Comments About Flute ToneThis discussion has been fascinating, and I am almost afraid to respond because I am afraid of not going into enough detail, or going into too much detail too quickly, and it is so difficult when you're not working in a one-to-one situation. After all, tone is a very personal thing, and what is pleasing to one is not necessarily pleasing to another. This is probably why Michelle called her lessons with me "mind things". I like to get to know my students and how they think, and develop their ears to a keen and discerning degree. Then I try to help them sound like - not like me - like themselves, the way they want to be.
a FLUTE list message
by Ann Cherry
It seems to me that the first problem we have is deciding exactly what tone is. Is the vibrato part of it? Is the dynamic part of it? Is the pitch you are playing part of it? Well, yes, and yet again, no.
I had a wonderful teacher once who said vibrato is the best way to disguise a bad sound. To me, vibrato can change the character of the tone, but not the heart of it. Does that make sense? Words are difficult here. Dynamic likewise can change the character but not the heart of tone. Ah, now, the pitch. That's more difficult. As someone else said earlier, every note has a different sound. I don't have perfect pitch, but I do have flute pitch. I can tell you almost any note being played on the flute, just by recognising the individual sound it has. I'm sure some of the more technically minded on this list can explain this better than I. I explain this to my students by saying that the flute is a different size depending on how many fingers are down, and therefore it makes a different sound on each note. One of the things we flautists are always trying to achieve is an equal sound throughout the instrument. I will be rather rude here and say that the only time I ever heard a flautist play and I was unable to recognise the pitches was when I listened to someone with a breathy sound and rather disgusting vibrato. The trick is to USE this small variation in sound musically so it becomes not a quirk of the instrument but a musical tool.
I believe that tone is technique, not mystique. And I believe that it is vital to be able to do lots of things with it in today's world if you want to have a future performing. Everyone can play fast. Everyone can play loudly. Quite a few can play both loudly and softly. Not everyone has a good understanding of style, and not everyone can make the flute an interesting sound(s) to listen to for long periods.
There are three basic elements to tone: the support of it, the shape of it, and the resonance of it.
The support is the starting place, and that means more than just the diaphragm muscle, it means all the muscles of the body, the posture, the back, the "underpinning" (a singer will explain this to you better than I).
The shape of the sound is controlled largely - not solely - by the embouchure. Much has been said on embouchures in the past, so I won't do more than to say never be dogmatic, always, always, try new things. Air expands when you exhale, so it is important that the mouth and mouth hole can work together.
This is getting long, I apologise. The third element of tone, resonance, is "where it's at", once the first two areas are secure. The technique of changing tone colour is being able, at will, to concentrate the resonance in one or more areas of the body at any given time. For those sceptics who doubt that any person other than the player can hear the difference, I have done workshops with amateur and young professional flautists, using as a demonstration a player I have never worked with before, and heard the whole room gasp at the difference in sounds.