Sunday, September 27, 2009

To Honk or Not to Honk: Low notes

Some flutists have a naturally rich low register. For others, high notes come more naturally. Some are blessed with the ease of both. I was a weakey one in the low register for years. The flip side of that was that I could play high and quietly with more ease than many others.

What to do about weakness in the low register? I've compiled some advice and exercises that I give to my students (and myself!) over the years.

First of all, make sure your flute is not leaking.

There are two aspects:
1. General weakness = unwanted decrescendo as you descend
2. Forte attacks. Sometimes you may have a good sound down low, but when you are asked to play a short loud note, or start a passage on a low loud note, it doesn't respond.

For no. 2, forte attacks, Michel Debost gives some great advice in his book The Simple Flute:
*"Finger Tonguing" = a faint percussion of the finger closest to the desired note. Not to be confused with key slaps.
*Play on the middle breath, not a big inhalation
*Hold back and give the sound a very small amount of time so that you hear it
*Let air come through the nose if necessary, so the air speed is not too fast out of the mouth. This will prevent the note from cracking

And from Robert Dick:
*Drop the belly. A trick from brass players, it keeps the center of gravity low

From Peter Lloyd:
*Blow towards the chest

If you can bring all this advice into play, that will start you off. If you really want to generally strengthen your lower register and gain control over all dynamics, you have to make a serious commitment. Have patience, it may take time to develop. It might take months or years before you are really happy with it. But isn't life a work in progress anyway?

Moyse, Moyse, Moyse, souplesse des sons graves from de la Sonorite (page 10 in my edition). It helps, but only if you really, really do it, and like physical exercise, it pays to play it every day instead of a lot one day and then nothing for a week.

Another exercise I call "Swimming". There's almost nothing to it: just take a low note, say D. Take a good but not huge breath and play the note mezzo forte until the breath is done (but don't squeeze out). Breath in normally, don't hurry. Repeat this process about 10 times. Why is it swimming? While you are playing the note, you can imagine you are under water and moving forward through sound. You go where there is the most resonance. You really listen, small hisses in the sound, unevenness, a sudden opening, whatever. Let them happen. Just go forward, and when you need a breath, surface like a dolphin and get a breath, then go back in.
You'll notice by the 10th time probably that the sound has opened up.

You can also make an exercise from the Berio Sequenza. Almost every lesson I give on this piece ends up being a lesson in articulation, especially for the low register. Take the opening gesture, or any low articulated passage in the piece and do the following.
*play legato with focused, not forced, sound. The throat should be open, but not too stretched. Too stretched will interfere with articulation that's coming up in the next step.
*play with "Ha" articulation. Move the belly, but not too exaggerated. Think more of activating it (and dropping it) rather than jiggling it
*now use the tongue, only as an opening valve, not a sledge hammer. Keep in mind Debost's comments above.

Then there is the phenomenon of the disappearing low register. Players who don't normally have problems with low notes encounter this like a bad hair day, there seems to be no explanation. You can wake up and they're just not there!
*Check your flute, maybe it's leaking. Maybe there's a cigarette paper stuck on a pad.
*Gently, gently wipe your lips with a clean tissue. There might be a build-up of dry skin on the lips.
*Some people swear that this happens when there is a drop in atmospheric pressure. Is it about to rain? Maybe that's your excuse.
Any other advice or observations? I'd like to hear them.


  1. This is a great post! I have struggled with consistency in my low register for years and, as you mentioned, have never been able to find any cause for this occasional problem. I have tried a couple of your suggestions and have made tremendous progress. Thanks for posting.

  2. This was so helpful! I absolutely loved how you referenced the advice of Lloyd, Dick, and Debost! Your excercise of "swimming" is wonderful! I love how you use mental imagery for this!

  3. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR POSTING THIS!!! I was one of those students that had easy low notes and easy high notes to begin with, so I never really gave much thought to sound production since I felt like I was blessed with a good embouchure and naturally beautiful sound....however! These past two years I've been struggling greatly with my low notes!

    I bought myself a used Haynes Deveau flute and at first the low notes came fine, but with time they got harder and harder to play. Honestly, I thought it was the instrument because with every other instrument I picked up, I was able to play beautiful low notes with ease. I bought a new head-joint for it, I got new pads, I got it checked for leaks several times, and still the problem wouldn't go away.

    About two weeks ago, I almost got into a $20,000 debt because I was fed up with my flute and was inches away from buying a new one. I went through something, thankfully, that changed my life completely and I am so excited to share it here! :)

    My mom is an opera singer and vocal instructor at a local university. She took some time to teach me some vocal concepts that seriously cured my low note issue. She gave me a straw and had me hold it with my lips in a "kissing" shape so that the inner part of the lips were sustaining the straw. She then had me sing 1234-5-4321 scales starting with the lowest register in my voice going up chromatically. She instructed me that I was supposed to feel the air change the notes and not my throat (larynx), and not to try to produce a strong and loud sound. Just to do it freely and easily.

    I also received some instruction from a flute teacher in Alabama who told me to “pull the sound from the flute instead of blowing and pushing through it”. Combining these two ideas made incredible improvements with my low register, and I'm now able to play FFF and PPP.

    I'm also really excited to try the "swimming" exercise and also letting some air out of my nose before I begin a low note.

    Thanks again for posting! This is such a great website!


  4. Thank you Gabriel, that's an interesting story. Thank your mother for me too for those ideas, I will try the straw!