How Switching up my Warm-up Led to a Serendipitous Revelation
Back at the beginning of May, I had just finished my classes and obligations for the semester at Baylor University. Having more time than I knew what to do with and no upcoming performances to practice for, I decided to take my flute education into my own hands and explore different aspects of my playing. As a student of Body Mapping, I am always exploring more efficient ways to use my body to make music, but this exploration was different. I simply suspended all my preconceived notions about sound production and began tinkering. What if I changed the blowing angle? What if I changed the air speed or the engagement of my embouchure?
I had grown tired of my same warm-up routine over the past few weeks. Shuffling through my personal flute library, I found my recently purchased copy of Robert Dick's Tone Development Through Extended Techniques. I had only skimmed it when it first came in the mail, so I decided to take a closer look to see what could be gleaned from it. After all, I had no distinct or rigid practice agenda I had to complete, so what did I have to lose?
The first page I flipped to was Robert Dick's section on throat tuning, specifically the page on where he discusses "mouth resonance (pg. 13)." Here, he discusses how the syllable formed by the mouth can have a great effect on the quality and character of the sound produced. (This is true, provided the sound is well-supported with the breath and is properly tuned.) He then provides a general outline of what syllables work best for different ranges of the flute and concludes the page with three lines of exercises to experiment with this "mouth resonance."
Intrigued by Robert Dick's detailed but accessible explanation of this concept. It reminded me of all the discussions I had heard from my saxophone friends during my undergraduate degree about what they called "voicing" on the saxophone. However, their conversations were only brief overviews, so I had no detailed understanding of the concept. With Robert Dick's explanation in his book, however, my understanding of how "mouth resonance" and "voicing" were two sides of the same coin became clearer. Truth be told, I was still wary about whether the exercises he gave would actually work and help me improve my soft playing skills on flute. I had been working for months to improve my tone, note response, and soft playing. Still in a mindset of exploration, I knew the worse that could happen was nothing.
I wasn't even halfway through the first line when I noticed an immediate ease and my soft playing dramatically improved. I was alone in my apartment when I suddenly stopped and yelled out loud, "Seriously? That was it???? That's what I've been missing this whole time???" I was shocked how something seemingly so simple had such a profound impact. Voicing (the term I prefer over "mouth resonance") is a small shift in awareness, but it can be a valuable tool in creating more flexible playing without "trying harder."
How it works
Voicing changes the shape of the oral cavity while playing by changing the positioning of the tongue in the mouth. Changing the voicing indirectly causes a shift in air direction and pressure, making it great for dynamic and color changes. Robert Dick generally recommends a “ooh” syllable for D5 and below and “ah” for Eb5 and above. He says the top of the third and the fourth flute octaves tend toward a brighter voicing like “aye” for more ease of response. Fuller dynamics call for a more open voicing while softer dynamics require narrower voicings like the high “ee” voicing used by clarinetists. Gradual shifts through different voicing syllables, as displayed in his exercises, facilitate more fluid changes of dynamics without pushing for fuller dynamics or squeezing for softer ones.
How My Playing Changed
By discovering this new facet of playing, my ability to play with wider dynamics (specifically on the softer side) became much more accessible. I only needed to use the amount and speed of air necessary to fill the syllable shape in my oral cavity rather than feeling like I had to constantly push a fast bullet of air and aim for the stratosphere for softer, in-tune dynamics. The antithesis is also true. For fuller dynamics, I learned that a more open voicing creates the desired effect without the need to push an excessive amount of air far down into the flute to compensate for intonation.
Voicing furthermore helped me to more consistently center my tone. This is because my awareness while playing has expanded from thinking almost exclusively about my embouchure and thinking more holistically on how voicing and my whole body responds to flute playing.
At the end of the day, I am thankful for the serendipity that led me to this discovery. Voicing has streamlined my playing and made it more efficient, allowing me to exponentially improve my playing during this period of rest this summer. The empowerment I have gained is invaluable in stabilizing my playing for the busy second year of my Master’s degree ahead of me.
More information on voicing and other concepts like it, can be found in Robert Dick’s book Tone Development Through Extended Techniques, which can be found through any reputable flute music dealer or directly through his website: