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Alto Fluteyness

As remote teaching and learning opportunities came online during the pandemic, I was fortunate to take a few private alto flute lessons and several group lessons with UK-based low flutes expert Carla Rees. A fundamental idea that came up repeatedly was that the alto flute isn’t a C flute. If your entire beginning alto flute experience is based on C flute, then you’re going to have some problems. It’s not the same flute and yet we try to do the same thing.  Carla says, “We have to unlearn the fluteyness of our experience. Be a beginner.”  We should develop a solid alto fluteyness based on understanding what the alto needs. The following ideas come from my notes from my lessons with Carla and I’ve incorporated them into my own alto playing.

The alto flute head joint needs to sit lower on the face than C flute does. This is one of the big reasons that people play out of tune on the low flutes – they are placing the head joint too high up. The embouchure hole is bigger on an alto than on a C flute.  We have to cover the hole with the bottom lip and the air needs to go quite a bit farther into the instrument. Always turn in more than you think you need to and the aperture in the lips needs to be bigger as well. The goal is a rich, full sound.

Air speed
This is the big one: the bigger the flute, the slower the air. Control the relationship between air volume and air speed is very important. Cracking on the first note of a piece or first note after a rest is the #1 sign that the air speed is too fast. Other signs of this problem are notes coming out in the wrong octave and being very sharp. If you have a problem with big intervals, it’s usually because the air speed isn’t set up correctly for the intervals. On third octave notes, the tendency is to be very sharp because we push the air speed too much. This goes back to our inner C fluteyness: we see a high note and automatically adjust the air speed accordingly, but for the wrong instrument. On alto, keep air speed only enough to get the high note to speak.

The low flutes tend to be sharp in general because of problems already discussed—air speed that’s too fast and/or head joint placed too high on the face. The instrument needs to be in tune with itself. Use a harmonic: overblow the octave and check with original fingering. Tune to the harmonic pitch. Once you find the sweet spot, leave it there and don’t move it. I have it marked on my flute with red Sharpie marker. Most low flutes need to be pulled out quite a bit. You must know what your pitch tendencies are. Once you start pushing in, etc., then you’re lost. It’s mostly about flexibility and compromising as you strive to maintain a centered, beautiful tone quality. Practice pitch bends with your embouchure (corners back make it sharper and corners forward make it flatter.) You should be playing most of the time with corners in the middle, which is where the richest sound is produced. When we try playing louder, we increase the air speed which makes the pitch go sharp, especially in middle register. Instead, keep the air speed the same and change the size of the opening in the lips.

The bigger the flute gets, the harder it is to attack. The amount of air inside of the body is the same, and it doesn’t go as far on low flutes as it does on C flute. You have to start sooner to make the note speak right on time. Tongue position can be different inside. Many people find that the mouth needs to be more open inside for maximum clarity on low flutes.

High Register
The biggest problem with the high register on alto flute is expectation. We want the high notes to sound brilliant and sparkly and amazing!  Here’s our inner C-fluteyness again! The reality is that C flutes and alto flutes are designed differently. It’s possible to produce a Moyse-like, even sound on every note with a C flute; however, you can’t do that on low flutes because they are not built that way. Carla Rees’ website has great information about everything related to alto flute. She explained during the group class that in the third octave on the alto flute, the decibel level is strong, but it’s mostly noise with a very small portion of pitch. In the low register, there’s much more of the strong pitch, resulting in a  centered note coming through. The harmonic spectrum of each note is different between C flute and alto, too. With C flute, the third harmonic is stronger than fundamental, resulting in higher register brightness. With alto flute, there is much less of the third harmonic is present. We have a choice about how we choose to play the high note stuff. We often choose to play it like a C flute, and it ends up being very sharp and has, to my ear, yucky tone quality. So put it on your face, don’t think about your regular (C flute) habits with the high register. If the air speed is right, the note will come out. The embouchure doesn’t need to really work that much in high register; move just enough air to get the note to come out.

Super Power – The Low Register
The richness and strength of the alto flute is in the low register. The size of the bore maximizes the sonority of the lower notes. The real power of the alto flute is with the extreme soft dynamics and tremendous variety of tone colors, especially in the low register. The lower you go on a big flute, the firmer your embouchure needs to be; the idea of big floppy low flute embouchure is just not right. For me, my top lip needs to be much firmer for low register notes. This is the opposite for what my face needs to do to play loud low register notes on the C flute.

It’s an expressive tool, part our of language. What do you want it to do? What’s the implication, in terms of air flow? We must think about the relationship between air speed and the kind of vibrato we’re going for. Big vibrato requires a fast air speed, and generally this is going to be too fast for what the alto can handle. Vibrato can be one of your secret weapons.  If you give it away too soon, it’s not a surprise. 

You’re going to need to breathe more often when playing low flutes. The air requirement is more, but you don’t get more lung capacity just because you pick up a low flute. Expression should always be placed before breathing. If you need to breathe more often to be musical, then do so. You can breathe almost anywhere if you do it musically and prepare the breath.

One of Carla’s suggestions was to play a lot of beginner level flute music and really think about breathing and sound production. Play a lot of easy stuff and get really good at it. Then take that alto fluteyness into more challenging repertoire. Good luck!

P.S. I will be presenting and performing at the International Low Flutes Festival in Washington DC from April 12-14 and I would love to meet Flute Examiner readers!

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