Playing Low Flutes: Part 5 - Dynamics, Vibrato and Tone Colour
Low flutes have a reputation for being quiet, unprojecting instruments. While this is perhaps true in comparison with a trumpet, with the right technique, a full dynamic range can be achieved.
The essentials of a good dynamic range depend on understanding how dynamics are produced. How do you play loud on the flute? Many people say ‘blow harder’ but this is misleading, and just blowing harder increases the air speed. On a C flute, that usually causes some sharpness, but can often be controlled within a fairly good margin of error. On low flutes, however, increasing the air speed too much is a disaster. Instead of getting louder, the sound actually projects less, and often cracks. The simple answer is to replace the ‘blowing harder’ concept with ‘blowing more’, and use more air at slower speeds for a strong, loud tone. Use a wide aperture and keep the internal cavities open and resonant. Conversely, for soft dynamics, maintain the same air speed to keep the pitch stable, and use less air by closing the aperture.
I personally use much less vibrato on low flutes than on the C flute. I feel that the type of tone produced by low flutes, with fewer and weaker harmonics making up the sound, is more easily interrupted by an overly large vibrato. Very gentle, mellow tone colours can easily be destroyed by an overlarge vibrato, so for me, vibrato is something that varies according to tone colour and dynamic. Reserve a full vibrato for a strong, rich tone, but even then, use a slower and less wide vibrato on low flutes than C flute. And for the very soft end of the dynamic range, don’t use any at all.
Tone colour variety is something we all strive for in imaginative flute playing. But how are differences in tone created? Many flute technique guides suggest they are achieved by changing the formant (vowel shape) in the mouth. However, try this experiment on low flutes: play a long stable note on any pitch. Alter only the vowel shape in the mouth and move through a-e-i-o-u. What changes do you notice in the sound? I would guess that there is very little perceptible change. In my own experiments, I have found that most of the changes in tone colour in fact come from the embouchure, combined with some changes of position inside the mouth. The centre of the embouchure is key here, and by widening and closing the aperture, as well as changing the angle of the air, you can create a vast range of sounds.
And there’s more; on low flutes, tone colours are an invaluable way of producing dynamics. A more edgy tone colour will project better, so when you’re using all the air you possibly can and still need to go louder, change the tone colour. It works fabulously!
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