Jennifer Cluff

Canadian Flutist and Teacher





Sudden loss of flute tone



Help I have a sudden loss of tone

After swabbing your flute out to be sure there are no water droplets plugging up the headjoint, there are five further things that may cause sudden loss of flute tone:

1. Your ears are getting better and you only THINK your tone sounds worse.

2. Your lips have drifted off their mark and are not hitting the optimal "sweet spot" on your flute.

3. There is something physically wrong with your flute

4. You are not supporting the air with full lung capacity.

5. You have adopted some tense or "overcontrolled" method of producing tone that is no longer working.

Some words on each:

1. Your ears are getting better:

You’ve just started practicing “Tone” in the past few months, and the more serious you get about listening for good tone, the better your ears are able to tell you that your tone is actually not that good at all.
Trevor Wye covers this in his “Tone” book (Practice book for the flute, vol. 1). He suggests: "Your tone hasn’t gotten worse; your ears have got better."
Keep going; experiment until you can get the tone that your ears demand.
Work low register first before ascending to higher notes.
Do extensive longtone work every day as a warmup.
‘De La Sonorite’ (Alphonse Leduc publisher) by Marcel Moyse is a workbook that covers this in depth.

2. Sudden fuzzy tone over several days when it was fine before?
Possibly: your lips have drifted, and are in a different place than when your tone was great.

Check the mirror. It’s very simple for the hole in your lips to have unconsciously moved to the left or right, or that you’re placing the flute off-center, and haven’t felt this.

When your tone sounds great, look in the mirror and analyze where everything is “in place” while playing (chin should be up to look at lips, chin goes down to look at where the air is hitting the hole in the flute.)

If there is no mirror, learn to sense where the “sweet spot” is on the mouthpiece through experimentation:
Blow in all directions, slowly moving the lips to blow at all points of the compass, and to experiment with closing the lips more on the left, or closing them more on the right, or opening more on the left, or opening more on the right.
You will eventually be able to sense where the best sound is, and move your lips into this position without a mirror, but mirrors make it a lot easier.

If using your ears, keep a mental record of what you did when the tone finally became good and clear. If all else fails, play chromatic scales, or low register melodies, just using the gradual improvement in sound that appear naturally, and relaxing into them to keep the flute ringing.

Pay attention also to where you place the flute on your chin: placing the flute's lip plate either too high, or too low, or not flush with the skin of the chin, can cause you to sound different every time you play. Place the flute’s blow-hole at the lower line of your bottom lip (where the skin turns from red to skin-tone) if you have thin to moderate lips. (Thick lipped players may place the flute higher on the lip.)
Experiment with allowing the pressure of the flute’s lip plate to be felt chiefly across the roots of your bottom teeth, through the skin of your chin.
If you use this same facial placement each time your lips will have more mobility (pressure of lip plate is not squishing lips) and lower balance point on the chin allows the flute to remain more securely in place no matter what embouchure experiments you try after that.

It’s also sensible to place a dab of ink or nail polish (or cut out stickers that line up exactly) for the spot where you typically align your headjoint, so that you’re putting your headjoint on in the same way everyday. Changing where you align the headjoint to the keys, or having a different set-up each day doesn’t allow tone consistency to develop (flute is always in a different place, and balances in the hands differently). If your tone is getting progressively worse because the weight of the rods and keywork is slowly causing your flute to roll in while you play, see this article on
aligning the headjoint so that the keys stay balanced as you play.

Finally, if you have a sudden loss of tone:

3. There may be something physically wrong with your flute:

Some examples of what’s wrong when the tone suddenly becomes fuzzy:
a) Headjoint leaks:
- leak in the cork
- crack in the solder that holds the lip plate on (to avoid this, never grasp the lip plate during assembly/disassembly.)

