How to Blow a Side-Blown Flute
By Richard Harrison.
If you’re battling to get a sound out of your flute, I hope that the following advice will be of help. Learning to blow a flute is challenging, but writing about how to do it is even more challenging! You have a few choices. There are Music Teachers who could help you at a cost of course. Perhaps all you need are a couple of lessons. Or you could get help on the web. For example, you can down load page two of my teaching tutorial from this website, or you could read some additional advice below.
The only way to learn to blow the flute is to work hard. Keep at it and you will be rewarded with the knowledge that you overcame a challenge and learnt how to make music from one of the most melodic instruments in the world.
My Teaching Method
After using my teaching method on novices I discovered the following: 20% of those who tried it were able to succeed in evoking a convincing and confident sound out of a flute within 3 minutes. There was a 30% success rate after 5 minutes. This increased to 50% after 15 minutes, 70% after 30 minutes and 75% after the end of a second 30 minute session. The remaining 25% gave up trying to learn this way or gave up any thoughts of playing the flute completely.
If you want to skip the information below, go directly to the “Sharp Edge” section to be one of the talented 20% who learn within 3 minutes. You can return to the script later on to learn the other details if you have difficulties.
Warning: Not everyone is capable of getting the right Embouchure (the correct technique with the lips) to blow a flute. If for example you have an upper lip that has an extra fleshy part in the centre of it like an elephant’s trunk you are unlikely to succeed in the Flute. Rather try the guitar instead!
Holding a flute
Flutes are positioned on your right hand side. Hold the flute horizontally. Your left hand palm facing you covers the holes nearest to you. Your right hand palm faces away from you and covers the holes further down the flute.
At this stage, getting a sound out of your flute is the primary objective, not getting a tune or doing a scale. If you have a concert flute, pull the instrument apart to leave you with only the mouth piece. If you have a flute similar to the First Flute (Irish, Bamboo, etc) then only cover the holes with your left hand leaving the holes normally covered with the right hand open.
Getting to know yourself better
Now stand in front of a mirror and study your face.
Look at your mouth, lips, tongue, front teeth, gums and chin.
Whistle to yourself and watch what your lips are doing. If your lips pucker (as if you’re about to kiss someone) then you know how to whistle, but this is totally the wrong lip action in blowing a flute. Now feel with the tip of your finger an inch away from your lips how wide the jet of air is that you’re blowing out by passing your finger from side to side. Feel how much pressure you’re blowing onto your finger.
Now stop whistling but keep blowing. Remember to breathe. And draw your lips tauter across your teeth which are not closed, but are about 3 to 5 mm apart. The jet of air will increase in width two to three times and decrease in height by half. Look at the opening between your lips. When you were whistling, the opening was roundish and the size was nearly equivalent to four match sticks stacked 2 by 2 together. Now the mouth’s opening should be flatter and nearly equivalent to the same 4 matchsticks but stacked side by side. It could even be as wide as 6 matches side by side.
Now consider what your tongue does when you talk. Do the whole alphabet if you want. Watch and feel what your tongue is doing and where it goes and which other parts of your mouth it touches. In flute blowing we are mostly concerned with the action of the tongue when it makes the “T” sound. Concentrate on what happens when you say “Tea” lots of times. Say it staccato. Now focus on what happens when you say “Too” or “Two” lots of times. Now focus on saying “Do” lots of times – without laughing at this childish joke! What similarities and what differences do you notice between the 3 exercises?
They are all similar in that the front of the tongue flattens itself on the roof of your mouth behind the front teeth. Both side edges of the tongue flatten against the sides of your upper molars. Your tongue prevents you from breathing out of your mouth until you remove the tip of the tongue to make the “T” sound. Also notice that there is a high pressure release when this happens. The difference between the “Two” sounds and the “Do” sound is that there is more pressure on the “T” than the “D”.
The difference between the “Tea” and the “Two” sounds is that your lip opening widens more when saying “Tea” than saying “Two”. Your lips pucker when saying “Two”.
Now for the contradiction: I want you to resume to the lip position as discussed above (4 to 6 matchsticks wide) and let your tongue (NOT your lips) say “Two” over and over again. Now do this repetition lots of times and feel the jet of air with your finger. This is the action you want.
Now explore your chin and the cleft above it with the side of your right forefinger. Then explore your lower front teeth with your lip in front of them. Feel for the bottom of your lower front teeth as they go into your gums through the thickness of your lower lip.
The lip plate is not going to fit snugly into the cleft of your chin. Everyone has unique features, which is why I want you to explore this region of your face to really get to know your face shape a lot better.
