Jen Cluff ~ High register problems

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

Intermediate asks: What am I doing wrong?

>I have no problem playing E3. (But) is there some kind of gizmo for helping with third octave F#, G#, and A?? My teacher tells me I just have to blow harder and focus the air, but if I blow any harder my head will pop off.
Another question:
>When I had trouble getting the highest notes, I discovered it was because I was breathing in shallowly, and trying to push from my shoulders. <snip> Hopefully a REAL teacher will jump in and give a fuller description (Jen, where are you?!) but maybe this will help for now.
Answers: Dear C & M,
Awe.........C., you know me so well. I had already started answering the first query last night, but then gave up because there are too many variables, just like your own early discovery that when you couldn't get your high notes it was from trying to PUSH from the shoulders.

That's why I gave up trying to answer; it could be that the person suffering from bad high notes is doing anything from pinching their nose shut, jutting out their chin too far, straining with their throat, throwing their head forward, standing on their toes, pinching their lips shut, using to little air and forcing it, to just hurling their air so hard they are missing the blow-hole of the mouthpiece. There are too many variables. We have to *see* and hear the player to diagnose correctly.

And as Joe B., our Flutenet repair representative pointed out---their cork in the headjoint could be in the wrong place!! (and thankyou Joe---that's an excellent point!!)

But nevertheless let's try a list, and see if we can find the needle in the haystack, huh?
(good thing I can type really fast!!!)

Novice level problems with high register tone:

If you can get E3 but you can't get good tone on notes higher than E3, remember that the notes that take the most careful practice are: E3, F#3, G#3: because they require much faster air, and a very, very specific aim on the embouchure. You need to practice high-register-longtones daily in order to eventually recognize the way to obtain these high notes consistently. Follow instructions in my article called :'How to get really great tone especially in the high register' and use Trevor Wye's Practice Book for the Flute, Volume I, Tone.

If you're a novice player and you've never worked on tone before, you may want to start with working on your low register first, to develop your embouchure muscles. It's literally impossible to suddenly play high register with a decent sound as a beginner. There's a build-up of embouchure feelings that have to be experienced. That's why the greatest flute experts (Wye, Moyse) always highly recommended to start low when wanting to improve high. :>) See Novice tone development and low register suggestions.

Next, as you begin to add these tone exercises to your daily practice, be sure and double and triple check the high register fingerings you're using. You may not be that surprised to learn that F#3 and A3 only speak when you're depressing the Eb lever with righthand pinky. Conversely, the best tone on Bb3 and B3 is to be had by lifting the RH4.

Take your flute down and visually check your fingerings as a novice flutist. Admit that you may have learned at least one fingering wrongly if a single high register note sounds like %#*&@^#*!@^ compared to its neighbour. :>D Hhahahahah!

For your practice area:. A good basic flute fingering chart (single page that you can tape to your music stand or put in the front of your flute workbook) can be found here.

Daily Tone Work:

We've already established that all aspiring flutists will get garenteed results from using Trevor Wye's "Practice Book for the Flute, Volume I, Tone" book, or "De La Sonorite" by Marcel Moyse.

There is no substitute for actually doing this practice of longtones.

You can even download these exercises for free here on my website.

As you do your daily tone practice descending chromatically you will be learning to poise and steady your embouchure.. When the downward moving longtones are well improved, you only then add the high register, gradually crescendoing upward, and developing a fast airspeed from low in the abdomen, and making smooth fast-air connections between your semitone slurs.

Another great high register exercise is found on the first page of Trevor Wye's Tone, and other methods. It's playing overblown harmonic series, into the high octave, using low octave fingerings, and a combination of lip changes and airspeed. The lip changes are more successful if the student thinks of more and more of a "kiss shape" to the lips the higher they get on the flute.

A great description of the effortless lip technique (corners move forward, lips go into half-kiss position) can be found in Robert Dick's book "Tone Development Through Extended Technique" which has excellent explanations for rising to the high register effortlessly by overblowing the harmonic series.If you want to see how these harmonics are played, have a look at the overblowing low C exercises online at this link.

There are also great lip exercises in Werner Richter's book "Conditioning Training for the Flutist" which is found at . THe Richter techniques are for the teacher, and then once they've ascertained how they work, they can simplify the exercises for the student.


Now for a checklist:


1. Have your flute teacher test your flute in the upper register to make sure that there are no leaks or problems that are making your high register more difficult for you.

2. Check your cork position with your cleaning rod, (not all rods are correctly marked, so have your teacher test it with a tuner too) and be sure never to over-tighten the crown which gradually pulls the cork
out of position, and makes the whole flute more difficult to play.

3. Always warm-up your low register for 10 minutes or more, and then your middle register for 15 or more minutes with LONGTONES (see Trevor Wye's "Tone" book) before trying any high register notes. Your embouchure must be stable and focussed FIRST, before stabbing at really high notes.

4. Always ascend one slurred semi-tone at a time using crescendo when starting high register longtones. Start on B2 (one ledger line B). Do not tongue every high note experimentally, but slur up one at a time. (Tonguing can cause you to unconsciously change your embouchure at the novice and intermediate levels---so slurring is much more helpful.)

5. When you gradually slur up every day, after several days you may reach high G (G3) with fabulous ringing, clear and centered tone. At G3 the embouchure and airspeed are usually perfect for the remaining notes of the high register (Gareth Morris concept that the best mouth for the high register is the mouth that gives you your best high G.) See if you can keep your embouchure still and poised in the shape for your best G3, use fast airspeed, and from there on up, only change your fingers to play notes higher than G3. (some embouchure changes may be *felt* but do not necessarily need to be *made*.)

