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What is your embouchure? It is what you do with your lips to make a sound on your instrument. A flexible embouchure is a vital part of beautiful flute sound. You can learn this at any stage of your flute playing, but is easiest if you work on it from the very beginning.

Begin by bringing the flute up to your mouth and resting the flute against the edge of your lower lip. It is important to experiment with this position in order to find the spot where you get the clearest and most resonant sound. Each person's lips, teeth, tongue and shape of mouth cavity is different, so there are no absolute rules about how to do it. You have to use your ears and eyes to guide you. When you are ready, just put your lips together and blow through the resulting opening. Your cheeks should be relaxed and your lips should grip the air stream rather firmly, in the same way your lips grip a straw.

Let the flute rest on your chin so it feels secure. However, avoid pressing the flute too hard against your bottom lip. If you press too hard, you will limit the ability of your bottom lip to move and help shape the sound. A hard, thin sound is usually the result of pressing too hard. A good way to check this is to have someone else pull the flute away from your chin as you play. If the person has to pry the flute off your chin, you are holding it too tightly against your face. If it comes away easily, you are holding the flute on your lip correctly. The sound will be more round and full.

wpeC.jpg (225907 bytes)For most people, a centered embouchure works best. However, if a student has a prominent teardrop top lip, it may be necessary to play off-center. Many prominent flutists past and present have had an off-center embouchure. Jean-Pierre Rampal and the late Marcel Moyse are notable examples. (Note how relaxed Moyse's cheeks are in the photo)

Be careful to avoid forming an embouchure by using the smiling muscles in your cheeks to help shape your lips.  This is an easy way of getting a sound out of the flute in the beginning. However, it creates many problems down the road with flexibility and endurance. The roots of this "smiling" style embouchure come from both the English and German style of playing on wooden (and often pre-Boehm) flutes. These players felt it was necessary to be able to get the volume of sound needed for orchestral playing on their wooden flutes. The result of using this embouchure on our modern metal flutes is having one kind of sound (usually hard or brittle with a lot of edge that doesn't carry very well) and experiencing a great deal of tiredness in your cheek muscles after only a few minutes of playing energetically.

Want to know more about types of embouchures?  Check out Larry Krantz Flute Pages

Flexibility and color

Flexibility is an important part of a good flute embouchure. Practice flexibility by working on octave exercises like the one on the right, as well as studies or etudes that have large jumps in them. There are many good books with exercises for flexibility: Practice Book I - Tone by Trevor Wye, Reichert Daily Studies, Maquarre Daily Studies, Taffenel-Gaubert 17 Daily Studies, Daily Studies by Julius Baker.

Play a low register note with a clear, full sound. Change octaves by raising the direction of the air stream. A very easy way of understanding how to do this is by thinking of how you use your lips to give someone a kiss (you push your lips out). The motion for raising the air stream is less extreme than for giving a kiss, but it is basically the same idea. Do this experiment with a flute player friend. Take turns playing octaves with your friend by holding one of your hands very close (4-5 inches) to their face while they play octaves. Notice how the direction of the air and the air speed changes for the different registers. (As the pitch goes up, the air moves faster and also hits your hand higher up.)

Sam & Guy.JPG (19285 bytes)It is important when doing these exercises and experiments to keep the opening of your lips large enough to create a full sound. Many players have relaxed cheeks and shape the blowing hole correctly but pinch their lips together too tightly in the middle. The result is a small, pinched sound. Even though the size of the blow hole gets somewhat smaller as we go higher, it is not as small as you would think.

Also keep in mind that even though the blow hole changes shape as you go lower, it is not really more relaxed in the middle. It is the control of the shape of the lip opening which determines whether the sound at the bottom of the flute range is full, projecting and resonant or disappears in a wisp of breathiness.

Most important to developing a good embouchure is developing a sophisticated and educated ear. Listen to great flutists both live and on recordings and read as much about flute playing as you can (subscribe to Flute Talk and/or The Flutist Quarterly). Ask yourself what you want to sound like and analyze what you are doing. Does it match what you imagine you sound like in your mind's ear? What do you have to do to achieve this sound? Ask flutists whose playing you respect how they make their sound. With intelligence, determination and practice you can find a flexible embouchure which will allow you to express yourself through your instrument.

Dr. Cate Hummel.
Copyright � 1999 The Flute Line. All rights reserved.
Last revised: January 28, 2013.