To check for the above leaks, stopper the headjoint with a wetted finger pad laid over the blowing hole and do a suction test through the open tenon end. The suction should be like a mini-vacuum. If you hear any hissing through the cork or the lip-plate, and cannot create a vacuum, take to a repair person.

b) Damage/dents

A dent in the exact wrong place can affect certain notes, as it interferes with the node required for that note or notes. Not all dents affect the sound, but a dented embouchure hole will often make a flute unplayable.
Take to a repair man and have dent assessed.

c) Leaking pads or bent keys:

- thumb pad leaking will affect all of the flute’s notes except those which have no thumb.
- G# pad leak will affect all notes below G.
- D# pinky pad leak will affect notes such as E, D and footjoint notes.
- Bb key leaks will affect A, Ab and G primarily, and make low notes slightly fuzzy.
- other pad leaks will cause clenching of the fingers, and pounding of the keys.
If you notice that you’re clenching and pounding, a habit which builds up unconsciously over time, as leaks become greater and greater, take flute to repair person immediately.

To test with feeler papers to find out exactly which key is leaking (in case you can then use an adjustment screw for a quick repair) see my article on
“Test your flute” for using “feeler papers”.

To save your flute from bent keys, never touch moving parts when assembling or putting way. To save pads, never buff the pad edges accidentally when cleaning off finger prints, and always swab out before putting away.

A top-notch repair person should check for leaks at least once a year.

d) Gunk build-up inside embouchure hole can cause fuzzy tone (as can water condensing while practicing in a cold room or hall.)

Swab flute frequently in cold rehearsal spaces, and clean once or twice a year with alcohol, gently using a Q-tip, inside the embouchure hole.
Old lipstick, lip-moisteners, facial make-up and sloughed off skin cells can cause problems for some people if they haven’t cleaned the inside of the embouchure hole.
Water buildup inside the flute, from warm air condensing against cold metal, can also cause a stuffy tone quality. Swab the flute frequently using a flute swab or “The Flute Flag” (which can be ordered as full-length, so that you don’t need to take the flute apart to remove water), or close all keys and blow fast blasts of air through the flute to let the water drip out (this last method is only for the privacy of the practice room.)

A final possible reason for sudden loss of tone could be:

4. You’re using almost no abdominal muscles to blow with, but are trying to play the flute with very little air, and very tight lips.

This is basically self-explanatory.
Get your teacher to help you trigger abdominal blowing support in a systematic way.

Examples;

- saying HA, HA, HAAAAAAAAA!!! (or "Ah , Ah, AHHHHH!) while holding a longtone, to “jumpstart” the abdominal blowing muscles.

- singing and playing at the same time to develop lung and throat resonance

- pushing down against the floor with the feet to engage the floor of the pelvis as this is connected to the diaphragm with muscle tissue.

- pushing out against and imaginary belt tied loosely around stomach
etc. etc.

All these are tricks to using the abdomen to create the basis of rich, full tone and keeping the throat, jaw and mouth relaxed and open.

They are of great help in getting rid of the fifth possible problem:

5. You have adopted some tense or "overcontrolled" method of producing tone that is no longer working.

All flute players go through periods where they seem to have lost their tone, and for no apparent reason. If all the above helpful hints (looking in a mirror, increasing air flow and support from the lungs, and opening up the mouth, throat and jaw, are not working, it could be that you have become "tone obscessed".

During the frustrating civil war of being "tone obscessed" you will find that your muscles and brain are at cross-purposes, and that the harder you TRY to play with beautiful tone, the more elusive a great tone has become.

So you steel yourself, grit your teeth, tense your jaw and try harder! And your tone gets worse.

So you finally get really upset and give up.

We've all gone through this as students, and even, from time to time, as professionals.

What is actually happening is that we are "overcontrolling" the body, and not allowing it to find its natural way to produce a singing sound.

If this is happening to you, calmly read over these great words from Flutist and teacher Fiona Wilkinson. They really really help. :>)

From "The Physical Flute" book; original edition (this text was not included in updated editions of this book):

"There are days, once the tone is established, when the sound just will not come. The flutist usually blows a few notes, stops---feels dissatisfied, blows, stops, etc. This produces little success because each time you stop, you create a different embouchure, ie: there is no common denominator to work from. You must work from the sound you have that day even if it's not to your satisfaction. Keep blowing loosely, and let the airstream and lips wander to a sound that you are happier with. Breathe without taking the flute away from the face, and come right back in where you left off. If you keep a steady stream of sound going like this for 4-5 minutes, keeping the mind and body open to responses in the sound, the body will have found its own way to a better sound. Trust yourself to sustain. We don't play enough "steady sounds" in our practice. It's an excellent stamina builder too.

