Chapter 2

Wh’Air Does it Go?


This chapter came about as a result of a posting that I recently made on ‘Etude of the Week’ on Facebook, where the whole subject of playing a true legato, with reference to both scales and intervals was raised. The studies in question were Köhler Opus 33, Book 1, Nos. 1-3.


Thinking that this would be quite an easy task, multiple pages later, I have realised that I have entered a veritable rabbit warren with many tunnels yet to be charted and it is going to be a long time until I finally find my way back out again!

The following therefore is by no means the complete story, but will hopefully provide you with some thoughts and ideas that will potentially be of use to you in your practice and performance.

All the points and ideas raised, come from conclusions that I have arrived at with regards to my own playing and the way in which I wish to interpret music. They have thankfully worked for myself. If they also work for you, I will be delighted. However, if not, I hope at least that they will provide you with some concepts to experiment with.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.

Leonardo de Lorenzo, the renowned Italian flute virtuoso, teacher and composer for the instrument, wrote an excellent and highly informative book (ISBN 0-89762-277-5) with the title,

‘My Complete Story of THE FLUTE.’

In this, he writes about how he was once interviewed and asked the following quite simple question:

‘Is the flute an easy instrument to play?’

His answer, we should all have engraved on the inside of our flute cases, so that every time we open the box to assemble the instrument, we are reminded of his very clear message to us all:

‘The flute is an easy instrument to play badly!’

So terrifyingly simple and truthful!

To start with, it is important for us to have an idea as to why he might have said this.

We all know that to truly master any instrument is a colossal undertaking that can take years, if not a life time of constant, methodical practice and total dedication.

I believe though that the flute, of all the woodwind instruments, has unique attributes that single it out as the most complicated to truly master. By stating this, I am in no way belittling the extraordinary challenges presented by consummate mastery of the oboe, clarinet or bassoon, but I am highlighting the key and often overlooked fundamental difference that singles out the flute from the rest of the pack. This is, of course, the total lack of a bamboo reed, be it single or double.

With the other three woodwind instruments, the reed is placed in the mouth, effectively creating a seal. Air is passed from the body of the player, through the reed/mouthpiece into the instrument and sound is created with the minimum of interference or disturbance from outside conditions.

This is not just a highly efficient system, it also has common sense splashed all over it.

No such luck on the flute though. The air has to pass through the lips, spend a little time in the atmosphere, deciding where to go next. Once the correct angle has been found it then cuts across and enters the hole that is in the mouthpiece.  On a good day, sound of some description might then be created.

I often refer to that seemingly tiny distance between the softness of the lips and the sharp front edge of the hole on the lip plate, as the ‘Grand Canyon’ of flute playing. It is an area where we have to have 100% control if we are to succeed in expressing or channelling our musical intentions through the instrument and into the ears of our audiences.

One of the many areas of my visits to the USA that fills me with hope, happens when I have the opportunity to visit university colleges and talk to flute players who play in college marching bands. This activity seems to come with a badge of pride or honour over there and it is genuinely wonderful to see young people so full of joy and enthusiasm for engaging with the flute.

Invariably I will ask them if they have ever been on parade on a windy day. 

Their smiles are a giveaway as to where this conversation is leading. Of course they have and are fully aware that once the wind is up, it will play havoc with this ‘area in between’ on the flute, to the extent that on more severe occasions, sound itself will completely disappear.

One of the more embarrassing moments from my years in the London Symphony Orchestra happened in a summer concert in Ravello, Italy. 

Set high up on the cliffs and overlooking the sea, Villa Rufolo, on the Amalfi coast, south of Naples, is where Wagner housed himself throughout the summer months, seeking inspiration to compose. It scores 11 out of 10 in the breath taking, eye-candy stakes.

Since the 1950s Ravello has hosted a music festival at Villa Rufolo and during one summer in the early 1990s the LSO, with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, were engaged to perform there.

A temporary stage is built, of a size sufficient enough to accommodate a large symphony orchestra, resting somewhat precariously on the edge of a very high up, vertigo inducing cliff. Plunging dramatically straight down into the distant sea beneath, it most definitely isn’t a comforting spot for the faint of heart.

In high summer, particularly towards dusk, it becomes incredibly hot and with constant thermals, every music stand on the stage is stocked with a modest army of clothes pegs, to restrain suicidal sheets of music from making the terminal journey over the edge, to the shoreline beneath and certain oblivion.

