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Here Comes Treble: Fluting Questions Answered

...After a preview concert given at home recently, an acquaintance approached me and said, “I’ve been watching you breathe as you play… Do you always breathe that way, or only when you’re playing, I notice it’s very different from the way we all breathe!”...

Flute-player Isabel Bradley lets us into some secrets of playing her instrument of choice.

For more of Isabel's "tuneful'' columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/here_comes_treble/

“Are you a flautist, a flutist or a flute-player?”

The terms are synonymous, and the choice of description is a matter of personal preference.

‘Flautist’, which is most frequently used in South Africa, comes from the Italian, ‘flautisto’, deriving from the Italian for ‘flute’, ‘flauto’. ‘Flautist,’ pronounced ‘flawtist’, was first used in English in 1860, in a novel, The Marble Faun, by Nathaniel Hawthorn.

The English term ‘flutist’ is much older, having been used as early as 1603.

My preference is ‘flute-player’, first seen in English use in a three-volume treatise on the flute by Richard Rockstro in 1890. There is a fourth option: ‘fluter’ and was used in his diaries by Samuel Pepys in the seventeenth century.

When it comes to breathing while playing the flute, there is much to be said:

A few years ago, I was demonstrating the flute to an audience of primary school pupils. The children sat on the floor while I played for them, then I invited questions. Many hands shot up. A little boy in the front row, looking terribly serious, asked, “How do you hold your breath for so long, Miss?”

“I don’t hold my breath when I play, I let it out very slowly, blowing across this hole in the mouthpiece,” and I pointed out the embouchure in the flute’s head-joint.

“How long did it take you to learn to breathe like that?” asked my serious young questioner.

“Oh, years and years – at least forty!” I said.

There was a moment of stunned silence, then the eight-year-old asked, “Just how old ARE you, Miss?”

A few days later, I gave a recital for the public in the same school hall. A friend and her eight-year-old daughter were there. The child sat motionless throughout the performance, repeatedly holding her breath and turning bright red in the face. She had not heard what I said about letting my breath out slowly, and was trying to “hold my breath as long as the lady playing the flute does!”

After a preview concert given at home recently, an acquaintance approached me and said, “I’ve been watching you breathe as you play… Do you always breathe that way, or only when you’re playing, I notice it’s very different from the way we all breathe!”

“Yes… I mean, no…,” I replied. “I’d keel over if I did that much deep inhalation and extended slow exhaling when not playing!”

Breathing for the flute player is as natural as possible on a musical instrument. There is no mouth-piece restricting air flow, only the dictates of musical phrasing. When playing the flute, deep breathing from ‘below’ the diaphragm is needed for longer phrases, and a slow, steady stream of air moving out between pursed lips. As in all things, ‘practise makes perfect’. When practising the flute, players should do a series of ‘long notes’ daily, stretching their ability to release air slowly while playing. Knowing how long each phrase is and how much air is required in a piece is essential, and again is gained through rehearsal.

One of the questions most frequently asked is, “How do you get a sound out of the flute?” The answer is simple: if you can get a sound by blowing across a bottle-top, blowing the flute is a much smaller version of that technique. This sets the air in the flute’s tube vibrating, and creates sound.

A member of the audience recently asked, “How do you manage to get such a different sound from your flute? Is it you, is it the flute?...”

The answer is complex:

Every player’s sound is unique. The shape of the inside of the mouth and the lips, the position of the teeth, all create individuality.

There are many methods of playing the flute. German, French and English flute-players each have a different basic type of sound: if an Englishman were taught by a Frenchman, he would have a ‘French’ sound, if taught by several teachers, he may develop a composite sound using a combination of techniques. It was my privilege to be taught, first by my self-taught father, then by a darling South African woman with English training, and lastly ‘transformed’ by a Frenchman. Initially, making a sound with the instrument came easily. Later, I learned the value of consciously working on improving the quality of sound with exercises specifically developed for this purpose.

Another element in creating sound on the flute comes from the materials the instrument is made of: gold produces a ‘richer’ sound than silver, which is a ‘brighter’ sound than wood, which is gentler and rather more ‘breathy’ than both. Between flutes of the same make, design and materials, there is an individuality that to a mere player of the instrument is inexplicable. My flute is unique: a combination of a Michael Botha hand-made silver flute, a gold-lined head-joint made by Armstrong, and Straubinger pads in the keys. It is the only instrument I have played which responds to my techniques exactly the way I want it to.

The final element that goes into ‘making’ a flute-player’s sound is practice. Every practise session begins with exercises designed both to stretch the breathing and improve the quality of sound.

Gary Player, the South African golfer, once said, “The more I practise, the luckier I become.” This is true of anything one wishes to achieve: learning the correct techniques, having the privilege of excellent education in the field, and practising until physical movements become fully automatic, leads to expertise.

Playing the flute requires countless hours of hard work, careful thought, dedication and a perhaps smidgeon of talent. The joy received through my music is immeasurable.

Until next time… ‘here comes Treble!’

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By Isabel Bradley

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