Developing Tone on the Alto Flute

Tone is an aspect of flute playing that takes many hours of critical listening and experimentation. The alto flute can produce a tone that is richer, deeper and warmer than the c flute, but it does not leap out of the alto as soon as we start playing. Like the c flute, the alto will sound best if you take full, deep breaths, create a large open space inside your mouth, have a relaxed and open throat and are covering just 20% or so of the flute’s embouchure opening. I cannot emphasize enough that a deep and full breath is critical to getting a big sound. Your body is an amplifier for the flute sound, and the more space you create inside your body, the deeper and richer your tone will be. A flute breath involves the entire torso, it is very similar to yawning. Think “Ah.” Work with a teacher to help discover how to make this kind of breath a default breath when playing the flute. Here is the link to my video on breathing.

To find your clearest tone possible, focus on the lips. Most people’s lips have an opening that is much too large. The target area for the air inside the flute is similar in shape to a thin ribbon. The opening in the lips should be comparable to avoid wasting air; it is basically a small and somewhat flattened oval. If you can see the opening in your lips in a mirror, it is too big. The best aid I have found to work with students on the lip opening size is a straw used to stir coffee. Get a mirror and one of these straws. Put the straw between your lips and blow through it strongly enough that you can hear the air hissing out: keep blowing and remove the straw. Observe how small the opening is and what muscles are involved in maintaining that small opening. Then get your flute and play any note. Observe the opening in the lips. We are trying to get as close as we can to the opening size of the straw because this will result in two wonderful things; you will use less air so you can play longer phrases and, you will produce a solid and clearer tone. I deal with this topic in my YouTube video

Some people aim the air a little too high into the headjoint, resulting in a loud, hissing, unfocused tone. Some people cover too much of the flute mouthpiece opening, resulting in a clear but soft smothered tone with no dynamic range. A teacher can help you find the middle ground.

The lip position for alto is very similar to the lip position of the c flute, it is only slightly more relaxed. If I had to put a number on it, I would say 15% more relaxed. If your lips on c flute are already too relaxed, you may actually need to firm up your lips more than they are. This will help your tone on both instruments. If you like your tone on c flute, just keep the corners of the lips soft when playing alto. Usually we are playing alto because we like the less edgy and warmer, rounder sound. On alto, play with a sound less like an arrow and more like a warm cinnamon roll.

Spend time playing slow, simple melodies on alto so you can think about your tone and what you would like to improve about it. I have a collection of favorite pieces I use for this purpose. If you want to improve your tone, you must spend time listening to it without the distraction of too many notes. If you don’t like what you hear, you have taken the first step. Take step two and decide to do something about it.

Copyright Mar. 2013, Chris Potter


About the author:

Dr. Christine Potter has performed in London, Paris, Mexico City, Toronto, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Washington D.C., Phoenix, Dallas, Boston, and Atlanta. She is an internationally recognized alto and bass flute virtuoso and has performed at many conventions of the National Flute Association (NFA) as well as British Flute Society conventions (BFS). She is the artistic director of an International Low Flutes Festival to take place in Florida in March 2014.


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