If you’re learning to play the flute, you’ve probably heard people talk about embouchure and how important it is to a flute player. Developing a flexible flute embouchure can be the difference between a weak, fuzzy sound and clear, beautiful notes. But what exactly is the embouchure and how can we develop our embouchure while playing flute in order to improve our sound?
When we talk about embouchure in relation to the flute, we might be referring to two different things: the embouchure of the flute, or, most often, the embouchure of the player.
The Embouchure of the Flute
The embouchure on the flute itself is the hole in the head piece that we blow over to make sound and the lip plate that sits around it. Over the history of the flute, the shape and size of the embouchure has been experimented with and changed from round to oval, oblong to square, big and small.
Flute makers today have usually settled on shapes between a long oval to a rounded rectangle. A hole shape that is small and oval makes for a more responsive upper register, while a large, rectangular hole boosts tone in the lower register of the flute.
Whatever shape of embouchure hole flute players have on their flutes, their playing can benefit from developing their individual embouchures.
The Flutist’s Embouchure
When we talk about an individual flutist’s embouchure, we’re referring to the shaping of the lips while playing the flute. Because everyone’s physical characteristics are different, embouchure is very individual for every player. Embouchure is affected by mouth size, lip shape and thickness, the way the lips come together when closed and the space between them when they’re opened.
Embouchure is also affected by a host of other physical attributes that can’t be seen when playing – the inside cavity of the mouth, the size and the location of the tongue, etc.
There are some flute teachers who see certain physical attributes as more beneficial to flute playing than others, but the truth is that physical attributes are not really predictors of a good flute player. In fact, some flutists with very similar embouchures create very different sounds, while some flutists with very different embouchures create very similar sounds. As a flute player, experimenting with different techniques while paying close attention to your sound is incredibly important to finding the best flute embouchure technique for you.
Why Work on Embouchure?
A flutist’s embouchure controls the size, shape, direction, and speed of the air-stream that blows across the flute’s embouchure hole to create sound. Therefore, a flutist’s embouchure can have a huge impact on both tone, the quality of the sound, intonation, and the pitch of the note. Developing your flute embouchure can help you get rid of the fuzzy or breathy sound that comes from the air-stream being unfocused or misdirected in how it hits the edge of the embouchure hole.
Flutists are always trying to reach the ideal sound on each note – one that is clear and focused, solid but also sweet, and moves smoothly from one note to another, even when leaping from a low note to a high note, or vice versa. This is difficult because each note is slightly different in tone quality and color. The more you consciously develop your embouchure on each note while playing long notes and moving slowly between notes, the more automatic your technique will become, making it easier to play with that ideal sound on each note even when the tempo is very quick.
Basics with the Head Joint
If you’re new to playing the flute, it’s often a good idea to work on your sound with just the head joint first. This eliminates the need to think about your fingerings and makes it easier to focus only on the sound you’re making. When you hold the head joint to your lips, the lip plate should rest lightly against your chin, held steady but without too much pressure. The tube of the head joint should be parallel to your lips. Keep your head up to allow for an open airway through your throat. In general, your lips should cover about ¼ of the flute embouchure hole, though as you start to work on different notes this will vary slightly from the higher to the lower register.
To start simply, most flutists begin by forming their lips to make a pooh sound across the hole of the flute. This is the most basic way to think about forming your embouchure for playing. Even the most experienced players can benefit from practicing in this way, without tonguing, as it challenges you to start with a clear, focused tone as soon as you start your air-stream. To add tonguing, strike your tongue on the inside of your mouth just above your lips, the way you would when saying the word too.
Finding the ideal position for placing the flute on your lips and forming the embouchure can take some time, but be patient and work at it. When you’ve practiced enough, it will become second nature, and you’ll be able to feel in an instant when it’s out of place to create your best sound.
Focus and Direction
Although you want to keep your mouth relaxed overall, there is what James Galway describes as a balanced tension between your upper and lower lip which is what controls the air-stream and how it strikes against the edge of the flute embouchure hole. Think about keeping your lips firm, but not frozen, while the edges of your mouth remain relaxed.
