by Leonard E. Lopatin
The flute’s tone was the first thing to attract me to it. It’s what made me fall in love with it. It is always what I find most memorable when I’ve heard a really terrific artist perform.
Some have said that playing in tune is the most important thing, because average listeners (even non-musicians) tend to notice poor intonation. They will sense that something is a little off even if they can’t put their finger on just what it is. Don’t get me wrong; I’m rather fond of good intonation. An out-of-tune note is wrong, just as a cracked note is wrong. But to me, correct pitch and beautiful tone are like air and water. One can live longer without water than without air, but eventually, well, you know – ultimately, they are both important.
That is why I say: make every exercise a tone exercise. Basically this means listening to yourself and making the most beautiful sound possible, no matter what kind of exercise you are playing. You may think: “Why does it matter what my tone is like if I’m exercising my fingers or my tongue?” The first reason is obvious: these things come up in real music. The second is more subtle and more complex: When playing various kinds of technical patterns, we have to be aware of specific parts of our flute-playing anatomy, primarily to execute the pattern, but also to monitor whether we are doing anything detrimental to tone production.
A prime example is double tonguing. There is a strong tendency for the lower jaw to bounce around. Ask yourself what would happen if you bounced while playing a sustained tone. Of course, the tone would be uneven, so you can assume that when you double tongue, your “t” notes and your “k” notes don’t have the same quality. So you have to practice keeping your jaw still (not tense). Find the position that works best. You may even find a better position for all your playing. Also, try practicing etudes with the “k” attack only and with “reverse” double tonguing (“ktkt”). This will strengthen the usually weaker “k” attack.
Another example comes up when practicing scales or arpeggios. If you keep missing a note, especially in the third octave, it’s easy to assume that the fault is in the fingers, and it may well be. After all, the fingerings in the high register are more complicated, so smooth motion from one note to the next requires more careful coordination. But other things can go awry and are easy to overlook. In addition to more complicated fingerings, the third octave has a more uneven response. E-flat is easy and stable, E-natural cracks to high A or drops to middle A, F-natural is easy and stable, F-sharp cracks to high B or drops to middle B, G-natural is easy and stable, and G-sharp does whatever it feels like doing (or so it seems at times). You need to make sure your breath support is sufficient to sustain even the “worst” notes in the scale or arpeggio. Be sure your embouchure is doing its part in smoothing the connections between notes. If you practice doing this, it will be even easier to produce a beautiful tone when your fingers aren’t quite so busy.
There are many things to learn and discover along these lines. Ask yourself: When practicing crescendo/diminuendo to maintain proper pitch, am I maintaining a lovely tone as well? Or is the tone “dry” or “harsh” when practicing staccato? Maybe if “average” listeners don’t usually notice differences in tone quality, we should get them used to such a beautiful sound that they won’t settle for less!