Now check out your lower lip. There is the fleshy red part which is your lip and the “line” that differentiates where your lip ends at the bottom and where your normal skin colour takes over. This “line” is important in the next section. Before we get there, do some contortions with your lips and mouth whilst watching yourself in the mirror. Flatten your lips by stretching them over your teeth. Look at what your brain intends your facial muscles to do, but fails to make that perfect symmetry of both sides of your face at the same time. Have you ever tried using a portable mirror and putting it at the right angle to your face and another mirror to check what you would look like in a mirror image? I promise you that your right side is different to your left side. Or try putting a mirror on a magazine picture of a celebrity to see if they look the same on the right and left sides. They don’t.
In my case, when I blow the flute the very centre of my upper lip goes 5mm to the right. You may be dead centre, or 5mm to the left. Again everyone is unique.
The above details are to try to get you to accept the fact that you can’t mimic someone else who can blow a flute. You have to explore and understand your features so that you can manipulate them until you can feel how to blow a flute in your own unique way.
Ok, enough of getting to know yourself better.
The Sharp Edge (for the talented 20% – The 3 minute challenge)
Study the embouchure or blow hole of your flute. The edge of the hole has a sharp edge all the way round it. (It’s not sharp enough to cut you, so do not worry.) The furthest side of the hole from your mouth is known as the “Sharp edge”. Your jet of air is going to be bisected by this sharp edge where half of the jet is going into the flute and approximately the other half is going over the hole of the flute. It is this “cutting” of the air jet that sets up a vibration in the flute which causes the sound.
For the moment, I want you to focus on the sharp edge which is nearest to you. Feel its shape and sharpness with your finger. Now, for location purposes, I want you to put that sharp edge against the centre of the “line” of your lower lip. (The line is where the bottom of your red lip changes into your normal skin colour) Turn the flute so the hole is aiming directly at the ceiling and check in the mirror how much of your lip is covering the hole. Contort your lip back into your teeth until about 1/3 rd of the blow hole is covered by your lower lip. This manoeuvre is to get the correct location. (Remember: Lower Lip Line on near side Sharp Edge)
Now the next part is like blowing over a Coke bottle to get a sound. Blow OVER the hole, not into it, with your 4 to 6 matchstick opening in between your lips as described above. You shouldn’t be getting a sound yet so please be patient. Use your right forefinger to test the jet of air like before.
Either, manipulate your lips so the jet goes downwards and bisects the “sharp edge” on the far side of the blow hole, Or, rotate the flute slightly clockwise and upwards to get a sound. Keep that lower lip attached and in the right location.
Keep on trying, (remembering to breathe) until you get some kind of sound. When you get one, try to repeat it again and again and again. Try doing the “2 2 2 2 2” exercise as well.
Did you manage to get a note that you’re confident with within 3 minutes? Good for you (and me the teacher!) if you did. Just keep trying if you didn’t.
Do not spend longer than half an hour on this. Take a break. Go buy yourself a small bottle of Beer or Coke and have a drink. Try blowing over the empty bottle to get a sound before going back to the flute. If you’re getting a sound from the bottle, check what you’re doing to get it right in the mirror and feel the air jet with your finger. Do the “2 2 2 2” exercise again. Once you think you’ve got the idea of what is happening, go back to your flute and have another crack at it. Please note that the top of the bottle has a larger hole than your flute blow hole so there will be a difference in blowing techniques between the two.
Once you’ve mastered getting a sound
Before you start getting carried away by moving your fingers on the flute to make tunes, you have to remember how to get a note first time every time. Study yourself in the mirror. Check out the final (correct for you) placement of the flute on your lower lip. Check out where the lip plate pressurises your skin against your lower gums so you can get the location right again and again.
Is your note crisp? Or is it a bit “Hissy”? Try to improve the quality of your note.
Once you’re happy that you want to go to the next stage then use your fingers to get different notes. You can purchase teaching materials or even use my self-teaching tutorial (which is a free attachment to this website) to get you started.
Are you or your Flute Sharp or Flat?
Before I conclude this tutorial, you need to be aware that when you are good enough to accompany another musician or musical instrument, you may sound a bit sharp or flat with your flute in relation to him/her/them. I’m assuming you know what being Sharp or Flat is at this stage of your musical development. The Concert Flute instructions will be able to explain what to do to get in tune.
To get in Tune with your First Flute or other similar type of flute, you will need to develop another skill which is known as: “Lipping up or Lipping Down” It’s not difficult if you have an ear for music. All you have to do is slightly change the angle of your jet of air by manipulating your upper lip to get a flatter sound or sharper sound.
You could also check your flute with a properly tuned piano and manipulate your lips to get in tune. If you have a good ear for music, your brain will guide you to being in tune, as I like to say, being in sync!
I hope the above instruction has been useful and informative to you. If you have any questions or criticisms please email me and I will attempt to assist you further.
One advantage that the First Flute has over a Concert Flute (other than the price) is that a novice can learn to blow a flute easier because the fingering is very basic. They won’t even need to observe their fingers as they get proficient. Students of the concert flute, however, tend to want to look at where their fingers are going and unconsciously lose the mouth positioning in the process. They may also lose the note as a result.
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