Which extended techniques are harmful to flutes?

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During composer workshops, I am sometimes pleased to hear the question: “What are some techniques we should definitely not use because they may harm your instrument?”

So I will keep a running list here.

  • Slamming your hands onto the keywork. A snap of the finger for a key click is one thing (and not all flutists like to do this, including myself), but once I was actually asked to raise my arm above my head and bring my hand down full force on the keywork. Repeatedly. For some reason, I had trouble convincing this particular composer that this might actually break or bend the posts and rods holding the keys in place.
  • Immersing part of the flute in water. If water, even a tiny drop, gets onto the key pads, the pad can swell up and not seal properly (and it may need to be replaced). The same can happen when pads are exposed to excess moisture, which is why I do not like to play out of doors, but that can’t be helped sometimes.
  • Putting your mouth directly on wooden lip plates. This is why I get out my plastic piccolo if I have to do a tongue ram or any percussive effect that requires me to close the embouchure hole with my mouth. Salivation is the first stage of digestion, and I don’t want the result of those chemical processes on finely carved wood.
  • (Not an extended technique, but please bear in mind.) Extreme temperatures. With metal flutes, key pads and the mechanism might go out of adjustment. With wooden instruments, it can be fatal! Some insurance companies will not even pay out if damage occurred while the instrument was below or above certain temperatures.

I am sure I have forgotten something!


Harmonic Exercises, with Articulation too!

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When playing through the harmonic series, the second overtone (a twelth above the fundamental) is a great check point. When students begin learning harmonics, this one often proves elusive because of the tendency to cover too much of the embouchure hole. By rolling out a bit and blowing down, it usually speaks. The following exercise I find useful because it begins by alternating between the normal fingerings and the harmonic fingerings. For those new to harmonic exercises, it provides a good anchor.


The next page gives a workout for the lips, and introduces articulation to harmonics, although it is also useful to practice legato in bars 13 to 38. I find articulation exercises with harmonics, such as those in Trevor Wye’s book, to be great stabilizers and strengtheners for the embouchure.



Continuing with articulation, I am further inspired by Paul Edmund-Davies’ “The 28 Day Warm Up Book”. His articulation exercises are a mainstay of my warm up, and I decided to go one further and translate some into harmonic exercises. (Read my review of this book here.) This first exercise strengthens the elusive second overtone:



This next one overblows the third overtone. It is for those already strong in this area; please don’t over do it, or any of these exercises. It is useful to combine these variations with Edmund-Davies’ original.




Notating New Sounds – Rewrite?

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I love it when a composer takes the flute in hand and explores its sounds while writing for flute. It shows more dedication and curiosity than just looking up techniques in a book (not to disparage the good books about writing for flute).  Sometimes, it can produce an original sound, but sometimes it re-invents the wheel. Which is fine, but the wheel may come with a new symbol and complicated instructions. I have seen this cause frustration, esp. when the instructions are lengthy and not in your language. Once you reach understanding: “ah ha, so it is ____(fill in known technique)” it may be easy to adjust to a new notation. If not, then I am faced with the question, do I spend time re-notating, or visually re-adjusting to the score? This is something I will come back to.

In no way do I wish to discourage composers from exploring flute sounds themselves. However, be aware that today there are not only books, but a rash of flutist composers out there who have spent decades thinking about how to write new sounds in ways that flutists can easily understand. So if you really want to delve into the world of new sounds, check out these composers and their written scores: (Feel free to add to this list in the comments, but please keep it to composers who use extended sounds.)

It might interest you to look at the late flute works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Thanks to his collaborator, Kathinka Pasveer, everything is 100 % playable and extremely well notated. Xi, Flautina and Kathinka’s Gesang are several examples of pieces with well-notated techniques.

You will see that even among flutist composers there is no standardization of extended techniques. However if you study them, you get a feel for what is accepted and what the players are used to reading. So take your pick; if the player has questions, you can always refer back to the piece or composer from which you took the notation.

Now, about re-writing, or rather, re-notating. When the question comes whether to spend my time re-notating or to spend time learning a tricky or non-intuitive (for me) notation, I almost always choose to re-notate. This might be to more easily read the notation of an extended technique, microtones, or rhythm, etc. Please note this is a last-resort solution. I am already comfortable with many variations of key-click, tongue pizz, air sound, and multiphonic notations. However, when the score presents a real visual problem for me, I decide to re-notate. This has the following advantages:

  • I get to know the music really well away from the instrument
  • While practicing, I can easily and more directly process the composer’s intent (i.e. the music)
  • In concert, I feel more secure. When under pressure, there is enough extraneous sensory information and certainly there are enough extraneous emotions to deal with. If you are not playing from memory, the score is your anchor. It has to be solid.

In the olden days, copying scores was one way students learned music. There is a lot to be said for this method, but I don’t recommend subjecting 21st century ensemble players to it. Solo pieces are different matter. However, if your piece requires the performer to re-notate and is being work-shopped along with six other pieces in the course of one day, your piece will stand out, but not in the way you hoped 🙂