Added to this, the night of the concert in question happened to be a particularly gusty one. 

Having performed the overture, next up was Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto.

After the orchestral introduction in the 2nd movement, the piano solo begins with a triplet motif that cuts across the beat. Some four bars later, the 1st flute (and only the 1st flute) joins in for four bars, and after that, the strings play again. In short, it really is quite a lonely solo!

Music is full of magical moments and the above mentioned passage in Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto, is without doubt one of them. Or at least, it should be. It would be comforting to be able to report back to you that my sound that night and at that precise moment, mirrored both the beauty of the music and the sheer awe of the surroundings. I can’t and it didn’t!

In fact my sound was non-existent. Just as I inhaled to take on enough air to deliver what works best as one long, continuous phrase, a not so flute friendly, but equally long and continuous thermal chose to turbo charge itself from left to right across my face. As I attempted to begin the phrase, whilst the music on my stand thankfully remained in place, the interfering wind was so constant and strong that not a single note of the solo sounded. Handy for the music minus one version, I suppose, but apart from that, utterly useless!

In the same way that we tend to have an immediate reflex reaction on being subjected to a loud explosion, a sudden, unexpected silence, will also command a similar response.

Within a split second of no sound whatsoever emanating from the Principal Flute chair, what we musicians refer to as ‘lighthousing’ took place. 

In my moment of blind panic and acute embarrassment, virtually all of my colleagues in the violin, viola, cello and double bass sections had swivelled their heads in my direction, wondering what on earth might have happened (this was a particularly impressive manoeuvre by the players on the back desk of second violins immediately in front of me, who effortlessly managed an ‘Exorcist’ style 180 degree turn). They could see that I was trying to play the flute, but had no idea as to whence my sound had gone!

While string instruments may also be highly sensitive to their immediate surroundings (humidity being an arch enemy of the Moriarty kind), sudden and unexpected increases in wind speed are ultimately going to have very little influence on the sound that they produce. The concept of going through the process of playing a note and no sound taking place, is nothing short of alien to them. They could only have thought that something dreadful must have happened to me, such as being knifed in the back by the clarinet player. After all, the flute player steals any clarinet ‘thunder’, by starting the solo in question!

This once again highlights the absolute certainty, at least in this respect, that of all conventional musical instruments, the flute is unique.

Of interest too is the fact that woodwind instruments and reeds respond in a different way at various altitudes. I vividly remember playing in Vail, Colorado and feeling very perplexed in the first few days about a total lack of low notes when I was practicing. High up in the mountains, the atmosphere is significantly thinner and as a result we have to make more effort to propel sufficient air through the instrument to trigger low notes.

It is hard work, the only upside of which being that once you get back to sea level, you will never play the second page of the Prokofiev Flute Sonata better! The low Es are incredibly easy to thump out after some serious altitude training!

Having established that the passage of air from a human body, into and through a flute, is nothing short of complicated, we now have to understand what is required to trigger and turn these notes into music and phrases, that will then connect with those listening to us.

Fundamentally, it would seem that there are two basic methods of generating sound on the flute. One is by blowing into it and the other comes from blowing through it. The former is the route to sound and the latter to expression. 

To get to grips with all of this it is necessary to have an understanding as to how a note is created on the flute in the first place. 

As with organ pipes, the longer the tube, the lower the pitch of a note. Thus, as we gradually add more fingers when descending throughout the bottom octave, the flute becomes increasingly longer, leading to lower sounding notes. Each note has what is commonly referred to as a ‘speaker key’, which sounds the pitch of the note, this being the first open hole in the body of the flute. Therefore, if an ‘A’ is played, the next open hole or ‘speaker key’ (at least on a closed G# flute, but let’s not go there just now!) is beneath the G key.

With every consecutive finger that pushes a key down, the ‘speaker key’ is gradually becoming more distant from the source of air into the flute, i.e. the lip plate. It therefore follows that flute players should be more aware of the air energy required to not only generate sound in low notes, but also to give them suitable character.

This is where the concept of playing through a flute comes into its element.

Air travels from our lungs to our lips and the mouthpiece. It then makes its way across the ‘Grand Canyon’ to finally find the entrance into the flute. We now have sound, but if for example we are playing a low C, with the ‘speaker key’ being something close to 2 feet or 60 centimetres off to the right down the flute, our air has if anything a greater distance to travel outside of the body than it has already done inside. If we are wanting a positive result, with both character and resonance, that air will need to have intensity and in great abundance.

