What if I told you that practicing an extended technique like pitch bends (a.k.a. note bending) can actually improve your flute tone? That’s right, stretching your tone beyond what sounds good is beneficial for your flute playing.
Pitch bends improve your tone by helping you find the optimum angle of air for each note. They also help you with your forte and piano playing and large leaps.
If you’re looking for another tool to add to your tone development toolkit, keep reading because I’m teaching you everything you need to know about pitch bends.
Why Pitch Bends are Useful
Pitch Bends help you build better flexibility
I like to think of pitch bends as a cross-training tool, similar to the way ballet dancers may take pilates as an additional way to keep their bodies in shape. By pushing the pitch boundaries by going super flat and sharp, you are essentially cross-training. The further you can push your pitch outside its normal playing window, the better your pitch will be in performance situations.
Pitch Bends help with large leaps
Creating a consistent tone when making large leaps in fast passages is challenging on the flute. It’s easy to overshoot or undershoot notes negatively affecting intonation. In passages like Mozart’s Concerto in D Major, incorporating pitch bends into slow practice helps me find the correct angle of air for each note. It makes me feel more grounded in my technique and keeps me from feeling like I’m doing lip gymnastics.
Pitch Bends can help relax a tense embouchure
Whether you’re nervous before a performance or need to reset during a practice session, pitch bends can help relax your embouchure. I’ve used pitch bends in both scenarios, and I find that they prevent me from playing with a tight embouchure.
Pitch Bends are used in new works as an extended technique
We’re in the 21st century and pitch bends are an extended technique used by composers in newer music. Be sure you’re incorporating them into your daily practice so you’re prepared to use them in your repertoire.
Pitch Bends help you develop better intonation and control in forte passages.
By practicing pitch bends, you’re practicing what WIBB (Wiliam Bennett) refers to as covering and uncovering. We cover the flute with our upper lip for forte and uncover for piano. This directly relates to the earlier point about practicing to extremes and understanding angle of air.
How to Execute a Pitch Bend: A Quick Guide
In order to do bend the pitch down, do the following:
- Relax/drop the jaw
- Have space between your upper and lower molars
- Let your upper lip extend over lower lip
- Aim your air down
Blow less. The closer your lip is to the outer wall, the less air you have to use. If the note cracks, you have too much air pressure
Try not to roll the flute inward. The more you drop your jaw, the more the flute will roll in naturally because of the way the jaw works.
Only move your head at the end. Try to get the note to bend with your embouchure and not by moving your head up and down.
I like to play a little game with myself where I see if I can get my upper lip to touch the other side of the lip plate.
Once you’re in your super flat position, gradually bring the pitch up by reversing the procedure you did to bring the pitch down. Then, try to raise the pitch as sharp as possible by letting the lower lip extend under the top lip. This is the uncovered position. You can also think about bringing your jaw slightly forward to raise the air stream and create a smaller aperture.
Check out Denis Bouriakov teaching pitch bends on YouTube:
Incorporating Pitch Bends into Daily Practice
With long tones – bending down
Start on B in the staff, bend down to B-flat, and then finger a real b-flat. Breathe. Move to B-flat, bend down to A, then finger a real A. Ideally the super flat bent pitch should sound the same (pitchwise) as the real fingering. The harmonics will be out of tune, but that’s okay in this exercise.
With long tones – bending up
Start by fingering an F (or another low note of your choosing), but in your super flat pitch bent position sounding an E. Then bend up to a real sounding F. Breathe. Move to F# in the super flat position sounding an F and lip up to a sounding F#. Work your way up chromatically through the low and middle registers.
Overshooting low notes
When you have a passage with large leaps like the Mozart Concerto in D Major excerpt below or even the Mendelssohn Scherzo with movement through the low and middle register, practice finding the low notes by overshooting them to a super flat position. Then, play it normally. You’ll find that you don’t have to work as hard to get the notes to have the desired tone quality.
Let’s take a closer look at the Mozart Concerto in D Major beginning in measure 43 of the first movement. In the image below, the red arrows represent notes that I would bend to a super flat position while practicing. The blue arrows represent the trajectory: downward arrows indicate I’m on my way to the super flat position, and upward trending arrows indicate a return to my “normal” playing position. After practicing slowly in this manner, I would then play the passage normally. Often, the low notes have a much better ringing quality after practicing pitch bends.
I hope you found this guide to learning pitch bends helpful. If you’re just beginning with them and can’t bend the pitch down a half-step, don’t worry. Keep practicing! It took me a while, too, when I first started doing them to develop the required flexibility. And, if you’ve never tried them, give it a shot and see how they can help improve your tone. In the words of Marcel Moyse, it’s a question of “time, patience, and intelligent work.”