The True Range of the C Flute

Back in the USSR, when information was really suppressed, many people were hungry for the truth. Now governments hide the truth from us under a deluge of information. I think composers suffer from this deluge, but it is not a government conspiracy.

The true range of the concert C flute is a matter of public domain, published in text books, on the internet, and God knows where else as a cold, hard fact. It is neither a state secret nor rocket science. Yet why is it ignored?

Sometimes I can understand why. We often work with composers of electronic music who transfer their sound world into “scores” and leave the instrumentation up to us. There are also arrangers who don’t sweat the details of register, and tell me up-front that I am free to choose which size flute I want to use when. That’s cool.

But when that’s not the case, how to bring this issue out from under the deluge information? I considered several options. Swear words, Russell Brand revolutionary rhetoric, sexing-up – what can I do to get your attention?

Here is my first attempt. Download it here as a PDF, or view it here. Suggestions are welcome, but please keep it family-friendly.



Low Register: Descending to Paradise

Countdown: just about one month before my performances (8 in two days!) of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s PARADIES for flute and electronic music. Am I panicking? No. But I have been soundly kicked in the butt. This piece allows for absolutely no technical weaknesses. In addition, I’ve been challenged to really expand my stability, dynamics, and coloristic range of the low register.

PARADIES is composed of 24 stanzas. Each stanza has a group of notes (ritornelli) that may be played freely and repeated, and a composed insert which can be played at any time within the stanza. Each ritornello has a fermata on a low note – that makes a lot of long low notes that need to be varied in terms of length, dynamic, vibrato, or even air sounds, fluttertongue or singing and playing.

Soft, quiet dynamics are not acoustically viable in PARADIES (even though the flute is miked). They appear at strategic moments when the electronics are not sounding full blip, but these are rare moments. I think this is too bad, but hey, Mr. S didn’t ask my opinion. A quiet dynamic may be played within the ritornelli, but there needs to be a crescendo after it. Therefore, my expansion has been in the direction of forte.

So I’m finally getting to the point about what I’ve learned about the low register. [By the way, the following can also help with bass flute playing.]
The number one killer of the low register (for me at this time) is pressing of the flute into the chin. This makes the distance from the exit of the air stream to the edge of the embouchure hole too short. The “air reed” needs space for that register, especially if you want to use a heavy vibrato!

The whole challenge in playing loud and low is to be able to give more air but to make sure the air is not too fast. Aim it down, move the flute away. These are not original ideas, but just something we all need to be reminded about from time to time. Also, there are two pieces of advice from Michel Debost (The Simple Flute) that I find really work for me:
1) Play on the middle breath. That sounds strange because if you have a long low note marked ff, the instinct is to take a huge breath and blast away. But if you have a very full tank in your lungs your airstream will me more difficult to manage, it just may come out too fast and crack that low note. I’ve found that with practice, I can play a long, loud, low note without having to take a HUGE breath.
2) Release a bit of air through the nose a fraction of a second before you play. That also sounds strange, but makes sense if you think of your airstream as a violin bow that is being set in motion before the attack.

Now to see if this all works even if I’m wearing pink! That’s right, the score specifies what color you have to wear for this piece, regardless of your chromosonal situation. The color for the 21st hour of the KLANG cycle that PARADIES represents falls in the pink spectrum. (If you play Harmonien, you wear blue, Balance, you wear green.) Dynamic expansion and wardrobe expansion, all-in-one!
Photo: Disney clip-art


To Honk or Not to Honk: Low notes

Some flutists have a naturally rich low register. For others, high notes come more naturally. Some are blessed with the ease of both. I was a weakey one in the low register for years. The flip side of that was that I could play high and quietly with more ease than many others.

What to do about weakness in the low register? I’ve compiled some advice and exercises that I give to my students (and myself!) over the years.

First of all, make sure your flute is not leaking.

There are two aspects:
1. General weakness = unwanted decrescendo as you descend
2. Forte attacks. Sometimes you may have a good sound down low, but when you are asked to play a short loud note, or start a passage on a low loud note, it doesn’t respond.

For no. 2, forte attacks, Michel Debost gives some great advice in his book The Simple Flute:
*”Finger Tonguing” = a faint percussion of the finger closest to the desired note. Not to be confused with key slaps.
*Play on the middle breath, not a big inhalation
*Hold back and give the sound a very small amount of time so that you hear it
*Let air come through the nose if necessary, so the air speed is not too fast out of the mouth. This will prevent the note from cracking

And from Robert Dick:
*Drop the belly. A trick from brass players, it keeps the center of gravity low

From Peter Lloyd:
*Blow towards the chest

If you can bring all this advice into play, that will start you off. If you really want to generally strengthen your lower register and gain control over all dynamics, you have to make a serious commitment. Have patience, it may take time to develop. It might take months or years before you are really happy with it. But isn’t life a work in progress anyway?

Moyse, Moyse, Moyse, souplesse des sons graves from de la Sonorite (page 10 in my edition). It helps, but only if you really, really do it, and like physical exercise, it pays to play it every day instead of a lot one day and then nothing for a week.

Another exercise I call “Swimming”. There’s almost nothing to it: just take a low note, say D. Take a good but not huge breath and play the note mezzo forte until the breath is done (but don’t squeeze out). Breath in normally, don’t hurry. Repeat this process about 10 times. Why is it swimming? While you are playing the note, you can imagine you are under water and moving forward through sound. You go where there is the most resonance. You really listen, small hisses in the sound, unevenness, a sudden opening, whatever. Let them happen. Just go forward, and when you need a breath, surface like a dolphin and get a breath, then go back in.
You’ll notice by the 10th time probably that the sound has opened up.

You can also make an exercise from the Berio Sequenza. Almost every lesson I give on this piece ends up being a lesson in articulation, especially for the low register. Take the opening gesture, or any low articulated passage in the piece and do the following.
*play legato with focused, not forced, sound. The throat should be open, but not too stretched. Too stretched will interfere with articulation that’s coming up in the next step.
*play with “Ha” articulation. Move the belly, but not too exaggerated. Think more of activating it (and dropping it) rather than jiggling it
*now use the tongue, only as an opening valve, not a sledge hammer. Keep in mind Debost’s comments above.

Then there is the phenomenon of the disappearing low register. Players who don’t normally have problems with low notes encounter this like a bad hair day, there seems to be no explanation. You can wake up and they’re just not there!
*Check your flute, maybe it’s leaking. Maybe there’s a cigarette paper stuck on a pad.
*Gently, gently wipe your lips with a clean tissue. There might be a build-up of dry skin on the lips.
*Some people swear that this happens when there is a drop in atmospheric pressure. Is it about to rain? Maybe that’s your excuse.
Any other advice or observations? I’d like to hear them.