Three Game-Changing Tips for Doublers of the Flute

This is a guest post from the amazing Jane Cavanagh!

At rehearsal last week, the conductor of a Sydney-based band I play the flute in, excitedly informed me, “Hey Jane, I arranged a new piece for the band and I wrote you a fantastic jazz flute solo!”

I thought “oh no, here we go…” as I am a classically trained flute player, not a swinging, improvising jazz musician! The thought of performing this solo seemed like an embarrassment waiting to happen!

Preparing for embarrassment

For me to say that I’m not confident in my ability to sound “cool” when I swing on the flute is an understatement. I find it utterly embarrassing how un-cool I sound!!

Despite this, off we went. We began sight-reading the piece, called “Ya Gotta Try” (in case you know it!) at a breakneck pace, with two of our fabulous jazz sax players also joining in on flute.

The piece went so dang fast and I had no time to be embarrassed and instead focused on accurately sight-reading it.

Amidst all this discomfort, something nice and totally unexpected actually happened…

Running out of air on the flute!

Peg, one of the extremely experienced and talented saxophonists, who joined me for the piece on flute, commented that the piece was fun, but the long phrases were almost impossible to get through.

I casually replied, “Oh really?” implying that breathing wasn’t even an issue for me (because actually it wasn’t!). I was a bit worried I sounded arrogant actually…

Peg then asked for some help with her flute playing, as she wanted to fine-tune it for a musical she’s playing in soon.

Instead of giving her a lesson, I suggested something better – for her to do The 45 Day Flute Transformation course, which is part of my flute membership called The Flute Academy.

Typically, within a week, the students see significant improvements such as playing much longer phrases, or hitting higher notes with ease and control.

How doublers fix their flute “lung capacity”

Below is a fabulous screenshot of the message that Peg, who is a professional woodwind doubler with decades of experience, sent me a few days after starting the 45-day course:

I found it quite funny of course – about me not being alive yet, but what really made me happy was that on Day 2 of the Transformation, Peg realised that she had been missing some fundamental flute techniques for 49 years and was finally able to fix them!

This is actually a common issue I see with flute doublers. They are excellent sax players, but feel like they haven’t quite nailed their flute technique.

They know they have a fluffier-than-ideal sound and they are aware that they run out of air quickly. I hear them say things like “the flute needs so much air” (which is actually easily fixed – more on this in a moment!).

Now for the game-changing flute tips!

To help you with your flute playing, I thought I’d now take you through three common flute technique mistakes that many saxophone players make when playing the flute.

1. Embouchure

Why you can’t play super long phrases

Although the flute embouchure is obviously different to the sax embouchure, there’s a mistake that nearly all sax players make with their flute embouchures. And interestingly, it’s the same mistake amongst all the players!

It is this:

Almost all the flute embouchures of sax players I’ve encountered have an embouchure opening that is too large.

This directly causes a fluffy tone and causes you to run out of air way too quickly. Did you know that an airy sound and running out of air are directly linked?

By “directly linked”, I mean that fixing one automatically addresses the other. For example, if you reduce the size of your embouchure hole, you’ll get an instantly clearer and stronger sound and immediately be able to sustain longer phrases.

Which is pretty awesome. Because you get to fix two playing problems with a single small adjustment to your embouchure!

An instantly clearer tone

If you would like to see demonstrations of how to correct your flute embouchure, feel free to register for the free flute course here.

As well as learning how to play with a smaller embouchure opening, you’ll learn how to:

  1. Tweak the shape of your embouchure to instantly improve your tone quality.
  2. Position your lip on the lip plate in exactly the right spot for optimal tone production.
  3. Find the ideal angle for your airstream to instantly strengthen your tone.

Since it’s impossible to actually demonstrate proper embouchure techniques in a written blog post like this, I’d encourage you to watch the flute demo videos in the mini-course to help you fix your airy sound and achieve longer phrases.

2. Avoiding dizziness

The doubler’s super power that disguises a problem

Saxophone players absolutely excel at not getting dizzy when playing the flute!!

When I used to see a sax player’s flute embouchure, I would assume they were getting dizzy. Surprisingly though, sax players don’t seem to have this problem! At least, nowhere near as much as flute-only players.

If an amateur flute player attempted to play using the same embouchure, they would 100% become extremely dizzy.

I’ve since realised that experienced sax players have highly adaptable bodies (ie their brains) that help them avoid dizziness. Even when playing the flute and breathing in more often than ideal, they seem to manage just fine.

However – it hides a problem with their embouchure…

The saxophonist’s super power!

Doublers possess an exceptional ability to inhale frequently without getting dizzy, thanks to their experience as wind players. Their brains are well-trained to handle the extra air, which would leave flute-only players falling over from dizziness!

However, this ability masks an issue with their flute embouchure. And it means that doublers may not seek help because they are not uncomfortable enough from dizziness to need to go and investigate why they can’t play long phrases.

Doublers often think that the flute requires a lot of air, but the opposite is true. With the right embouchure technique, a good flute player can hold a note for at least 25 seconds.