The trick (while playing your 5 minute stream) is to try to ease the sound out in every direction. Spin the sound up and around your head; fill the four corners of the ceiling with sound.

Get excited about what you are doing. Once the sound begins to sing, keep the breaths short and jump back in the pool of sound you have created. Don't change the pitch, just keep that sound going until you have your room hummiong. A singing sound is an efficient sound. Use only as much air as you need.

Take a break, then come back to apply it to a warm-up.

(Warmups that are really great for a singing sound are given in this book "The Physical Flute" by Fiona Wilkinson. To purchase see: www.fluteworld.com)

Once you are less tense, investigate tone exercises that include playing harmonics, whistle tones, dynamic swells (soft to loud etc. as found in the Moyse "Sonorite" book) and particularly the tone suggestions in Roger Mather's book "The Art of Playing the Flute" (in three volumes, this is available through interlibrary loan at your public library.)

Best of luck, but consult your teacher, and possibly a repair tech. and see more articles at the link below:
Jen Cluff

Free flute articles on TONE development and getting great high notes and great low notes:

Tone articles for novices:

Tone articles for intermediate/advanced flutists:

Books for researching how to obtain a professional tone.


I'm getting ready for a performance and my tone keeps getting "pinched off"; what am I doing wrong?

Dear Flutenet, Unfortunately my tone gets progressively pinched off whenever important performance comes up.
Is this from overuse of embouchure muscles due to a sudden increase in  practice?  do I need to put away the flute for a few days to rest my lip muscles?  what if I can't afford to do that? I have a grad-school audition coming up.
-----------------------------------
Jen replies:
 The problem you describe can be the result of several possible flute playing problems, but only your teacher can really judge which of them you're doing Have you heard feedback from your private flute teacher on this topic yet?

And to narrow it down for us, do you want to guess at which area needs work first? Maybe read the possible problems below over and send feedback?

--------------------------------
Possible reasons for tone getting progressively pinched off prior to performance and increased practice:
------------------------------------

1. Your headjoint is positioned in such a way that your keys are tilting slightly backwards; this causes them to continually roll the flute in from the weight being too heavy on the back of the flute. As you play the flute rolls inward, inward, ever inward, and finally the tone starts to degenerate. Meanwhile your hands are struggling to hold the flute.

Solution? Read:

lineup.htm

2. You typically play with a very tight embouchure, which has been fine for short bursts, but as you play longer and longer without a break, it starts to literally 'pinch off' the air supply with the lips.
You may have your jaw really tense, your throat really tense, AND your lips very tense. Solution? Play longtones in low register and relax the jaw as if you're talking. Play longtones and open throat as if yawning. Play longtones and relax every muscle in the face.
Read:

tone2.htm
tone.htm


3. You start out your practicing with a good tone, but the more tired you get, the worse your posture gets, the more you lean toward the music, getting your head off balance and clenching your hads. And the tenser you get the more determined you get and you pounding out your practice.
You have to notice when you've started over-using and over-tightening any muscle you're using. And you have to slow down and rest as you recognize the poor posture or tiredness.
Solution? Take frequent breaks, even if they're only for 30 seconds. Take the flute down, and relax everything.

See:

posture.htm

To learn to relax while playing, play only one or two notes at a time, remaining completely relaxed for those two notes.
Later: Practice a bar or less at a time, and choose a note to pause on, and hold. During the hold suddenly relax all embouchure muscles while continuing to sound the note you're paused on. Later, you can join the phrases back together again, relaxing on every long note. Read: "De La Sonorite" by Marcel Moyse (Publisher: Leduc)

Also read:

novtone.htm

4.  You may be blowing too softly or with lips too tight or too loose. This can be coupled with inhaling inadequately, blowing from high in the chest, and not using the abdominals to help move lots of air from lower in the body.
Solution? Re-learn embouchure and blowing techniques from a good teacher. Also read:

breathe.htm

5. Finally, if there's any chance you're using a "smiley" embouchure you may want to break the habit by focusing on re-developing your embouchure with your flute teacher, and/or by following a loosening exercise that Galway used to fix HIS tone when younger:
See:

galwayfest.htm

Best of luck,

Jen Flute-teacher

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Copyright © 2005 Jennifer Cluff