2. Intonation Control by flutists
The intonation of most flute players is inconsistent worldwide, professional players included and varies from country to country. In many countries, it is masked by a virtuoso technique and a rich tone leading the listener to be captivated by these attributes, but disguising the underlying problem. The flute doesn’t naturally lend itself to big dynamic changes which persuades the performer to use only small nuances so as to veil changes in pitch. Players avoid playing loudly and softly because, sensibly, they prefer to steer clear of intonation difficulties. Don’t bother with loud and soft playing. It is easier to play with minimal expression.
As the air speed/pressure is lowered to play softly, the pitch drops; when the air speed and pressure rises when playing louder, the pitch also rises. At the extreme ends of the nuances, the rise and fall in pitch is considerable and apart from the recorder, the flute is unique in this - unlike the remainder of the woodwinds. Reed instruments have a ‘built-in’ correction which operates to their advantage and which accounts for the fact that other winds don’t have the same pitch differences when playing loudly and softly as flutes. When the clarinettist wishes to play softly, they blow less hard –which lowers the pitch - but at the same time they reduce the aperture between the reed and mouthpiece. If they didn’t do that, the note would be breathy or disappear completely and this action also has the effect of preventing the pitch from dropping. This is an over-simplification, but the same idea works for the double reeds too though players still have to correct the relatively small changes in pitch between forte and piano, but not to the same degree as flutists. Reed instrument players indeed have to control the pitch but it is not as variable as on the flute. We flutists have to learn a different technique to play accurately in tune.
What is important is not how to correct a flat or sharp note, but the perfect control of intonation which allows the player to use loud and soft notes, crescendos and diminuendos to be truly expressive, something exceptional amongst flute players worldwide.
This technique involves using the jaw and lips to raise the air stream and uncover the mouth hole when making a diminuendo to prevent the pitch from dropping and has been set out in detail elsewhere.* Some teachers suggest that moving the jaw is wrong; others suggest that the lips must remain relatively still; others again that pitch is controlled by a procedure called ‘support’ (the Holy Word of Teaching); others again suggest correcting the pitch by rolling the flute in and out; some performers suggest, ‘Think sharp’; another well-known player confessed, ‘I have had the socket of the headjoint highly polished so that I can move the headjoint in with my left hand when a pp passage is imminent!’ A famous professor was more than once observed tugging his ear lobe when the student’s intonation was appalling, though no practical corrective solution was offered.
Some of these techniques might help to correct a pianissimo flat note, but are flawed as a method of playing expressively. Some are just silly. Even so, a number of players have managed to play quite well in tune, perhaps learning to control their intonation by instinct, or even being forced to do so for survival in our competitive profession.
* Practice Book One – Tone. Trevor Wye. (Novello) pp 34 - 37
3. Twelve popular misconceptions about flutes and intonation.
* Fingers and Key height: ‘Keep your fingers close to the key cups; your technique will be faster and neater.’ This popular culture of keeping the fingers close to the keys - and of repairers keeping the key cups low – encourages a faster performing speed and a neater technique, a practice found mainly among flutists. Other woodwinds keep their fingers fairly clear of the holes or the notes would be flat, but this has the same effect on the flute. If the player uses an open hole (French Model) flute and plays with the fingers almost touching the keys, it will result in a slightly muted tone and some flatter notes. In fast passages, of course, it is not significant, but in slow tunes, close fingers will affect the intonation. Players who adopt this technique are in effect playing a closed hole flute with the wrong scale.
Repairers and players like the ‘feel’ of a closer mechanism, but when the key cups are too close to the tone holes, the sound is very slightly muted, more so on closed hole cups than open. The foot joint cups should be no less than 3.8mm above the tone hole and as much as 4mm; the right and left hands ideally the same This will ensure the clearest tone and correct intonation.
* The C# sharp problem: ‘There is no ‘correct place’ for the C# hole. It is up to the performer’ There is a very good position in which to place the C#2 tone hole and we three have spent several years of experimenting to determine where this should be. The note still needs care and practice to centre the tone, but the pitch is adequate. On most flutes it is too sharp, a common complaint. Putting fingers down in the right hand to correct a sharp C#2 should not be necessary and in any case, only allows the player to create extra resonance so that the timbre may be altered. Adding fingers also alters the partials (harmonics) and though it does help with technical stability, it hardly affects the pitch.
* ‘Open and closed hole flute scales are the same’ This is a fallacy and irresponsible of flute makers to ignore basic acoustics just to simplify the manufacturing process. It is more economical for the maker to ‘tool up’ making one flute body for both open and closed hole flutes but is a lazy approach, and assumes the customer doesn’t care. Manufacturers producing both open and closed hole flutes with the same scale are surely working on the fact that the customer doesn’t know.
The air vibrates in a curved cone above the tone hole. The top of the cone is interrupted by the key cup and pad but a hole in the cup allows more venting, resulting in a sharper note. Ideally, all tone holes should have open cups above them and experimental flutes using this idea are currently available for use by extended technique aficionados, but for the normal orchestral player, the five open cups* as on a ‘French Model’ flute offer several alternate fingerings and can help to tune otherwise difficult notes, particularly in the third octave. Eldred Spell’s experiments have established that the left and right hand open cup correction is different.
* E, F, F#, A & A#
* Different versions of ‘equal temperament’ Examples from makers brochures:- ‘A mathematically constructed scale’; ‘...offers perfect intonation’, ‘After many years we have perfected a true scale which allows you...’ etc., etc.
