The Highest Peaks: Tips for the Third and Fourth Octaves on Flute

A lot of these tips can be applied to high-register piccolo playing as well.

Twentieth Century pioneers in the realms of composition and performance have set the standard for us in terms of how high we are expected to play. For better or worse, we need to have fluency at least up to high D on the flute. Hmm, gee, thanks guys, I guess…….

The best way to go for it is to include the fourth octave your normal scale and arpeggio routine, at least up to high D. And the younger you start the better. That means now. Tomorrow you will be already older 🙂 If you need an online guide to possible fingerings for the flute, try here.

But, before launching, please consider these tips. They will save you time and prevent injury. If you have any more to share, I am all ears (while I can still hear!).

  • Wear earplugs during practice sessions that include 4th octave passages, or 3rd octave passages for piccolo. Loud noises can tire you just like muscular activity. If you protect yourself from them, you will have more energy and be able to practice longer. The ordinary wax kind will do the job and are better than the foam ones because they nestle in your ear more snugly.
  • Regular harmonics exercises can give you a good basis for healthy upper octaves. See my tutorial here.
  • Robert Dick’s initial advice: get the angle of the air correct first by finding the whistle tone. Usually we need to be rolled out a bit more that we are used to. Then blow!
  • Think of putting energy into your air stream, not your lips. The lips have to be firm to withstand the onslaught of air, but that’s all. Don’t try to create the sound with them, the source is down below.
  • Where down below? A quick focus on the muscles of your pelvic floor before you blow will help. They should move down a bit in contrary motion to the upward energy that comes with the air (as happens naturally when you cough). Try a quick cough (especially sitting down) to get the feeling.
  • Don’t be tempted to squeeze from your sides, though, as happens when normally coughing! This squeezing of the rib cage through the intercostal muscles (“helped” by bringing in the elbows sometimes) feels normal when coughing or panting after being out of breath, but in flute playing, for a quick burst of air, it is more efficient to have the ribs stable and let the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles do the rest. This way, there are no hard objects (rib bones) to slow you down.
  • In practice, do not be tempted to bend forward to “help” or force the air to come out. Staying upright will actually give the abdominal muscles more flexibility and space for re-bound. The choreography you add to a dramatic passage for a concert is totally up to you. Bending at the knees would be a better option, though. However, for general practice, I would start thinking “up” instead of down or forward.
  • At first practice the fourth octave in your own dynamic, don’t try to do extremes of loud or soft. What comes will come.
  • Come down again! Don’t spend too many consecutive minutes in your practice in the fourth octave without playing some in the first octave, or even just resting and not playing at all.
  • And while you are resting: if the fourth octave passage is technically difficult and requires a lot of technical repetition to learn, finger the passage silently with the flute comfortably in your lap. Watch your fingers, concentrate on relaxed breathing, inhaling as well as exhaling, without any unnecessary stress or tension in your shoulders or hands. Combine this practice with actual playing.
  • Watch intonation. In a repertoire passage, if tempo allows, choose fingerings that are as in tune as possible. If the passage is microtonal, I often use standard fingerings for notes that should be up to a quarter tone sharper in this octave, then play the “normal” notes with flattened fingerings.
  • With a difficult repertoire passage, make a short exercise based on the 4th octave notes and include it in your daily scale and arpeggio practice. Then while practicing the piece, you will have time to work on musical aspects.

What to do about quieter dynamics?

This is where you can go “virtual”, that is, create the impression of a real piano even though the sound may be quite present. In some cases, the struggle to play quietly is part of the composer’s esthetic, or sometimes the composer just wants a diminishing of energy and will allow for a “relative” piano. Always ask if possible, don’t knock yourself out trying to achieve perfection if the composer doesn’t want it in the first place.

If a composer really wants a true piano or pianissimo in the fourth octave, or even in the third octave on flute or piccolo, do your best to:

  • think of approaching the beginning of the note from above. You can practice this by deliberately blowing too high, and then aiming the air down gradually until you hit the sound. No worries if this doesn’t sound great at first, this is something that you can refine over time.
  • keep the air speed up and not pinch with the lips. Easier said than done. Quite often in the practice room I get that buzz from the lips that comes from them being too close together at too high an air speed. Open them up, allow a little airiness in the sound, it may still sound loud up close but it will carry less. I remember Pat Morris saying that in an orchestral or large ensemble situation, a little airiness in the sound can be ok in that register, it can help blend with the strings, and gives a sound that makes it easier for others to blend in with you.
  • a tip I learned from a student to help with the lips: think of flaring the nostrils just before starting the note. I had heard this advice in the context of trying to get more sound in the low register, and was delighted to realize that it works in this situation as well. Why? My guess is that it somehow activates awareness into your upper lip muscles. They may be less likely to press down with the nostrils flared.

Photo: EPA stock photo



2 responses to “The Highest Peaks: Tips for the Third and Fourth Octaves on Flute”

  1. Zara Lawler Avatar

    Nice advice, Helen. I especially like the idea of practicing with the flute in your lap, no tension in the shoulders, etc…

    Another comment to add to your general one re: dynamics. If you are working with a composer on a new piece, being written for you, but up front with him or her about what you can and can't do in the 4th octave. Like you say, they may have a flexible idea about what they want anyway. Also, if you can't do what they ask, it's likely other flutists can't either!

  2. Flutin' High Avatar

    Absolutely, that's something to be considered! Thanks for posting, Helen

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