And it’s nothing to do with how big their lungs are! It’s about mastering your embouchure, and using your airstream efficiently.

A stronger tone – with far less air

Playing long phrases on the flute comes from an accurately formed and well-positioned embouchure. That’s it! And it’s not that the flute “needs a lot of air” to play. To fix your embouchure in 3 simple steps (and learn how to use much less air!), remember you’re totally welcome to join me in the free flute mini-course.

The cool bit is that when you fix your embouchure shape, size and position, you are not only able to play longer phrases, but your sound instantly becomes clearer and stronger. Seriously – instantly. (Which is why the free mini-course is called How to Instantly Improve Your Flute Tone – an accurate title!)

3. Flute high notes

Why you don’t actually need to blow harder for high notes

I enjoy teaching flute players (both doublers and regular flute-only players) the correct way to play high notes, which does not involve relying on blowing harder.

While it may seem like a logical solution to use more air for high notes, this technique can actually cause more harm than good. Blowing too hard results in you being sharp up high, feeling like you can’t control high notes, and a rapidly running out of air.

By the time you read this, Peg above will already have completed the High Notes module on Days 4-8 of The 45 Day Flute Transformation and she’ll have mastered the art of playing high notes with ease, precision, and accuracy.

In The Flute Academy, I teach what I call “the real way to play high notes,” which involves producing high notes effortlessly, with excellent intonation, and minimal air usage.

Interestingly, even many good flute players never learn this skill. They rely on blowing harder for high notes, which is essentially a kind of “crude” way to get high notes to come out – making them sound sharp, sound loud, and, as you know, will make you run out of air quickly!

The real way to play high notes

Learning the correct technique for playing high notes involves two simple steps:

Firstly, you correct your flute embouchure.

The second step is to learn how to use the corners of your embouchure to create a subtle pout shape. This movement shortens the length of the air jet (which is based on some simple physics), and results in effortlessly producing controlled and in-tune high notes on the flute.

Once you make the right adjustment, it truly feels effortless.

Here is a little example of how it’s easy to play high notes on the flute easily when you use the right technique:

A doubler’s breakthrough

Here’s a great story from Kerry, a doubler, who told me how he easily fixed his flute embouchure:

“I am a doubler with solid clarinet and sax chops. For flute, I was mostly doing long tones with the help of some flute player friends. When I got flute doubles, it was hit or miss whether I set an embouchure that worked at above B above the staff.

I went through your free flute tone course and practiced your suggestions for a few days. 

On Friday, one of my friends asked me to play flute duets right after a two-hour big band rehearsal. I had played a few duets once before and didn’t do very well. I almost declined, but he had a book of flute duets with him.

We started out with me on the bottom line of the first page. Surprised with my improvement, he had me play the top line on the next page.

In jest, I said we should try to finish the book.

Well, we did one sitting alternating top/bottom each page.

With the relaxation, you encouraged I didn’t get tired. He said I had chops of steel. Your long tone exercise gave me the range I needed. Similarities with sax got me through the fingerings even at modestly fast tempos.

What a boost to my confidence.

Thanks so much for your help!”

It’s fantastic to have Kerry as one of the doublers in The Flute Academy. His experience on sax and clarinet  means that he learns the new flute techniques extremely quickly!

Faster progress through proper flute technique

Saxophone players make excellent flute players. I also find that most of them feel as if there’s a “piece of the puzzle that’s missing”. And it definitely prevents them from being as incredible at the flute as they are at the sax.

When I started to write this blog post for you, I wanted to be sure to emphasise that the challenge is not the instrument itself.

My motto in my flute school is “Faster Progress Through Proper Technique.”

This means that it’s not the number of hours you practice that matters, but rather the little tweaks to your technique that make all the difference in how easy it is to play.

By making these tiny adjustments, you will instantly improve your high notes, sustain longer phrases with ease, and play with a stronger, clearer tone.

If you’d like to see clear demonstrations of how to fine-tune your flute embouchure, I encourage you to join me in the free course to instantly get you a stronger flute tone.

I wish you all the best with your flute playing!

Jane xx

About Jane

Jane is a music educator from Sydney, Australia.

Her speciality is showing adult flute players exactly how to progress faster on the flute by teaching them the small “tweaks” of proper technique.

Jane’s online program The Flute Academy, shows her students how to easily get faster progress on the flute – by learning proper technique.

A highlight of The Flute Academy is that the students get to go through The 45 Day Flute Transformation – which takes them through a series of tweaks and exercises, teaching them the fundamental playing techniques that players often miss when they initially learn the flute.

Find out more about The Flute Academy here.

Jane particularly loves showing saxophone players the specific adjustments to their flute embouchure and use of air that result in their flute playing becoming just as amazing as their sax playing.

Join Jane for free to instantly fix your own flute embouchure in 3 simple steps. You’ll hear yourself get a clearer, stronger sound, and instantly be able to play longer phrases (by learning to use less air!) 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher in Michigan with 12 years of experience. He's the President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and founder of the Dynamic Music Room.

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