When I am playing, I am constantly reminding myself of the following:

In order to have a voice on the flute, air is required. Without air, there can be no voice. If we have no voice, we completely lose our ability to communicate. 

This is why I always make myself blow through a flute as opposed to into it.

Now that we have an idea as to the importance of an active or even lively air stream, we can consider how it might affect the music we are playing.

Whilst the Boehm System flute has been a major breakthrough in flute design, it still has mechanism. Unlike the six open holes of a baroque flute, where there is nothing between the pad of the finger and the top opening of the hole, on a Boehm System flute, a descending finger first has to make contact with a metal key and then push it downwards for the pad to make contact and cover the hole beneath. To this extent, the mechanism lends itself to an almost on/off action, which is not sympathetic to a wide range of expression, in particular when legato is required. Mechanism if anything, makes playing musically even more challenging.

Once again, how we use and control our air can come to the rescue.

We all know that music consists of notes and in scores we see dynamic markings and other instructions, but phrasing and musicianship can only come from the musician reading the score.

Yo-Yo Ma awhile back said that ‘Music is what happens between the notes’ and I am 3,000 percent in agreement with him. However, this also needs a little bit more explanation.

I think of it like this:

If you have two notes, one after the other, the space and time in between these notes needs to be alive. If it isn’t, then subsequently the notes themselves will be isolated, lifeless or at worst, dead. In order for expression to come through, all notes, be they fast or slow, should be on a constant life support mechanism keeping the space between them alive!

This has little to do with playing soft or loud, but everything to do with playing with intensity, which will lead to musical communication.

On the flute, this can only be achieved if you have absolute control of your air.

There has to be an excitement in the air that is channelled through the flute in order to transmit shapes and varieties of sound.

A good exercise for awareness of exactly what is required, is to take a large (A4) piece of paper and hold it approximately 12 inches in front of you, the half way point being more or less at the same level as your nose.

Take a deep breath. I like to think of breathing diagonally. In other words I draw air in through my mouth, but inhale it diagonally down to the bottom of the lungs, situated halfway down my back. A breath like this should make you feel either ‘heavy with air’, or like a Neanderthal man and positively rooted to the ground!

Create a narrow aperture through your lips and now blow at the bottom part of the sheet of paper in front of you. The aim is to push that lower part of the paper further away, but also to constantly maintain its position once raised. If you can keep that lower part of the paper raised for ten seconds (or more), make a note of exactly where muscular activity is taking place.

You will feel the muscles in the middle of your body tightening. This is what I refer to as ‘support’. When playing the flute, this area should always be active as it is the source of our expression.

As you open and close holes throughout the flute when playing, these muscles should be working like a concertina, constantly ‘feeding’ air into the flute to make up for the problems caused by both the internal inadequacies of the inside of the tube and the external mechanism (as mentioned above).

In order to play a flute convincingly, we already have so many things to think about, but how we use our air is for me the most important.

If I have that correct flow or intensity of air, I am able to smoothly transition from one note to another in scales, where the ‘speaker keys’ are relatively close to one another. In arpeggios, where the distances between ‘speaker keys’ are greater, it will be necessary to intensify that air flow, if a smooth transition between notes is required. 

Perhaps of greatest significance are the disciplines of both mental and physical anticipation.

It is of paramount importance once sound comes out of the flute to know where you are going, both in the character of the tone and the shape and style of the immediate phrases.

I consider a phrase to be a system of musical hills and valleys that once strung together has the capacity to take the listener on an emotional journey.

Whether young or old, professional or a keen enthusiast, this is something that we can all explore.

So often flute players around the world simply don’t think about the breath that they take. Playing a flute is an immensely athletic and demanding exercise, of which breathing has to be mastered to Olympic ‘gold’ levels. 

A shallow, unplanned breath will not satisfy the demands of a flute and music sadly becomes the loser!

All of the above can be worked on in the wonderful études written by Köhler in Opus 33, Book No. 1 and I firmly believe that as a composer and flute player, he was acutely aware of the shortcomings of both the instrument and the people who play it!

Even though I have soaked up several pages in writing this article, I have but touched the tip of the iceberg. However, I hope that in the process, it will at least have given you some food for thought, that might ultimately make your time spent with the flute that much more gratifying, satisfying, interesting and rewarding!

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