these steps:
- Drop your jaw
- Relax the corners of your embouchure
- Bring your upper lip over the bottom lip
- Aim your air more vertically into the flute
3. Practice Harmonics
Harmonics help you find the correct angle of air for each note using the right combination of air speed and air pressure. On the flute, you can practice harmonics by using a fingering for a low note and finding the different notes (harmonics) above the original (fundamental) note.
To play a harmonic on the flute, play a low note. If you’re new to harmonics, I suggest starting on G4, at the bottom of the staff. Slur up to the next partial, which should be an octave G.
Once you feel comfortable with G5, slur up to the next partial, a sounding D6. You should still be fingering your low G even though the sounding pitch is a D.
4. Practice Singing & Playing
Singing and playing helps remove any throat tension while opening up your body’s natural resonating cavities. Plus, it may help alleviate any unnecessary tension in your neck or elsewhere.
If you’ve never practiced singing and playing, start by first singing a note. Then, play a note on your flute and go back and forth between singing and playing independently. Once you feel comfortable, sing a pitch while slowly bring your flute up to your chin, and try to play a note while singing. You can also try playing the note first and adding in your singing second.
You can practice singing and playing on long tones, scales, etudes, and even your repertoire.
Looking for a way to change up your daily long tones? Download out my Expressive Long tones guide. ⬇️
5. Practice Flutter-tonguing & Playing
Like singing and playing, flutter-tonguing and playing helps open up your natural resonating chambers. Plus, it provides an extra layer of resistance. And, it helps you find the right angle of air for the note you’re playing.
Start by playing a note and adding in a rolled “r” sound. If you’ve never practiced flutter-tonguing, practice the rolled “r” sound by itself. Everyone is different and don’t worry if you don’t have a good rolled “r.” Some people produce flutter-tonguing with the base of their tongue instead of the tip.
You can practice flutter-tonguing and playing on long tones, scales, etudes, and repertoire, just like singing and playing
6. Practice singing, flutter-tonguing, and playing at the same time
This tip is exactly how it sounds. Try combining singing & playing and flutter-tonguing & playing to create even more resistance.
7. Listen to Flutists Who Inspire You
Some days, it’s helpful to get your ideal flute sound in your head. Before you practice, listen to some of your favorite flutists. Need a starter list? Here are my go-to’s:
- William Bennett
- Lorna McGhee
- Denis Bouriakov
- Julia Bogorad-Kogan
- Emmanuel Pahud
- Jean-Pierre Rapal
- Marcel Moyse
- Julius Baker
- Mimi Stillman
- Emily Beynon
Check out this Your Classical MPR interview with my teacher Julia Bogorad-Kogan, featuring recordings of flutists who inspire her.
Bonus Tip: Go for a Walk/Move Your Body
Sometimes, we need to step away from our instrument and do something else. Going for a walk is a great way to move your body and warm up your intercostal muscles for flute playing. You could also do some house chores, go for a run, or Alexander Technique active rest.
There you have it. 8 ways to overcome a bad tone day. Don’t let a bad tone day get the best of you. The next time you start practicing and aren’t getting the sound you want, try these tips to avoid frustration:
- Check your setup
- Do pitch bends
- Practice harmonics
- Practice singing and playing
- Try flutter-tonguing and playing
- Practice singing, fluter-tonguing, and playing
- Listen to inspirational flutists
- Take a walk and warm up your body
Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about how to deal with bad tone days.
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