6. The higher you go, the lower in the body the sound should be originating. Use deep belly breaths, and support from low in the abdomen. (feel as if you're pushing against the floor with your feet, or keeping a loose belt around your tummy pushed outward and taut, in order to trigger the right muscles to help you.)

7. The higher you go, the more important it is that your throat has no tension,and that your upper body is not PUSHING at all, but is just an open conduit for the air from the lower lungs to be travelling through.

8. The higher you go, the better tone comes from "a sudden relaxation of the whole face and embouchure, while continuing to sound the high note."
This advice is from Moyse in "De La Sonorite".
If you can just suddenly LET GO of all tension, while keeping a high note sounding, you will find that the note sounds clear and easily compared to when you are straining and tensing all the wrong muscles to keep a note up.

9. Check the mirror if your tone is still fuzzy on high notes. You could be twitching your lips offcenter so that the hole in the lips is no longer aiming the air at the "sweet spot" of the mouthpiece.

10. If G#3 is very difficult on your flute, experiment with the fingering:
LH 234 | RH 234

Adding the right hand middle and ring fingers to a high G# brings the
pitch down and makes the tone more stable-sounding.

10. RE-find the "sweetspot" of clearest-possible-tone if you lose it, by making tiny circular, experimental, re-aimings with your lips in a 360 degree direction (very microscopically small changes) all around the microscopic perimeter of the embouchure hole in your flute. Make a slow-motion figure 8 or infinite symbol in the tiny area where your embouchure directs the air to the mouthpiece. You may find, if you go slow enough, a perfectly focused spot where the high note sounds ringing and pure.
Go very slowly, and take note of your successes.

It could be that a micron of a change to the air direction to the north, south, east, west, or up or down suddenly gives you your tone back instantly, if you had it before and then, for no apparent reason, lost it.

Lips are easily twitched out of position, so learn to SEEK the correct"sweet spot" for a certain note by experimentation.
This is what your teacher may mean by "focus the sound".

Ask the teacher who can see you and hear you for more help on this.
More possibilities:

11. You could be holding the flute too high on your lower lip, or changing the flute's height on the lip after taking the flute away from your face.
Keep it in the same place on the lower lip for the whole 3 octave range, and move the corners of the lips gradually forward (to make the lips less tightly stretched across the teeth, and more fleshy and pouty) as you ascend the three octaves. For more information about keeping the flute in the lowest possible position on the chin, see Roger Mather's books "The Art of Playing the Flute". His explanations are the best there are (use interlibrary loan to borrow the three-volume set of Mather books, or buy from )

12. You could be trying to use too large an opening in the lips. To correct this, do harmonics, overblowing low C to the high register, every day following the first pages on overblowing bugle calls from Trevor Wye's "Tone" book.

13. Your jaw could be in the wrong position. You may think that you have to jut the jaw forward for high notes, and are jutting it way too far forward, missing the correct angle for high notes by miles!
Try aiming the air down to your left elbow instead or aiming high for high notes.

14. You could be holding the lips too tight against the teeth. Try and lift your upper lip off your front teeth so as to create a tiny air-pocket with which to aim the air into the flute.
This works great in all three octaves, but is especially in taming the high register. It goes along with #11 above: Not keeping the lips tight against the teeth, but playing in a more "kiss-shaped" position the higher you go (change is very slight---almost un-noticeable. A real "kiss" position is far too much.)

15. Many "band flutists" never really learned how to play in the high register with ease, and instead over-tighten their lips, blow really tightly (not enough air but very small lip-opening) and even roll the flute in with their hands in order to shorten the distance to the splitting edge.

The corrections are manifold: The student must RE-LEARN how to play high register without reverting to their self-taught bad-habits, and this will take time and patience and a step by step procedure. If you don't yourself know how to un-do this common high register mislearning, contact a superior flute teacher and take special lessons on how to fix it. It's a time-consuming but absolutely essential fix to learn how to:

- Blow with more and more air speed every half-step ascended during longtones. Learn to get high notes loudly at first, and don't attempt to play them quietly until several months of pure ringing tone has been achieved.

- Not to tighten the lips, but make the lip aperture smaller without tension using the muscles that surround the lips (pressing the lower lip vertically ONTO the upper lip can be a good direction.)

- Blow from the abdomen, without tightening face, neck, lips or upper chest or shoulders

- Keep the flute low on firmly placed the chin (don't roll it in EVER!)

- Keep the lips flexible and free

- Keep the lip opening round like an "o" by allowing the lip corners to come forward

- Keeping the lips off the teeth in a "half-kiss" so that the air is passing across an increased amount of inner-lip-membrane.

A dedicated flute teacher will demonstrate these concepts to you over several lessons with special exercises to help ascertain their use. They may teach overblowing of harmonics, whistle tones or any other new-habits to you.

My best advice:
Continue to get help from your teacher or from a great flute performer/teacher.
If you are doing something extra-added that is not helping (like standing up on your toes, or suddenly blowing from the left side of your lips, or pinching your throat shut, or hurling air from your collar bones) they will spot it and be able to bring your attention to it.

A good high register takes about 20 min. a day of slurred longtones for about three months or more depending on how many extraneous "trying too hard" habits have to be removed.

Here are the longtones in pdf for free.

Stay calm, stay relaxed, ascend one note at a time, and focus the sound with gradually faster air.

You should find the answers yourself by experimentation providing your flute is working normally. :>)

Best, Jen :>)
Click below for a systematic plan of working on tone using standard methods:

Low register tone and ideas for working on it.

High register tone and ideas for working on it.

Back to Jen's homepage


© Jennifer Cluff