Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Practicing Long Tones

By Pamela Sklar
Pamela Sklar

Sometimes I wonder how many flutists including students practice long tones. When I happen to talk with flute friends about practice methods or hear colleagues warm up, it seems roughly half of them regularly work on long tones. Since I find that practicing matching tones/long tones are valuable and enjoyable on many levels- from control & endurance to dynamics and variety of colors, I will address some of these aspects here.

A common goal of long tones is to develop greater tone control and endurance in all of the registers. Through closely listening to the sound as well as what we're playing, we continue to develop control by practicing slowly with an even tone. By using different dynamics, such as loud then soft in each register, then louder and very softly for greater contrast, we gain more control.

Certainly there are many ways to work on long tones. These include sets of slow quarter notes, half, dotted half or whole notes with or without repeats, slurring 2, 3, or more notes, chromatic or diatonic scales; thirds & other intervals, octaves and more. Personally, I happen to like playing a variety of long tones whether they're slowly practiced extracts I've adapted from things I'm learning, or from my favorite source: Marcel Moyse's de la Sonorité, which can be downloaded here:

If I want to work on a decrescendo on a certain note or a few notes, I'll use certain muscles around my mouth which control the pitch more directly. By using certain facial muscles we develop more control of higher and lower notes, extreme dynamics, edgier or more mellow tones, and acquire a more colorful sound. Being more aware of which muscles we're using and how we're using them with a specific goal in mind, will further help to develop and improve sound quality.

Some of the most important facial muscles involved in controlling our sound include:
-Orbicularis oris, a group of muscles which circle above, below & in the lips.
-Triangularis, which help us frown or pout by pulling down the corners of our mouth. These muscles are helpful in controlling tone quality. When used in a relaxed way and in combination with the lower lip rolled out slightly, a more supple tone can be heard.
-Nasalis, utilized by pulling down sides of the nose by elongating top lip downward; without the flute try to cover your top teeth while your mouth is slightly open. You may also feel your nose being pulled down slightly. These muscles are great at helping us lower the pitch & are especially useful if playing with a piano that's tuned flat.

So, for that certain decrescendo we need to keep in mind & listen to see if the pitch goes south with the volume. It naturally will unless we use our muscles to maintain the desired tuning. In most cases we need to push the lips out gently, using a bit more of the lower lip with the triangularis muscles pulled back to aim the air stream slightly higher, which enables the note to stay in tune. Keep in mind the degree of changes you are making all at once; too much movement in general or a sudden change may cause us to miss the goal or lose the sound entirely.

Conversely, if we want to play something louder, a more relaxed embouchure helps us to avoid pushing or tightening the lips too much, which makes us play sharp.

Trying to isolate and use different muscles separately and subtlety in combinations over time will lead to an improved sound quality, greater accuracy of pitch and control in different registers.

Go ahead and work on experimenting with just one goal. You'll be likely to have an interesting experience and start developing a better ear!

Finally, for those of you who are interested in learning more about the facial
(and body) muscles, there's a phone app called Muscles (Real bodywork).

For more on Pamela Sklar, visit her website at

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