Erin Spencer - flute expert

3 Ways to Improve Quiet Playing on Flute

Learn how to play quietly on your flute

In this first video of her new flute lessons series, Erin teaches you how to play the flute quietly with a very interesting and unique tool.

Released on February 5, 2020

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Video Transcription

Hello. My name is Erin Spencer. I'm the new flute expert here at I got my bachelor's in Music Education, and my master's in Flute Performance from the University of Missouri, where I studied with Alice Dade, who is wonderful. You should definitely check her out. I have my own music channel with all sorts of fun flute videos. I'm on Instagram @spencermusicstudio. My website, has all sorts of free resources for flute teachers, and links to all my flute choir arrangements. So, you should definitely check those out. And I'm excited to share my knowledge and experience with you.

So, let's get into today's video, where I'm going to show you three ways to improve your soft playing on flute, and share a couple bonus tips at the end of the video. So, make sure you stick around for those.

Our first way to improve your soft playing on the flute is to practice tapers. A taper is when you start with a nice solid dynamic, and then you decrease your volume to as tiny as it can get, and hopefully the goal is to make it impossible to tell when you stopped playing because you got that soft. So, we're going to start on an A above the staff.

So, I just went up chromatically from A. You can do a major scale, you can do a minor scale, whatever you want. But start with a nice, lovely, big sound. Decrescendo as tiny as you can get. Now, how do we decrescendo? You still need fast air to keep yourself from getting flat. This is called a Pneumo Pro. You can get them from Kathy Blocki, who is the author of the Blocki Flute Method, which is a really wonderful beginning flute method. And I love, love, love this tool for teaching flute because it lets you see where your air is aiming.

So, for that high A ... as I taper, my air lifts up out of the flute. It's still going nice and fast, maybe slows down just the teeniest tiniest bit, but if you look at the fans ... my jaw moves forward, my lower lip moves forward, my upper lip is very stable. This is not where the air direction comes from for tapers. It's really from your bottom lip, that's where all your air direction is going to happen. If you're doing a lower register note, like a low A ... my air is aiming straight down into the flute. You should be able to feel your air on your chin, actually, if you're playing a low note.

My air's all going straight down. If you don't have one of these, that's totally fine. You can use your hand. And just paint your hand with your air ... trying to reach every single part of your hand. This is really important for flexibility between registers, as well as dynamic. So, I really encourage you to work on this. It's all coming from down here. So again, one more time on the Pneumo Pro to see the air direction. If I'm tapering a low A ... there were some breaks there when my air is aiming in between the fans, but you get the idea.

So, let's do a taper again on a low A this time, and you can watch my bottom lip and my jaw work to do that taper. And you do hear a little bit of your air sound at the end, and that's when your air is just lifted up out of the flute, basically. So all you're hearing is your air. If you're doing a low note, and you hear yourself popping up to the high register during a taper ... that's probably because the inside of your mouth is too closed, or your air is a smidge, smidge, smidge too fast. You still want your air pretty fast, but slow it down a little bit if you're getting a high note.

And you also might need to aim your air down a little bit more if you're popping a high note out on a taper. Now, in the Trevor Wye tone book, there's a wonderful exercise to work on this, on the tapers, and it is on page 35 of the tone book. It's basically just start fortissimo, decrescendo to pianissimo over four beats. It is helpful to make yourself do it over a specific amount of time, because that's real life. That's what you're going to have to do in pieces. But I would encourage you to start with it, with just experimenting with tapers, to do it with no time limit on yourself. Just give yourself plenty of time to figure out what it feels like.

After you are comfortable with just executing a taper whatsoever, put your tuner on your stand, see how flat you're going. That will indicate to you how much faster your air needs to be, if you need to change the air direction, anything like that. It's really, really, really important to practice tapers with a tuner. After you've mastered tapers with a tuner, this is how it's really, really, really going to help your soft playing, you're going to do them backwards.

It's okay if it starts off flat at the beginning. You're really pushing the limits of your physical ability here, when you start from nothing. But it's such, such, such a good skill to have. Also, doing tapers will help you get the muscle memory for where your lips need to be to play softly, and they will really help you correct your intonation for playing softly, which is typically flat. So, the higher up your air is aiming, and the faster your air is, the more sharp and correct you will be. We don't want to be flat.

Our next technique to help your soft playing is harmonics. Harmonics are when we finger a low note on the flute, and we over-blow it to get up to the next register. So for example, on a E ... I didn't change my fingers at all. I just used my air and my embouchure to get up to the next note. And when you start out practicing harmonics, if you've never practiced them before, they are wonderful. Start off practicing them completely with a nice, full tone, and just go up to the third partial.