Try this simple exercise that Galway recommends to get a better feel for how you can change your embouchure to control your air-stream: Hold the palm of your hand out in front of you and blow on it as you blow across your head joint. You should be able to feel whether your air-stream is large or small depending on how much air is hitting your hand. Experiment with expanding and tightening the focus of your air-stream as you feel it on your hand. When tight, your lips should form a small pinhole. As they expand, they should move to a more elliptical shape.
While doing this, you’ll also notice that the pressure of the air-stream changes as you change the size and shape of your embouchure. As your air-stream gets smaller, the pressure of the air will increase. When the air-stream is bigger, the pressure will decrease. This is important to note because a higher pressure and smaller embouchure will better support the higher notes, while a lower pressure and larger air-stream will better support the lower notes on the flute.
You can also use this exercise to work on the direction of your air-stream. With your hand out in front of you, practice moving the focus of the air-stream up and down your hand by adjusting your jaw and upper lip. When you play your flute, you’ll find that lower notes will have better tone with the air-stream directed slightly more downward into the flute embouchure hole, while higher notes will require the air-stream being directed more upward. While playing, these variations will be so small someone watching you play would never be able to notice you making adjustments, but you can exaggerate them during this exercise to become familiar with the lip movements required to make your adjustments.
Developing Each Note
Once you can consistently make a good sound using the head joint of your flute, you can start working on developing your embouchure for each note. As you develop your embouchure, practice exercises on every note slowly, working to get as close as you can to an ideal sound quality before moving on to the next note. Most teachers recommend starting in the middle register and working your way outward, both up and down from the starting note.
Pick the note you feel you can play with the best sound quality, and start from there. Play a long note, and focus on getting the best sound you possibly can. Make adjustments in the size, shape, direction, and speed of your air-stream until you feel you’re creating your best tone on that note. Then move down a half note, and work on the tone of that note until you feel the quality matches the tone of your first note. Continue moving slowly down by half notes until you’ve reached as low as you can play. Then return to the note you started on and work your way upward instead, stopping on each new note for as long as needed to find a clear, focused tone.
Working on Intervals
When the formation of your embouchure starts to become second nature while moving up and down the scale, you’ll want to start increasing the interval, or distance between the notes, as you practice. Focus on making the transition from one note to another as smooth as possible. Though your embouchure will change slightly, especially as you produce notes that are farther and farther apart, there shouldn’t be a noticeable change in sound quality as you change notes.
Start again with your best note, playing it as long as you need to in order to form your embouchure to make your ideal sound. Now, instead of moving only a half step, jump a whole step. Play this note until you can match the quality of your first note. Move slowly between the two notes to practice making the adjustments in your embouchure as smooth as possible. When you feel you’ve mastered these two notes, go back to your first note and start again. This time instead of moving up a whole step, move up a step and a half. Repeat the same steps, finding your best sound for this note and making the smoothest transitions possible. When you feel you’ve mastered this interval, go back to your first note and move two full steps, and so on, until you’ve worked on all the notes of the scale.
Working the Embouchure Faster
Of course, though we need to play slowly to work on our embouchure, flutists often don’t play slowly at all when playing a piece! The more you practice forming your embouchure when playing long notes, the more automatic it will become, and the easier it will be to make a great sound on faster notes.
Once you feel confident in your tone when playing slow notes and transitions, try this to test your tone when you’re playing quickly: Start from the bottom note of any scale or arpeggio. Play quickly up or down the scale or arpeggio, and then pick a note to stop on. You should focus on immediately having the best sound possible when you hit the note you’re going to stop on. Play the same scale several times and pick different notes to stop on.
Also pay attention to the notes leading up to your long note. Each one should sound with the best tone you can make, and your transitions should be smooth and clear. If they aren’t, slow down a little bit and let yourself listen to each note a little longer, taking the time to adjust your embouchure and focus your sound. Do this several times, slowly increasing your speed each time if you can do so without compromising your sound quality. Ideally, when doing this exercise or playing any passage of quick, successive notes, you should be able to stop on any note and make your best sound quality right away.
The more you work on your flute embouchure, the more automatic it will be for you to form your lips and direct your air-stream for your ideal sound. Even the best flute players continue to work on their embouchure, with the goal that every note, no matter how quickly it is played, will sound clear and sweet, with perfect tone and intonation. Working through exercises on your embouchure each time you practice will help solidify what you’ve learned and continue tweaking each note so that you can make your best sound every time.