Makers inventing their own versions of equal temperament is analogous to making different lengths of a foot-rule with the inches unevenly placed. Guitar frets are uniformly placed by all makers according to equal temperament.
As Elmer Cole, Albert Cooper and other flute makers and designers have revealed, Boehm’s Schema, a way to mathematically calculate the position of the tone holes set out in 1847 to give us a good scale, doesn’t actually work quite well enough in practice. That is to say, the math takes us to a starting point: from there on, there are a number of variables which are not completely understood, but include the open hole allowance, the key rise and the tone hole diameter correction. This much is known: we three had to experiment and change the scale figures accordingly. We are not completely satisfied that the Revised Scale 2012 set out below is the last word, but it is much better than copied versions of Cooper’s Scale and better than most popular flute maker’s scales today.
At the time of setting out this scale, (March 2011) we had just acquired a cheap flute allegedly built to a good scale which required the removal and replacement of no less than eight tone holes to turn it into a playable flute.
* ‘It is not flutes which are out of tune, but flutists’ Actually, it’s both. An eminent flute maker made this statement many years ago while making flutes at A-435 to be played at A-440 or higher! The manufacturing quality of these flutes was beyond question, but like a horse with three legs, a serious setback for the performer, yet many esteemed players performed on these flutes, perhaps not exploring much in the way of dynamic change but building a successful career playing them. One wonders how much better it would have been for them to have an accurately tuned flute rather than spending a lifetime correcting – with some skill - the mistakes of the maker.
* ‘Open hole flutes are better’. Both can be good: the tone is not affected by only the five open cups*, but if that were true, there would be five good notes and seven poor ones. Many flutes, both open and closed hole models, have key cups which are not open enough - in other words, they do not rise sufficiently above the tone hole. As our scale below shows, part of the Revised Scale 2011 allows appropriate ventilation below the key cup. Keeping the cups closer to the tone holes is splendid for speed and dexterity, but muffles the tone and flattens the pitch. Our advice is to ask your repair person to ensure that the foot joint and right hand key cups are open to 3.8mm. at the front, and the G# and left hand keys and thumb keys almost the same. This will ensure that the fullest tone will be possible.
Blocking up the open holes because of a faulty hand position should be seen only as a short term solution even for one key cup. Those with small hands are advised to use this temporarily - or change to a closed hole flute.
* E, F, F#, A & A#
* ‘You can get used to any flute and play it well in tune. I just takes time.’ It is true that a skilled player can get used to a poorly scaled flute and - depending on their ears and ability - can adjust and play reasonably well in tune: others aurally less fortunate may play with faulty intonation but will probably never know it, though their colleagues may know. But why start off with a three-legged horse? A well constructed scale will allow the greatest technical and musical freedom.
* ‘There is no perfect scale; players just have to get used to and adjust to what they have’ True, they can, depending on their skill, but why should they? This is the same as suggesting that a badly tuned violin can be played in tune by an accomplished performer by ‘getting used to what they have’. This is an excuse by uninformed flute makers to justify their ignorance about flute scale design. A poorly designed scale will hamper the development of a performer. Times are so competitive now that the sensible student must ensure his career has the fewest obstacles.
* Can the listener tell whether the flute has a good scale? Yes, and with experience, quite often. When a student is having problems with intonation, we can make a good guess as to the probable scale and often the maker too. The characteristics of some flutes (flat Bb2s & B2s and a sharp C2 & C#2, etc.) is a fingerprint as to its general derivation.
* Correct the flatness in pitch by rolling the flute in/out with your hands (from a published booklet on ‘steps to acquiring good intonation’. This booklet also contains: ‘slide your finger off one of the five open holes when flat..., and practice to become proficient at that technique’). Moving the flute inwards or outwards with the hands should never be an option to remain in tune when using dynamics. There is quite enough to do expressively - while keeping a careful control over the tone - without rolling the flute in and out. It is a ridiculous solution for pitch control and will lead to instability and poor performing habits. It can be used of course, as a means of flattening a note when note-bending, and it is used in contemporary music. Sliding the fingers off too, will correct a temporarily flat note and is useful for special, or alternative fingerings, but is useless as a long term solution to pitch control and expression.
* ‘Correct sharpness by making more room inside your mouth and throat’. Unless this action also affects covering the mouth hole, it is unlikely to affect the pitch of a note. It may however affect the tone and harmonic balance, but as a device to be used by a performer for seriously controlling the pitch and for expressive purposes, it is nonsense.
* ‘The ‘Donut’ improves top E’ True, but only a very little - but it also seriously lowers the quality of A1 & A2, and in most cases, makes these notes flat. The authors have collectively removed several donuts from flutes both to good effect and to the delight of the player. Some makers have enlarged the A hole to make it sharper so as to insert a donut, but this has also spoiled the quality of the note. More recently, a thin ring has been inserted into the ‘spare’ G# hole rather than a crescent and this is less obtrusive though it seems it may make the top E thin in tone.
The remainder of this article will be available soon and contains:-
4. Is Your Flute in Tune? A simple process using a flute and a tuning machine, by which a player can find out whether their flute has a good scale. Includes advice on buying a flute.
5. A Plea to Teachers, Players and Makers.
6. The Revised Scale 2012: The figures.