If I show you what harmonics look like on my Pneumo Pro, I'm imagining I'm doing the low E harmonic here.

My air gets faster and aims up more as I go up to the higher partials. So, back on flute for that low E harmonic. This time, we're going to start with a nice full dynamic on the low note, and decrescendo as we go up to our high note.

Really push your limits here. See just how soft you can get that high harmonic out. When you're doing a harmonic fingering, it is harder to get the high note out. Therefore, when you try to do it with the real fingering ... it will feel easier, you will know exactly where your air needs to be to make it happen. Harmonics are the best. Practice them, please.

My last technique to really, really help your soft playing is whistle tones. These are a pretty advanced technique, so work on tapers and harmonics first, and then work on whistle tones. Whistle tones are so good for us as flutists. It's kind of amazing. You have to be incredibly relaxed, have your tongue just in the right spot for each whistle tone, and use super slow air.

I really hope you guys can hear that because they are so incredibly soft. But it just sounds like this little, "Ooh." In order to get a whistle tone out, everything has to be ridiculously open. Your embouchure has to be incredibly relaxed, and your air has to be so, so, so slow to get out those whistle tones. It's really tricky. Pick one note, any note. A is a great one to start on because it's a note we play a lot, we tune to it. So, start on A. I'm already opening my throat, even before I breathe. I'm really opening it.

It's going to take experimentation. For sure. But once you can get a whistle tone on a note, what you're going to do is alternate between the whistle tone and the full tone of that note, trying to play the note softly.

And then once you feel like you're really good at that on one note, expand your repertoire of notes that you're really good at whistle tones on. As you switch between the whistle tone and the full tone of the note, that will really get rid of any fuzziness in your tone that you have from playing quietly. It helps clear up which harmonics are sounding, and make it a really clear, pure tone, which is wonderful for a lot of soft situations.

My last two bonus tips, which are super duper important, actually, one of them is hydration and ChapStick. When I'm dehydrated, forget about playing soft. My lips feel really stiff, inflexible, it's very difficult for me to do tapers, the high register is also wonky. I figured this out in college, that my tone is just generally much stronger and healthier sounding when I'm hydrated. So, if I have a big recording session, or audition coming up, I really make sure to drink a ton of water the day before. And throughout the day, if I'm going to be playing a lot, as well.

And I live in Colorado where it's really dry, so it's also important for me to use ChapStick now. That's going to depend on your location, but that can also help keep your lips more flexible. Just don't use it right before you play, preferably, because then sometimes you're sliding all over the place. But I try to use it other times during the day.

Last tip. If you're having trouble with intonation on a line where it's decrescendo-ing, and going up ... For example, in Debussy's Syrinx, there's the little ... My tip for that situation is to reverse the dynamics. Sometimes when you've been practicing something one way, and you've been flat on it consistently, that's just how your ear hears it now. You're just hear it flat, and it sounds correct, and then it's really hard to break out of that. If you reverse the dynamics ... that can help. Doing this with a tuner, again, can help cement in your ear the correct place for those notes to be. And then when you go back to doing the written dynamics, you'll be a lot more likely to play the notes at the correct intonation.

I hope this video was helpful for you guys with your soft playing. And if so, or if you have any questions, be sure to leave me a comment below, and I will be looking forward to seeing you in another video. Bye.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

mary l * VSM MEMBER * on April 5, 2020 @6:26 pm PST
Hi there. Very good advice. I am teaching on the net at present. It's amazing what you can hear with senior students. But do you have any tips for teaching eight year olds to co-ordinate between c and d etc without being physically present? We don't want to stop lessons as hopefully when this virus is controlled we will get back to normal
Erin Spencer - host, on April 6, 2020 @7:10 am PST
C-D is so tricky!! I use a method from Kinderflute, you put a smiley sticker on the two keys that are down for C, then you can practice "Smiley's up! (D) and "Smiley's Down!" (C)"

I have my students practice that without playing, fingers only, resting the flute on their shoulder and looking at their hands. We do that for a couple weeks then add playing. Then once they're good at that we practice GABCDCBAG without music. By the time they see it in music they're pretty comfortable with it. Thanks for watching! Teaching online is certainly an adventure!
mary l * VSM MEMBER * on April 6, 2020 @8:07 pm PST
That is such a good idea. Will get the mum's (who are helping) to get stickers. Thank you!! Mary Loonam
Sweetmary on February 5, 2020 @2:32 pm PST
thank you so much, it will help a lot. Your explanation are very clear
Erin Spencer - host, on February 5, 2020 @3:58 pm PST
Glad it was helpful to you, thanks for watching! 🤗
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