How to Play Flute Long Tones

Flute Long Tones

To get the most out of flute long tones don’t play them.  That’s right.  The mainstay of nearly every music teacher in the world are a waste of time.  As James Galway once said, nobody ever got anything from playing long tones unless it was by accident.  I would compare having a musician play long tones to having a marathon runner run in place.  It has little to do with real world application of the skill.

The thinking behind focusing on one note at a time is that, through a zen like concentration, you can perfect that note.  This is a serious over simplification that leads to two problems.  First, playing great tone in isolation does not result in being able to play great tone moving from one note to the next.  Second, working on one note at a time does not develop a true embouchure.  A true embouchure comes from building muscle memory for each note as it encounters countless different patterns around it.

Flute Long Tone Results

Musicians who build their embouchure using long tones tend to have several problems in common.

  1. Long tone players tend to have an airy sound.  There is not enough backbone in their tone when played in passages.  This is especially true in fast or difficult passages.
  2. Long tone players lose their sound.  They often need to develop a daily routine of “finding their embouchure”.  This often includes long tones.  A true embouchure should be there always because it is imbued with muscle memory.
  3. Finally, long tone players tend to have holes in their range.  The holes tend to be around the inherently weak notes on the flute.  Such as high E or high F#.  Again, a true embouchure develops stable muscle memory around those notes.  You should not need to always be working on certain notes if you have properly developed your embouchure.

The Curse of a Long Tone Embouchure

You know who you are.  You have two choices if you developed your embouchure with long tones.  Over practice for hours difficult tone transitions as they arise.  This is what some professional flutists do to compensate for not having developed a true embouchure.  This may sound strange but there are flutists with top orchestras who do this.

or, limit your playing to a very basic level.

What’s a Flutist to Do

How then does a real flutist develop an embouchure without the sacred long tone.  After all, your method book probably has at least one section on long tones.  It has become obligatory throughout music history to include long tones in music studies.  Even practice books from Rubank, Trevor Wye and Drouet contain long tones.  Instead of long tones place the following into your daily practice.  They are listed in their order of effectiveness and efficiency.

Scales

You know how much I value scales if you have spent much time on this site.  Scales are like taking your embouchure and fingers to the gym.  You can develop a truly stable embouchure through proper use of scales alone.  Without scales, you cannot.  See my book on flute scales for more detail.  It’s free.

Harmonics

Harmonics are an extended technique for flute.  It turns out that they also have almost mystical powers to build embouchure strength and tone clarity.  Especially in the upper range of the flute.  I am including an explanation on this site to demystify harmonics and learn how to use them.  This is a great article that I found years ago.  I believe it was written by the innovative flutist and teacher Robert Dick.  My apologies if this is a misattribution.  While harmonics are very useful, they cannot replace the ability of scales to build stability in context.

Intervals

Intervals are groups of notes taken in isolation to work on tone in context.  They are often played slowly with one or more notes extended in the interval.  This may cause long tone die hards to claim that they are a form of long tone.  Useful interval practice differs from long tones in that the focus is on context, the intervals are carefully chosen to be challenging and the notes are not always extended.

A good interval study to wean you off of long tones is Moyse’s De La Sonorite (On Sonority).  Moyse puts together a study of progressively difficult intervals to build and challenge your embouchure.

A True Embouchure

Imagine being able to play any music without having to worry about whether a certain note will sound.  Imagine not having to “find” your embouchure.  When making music you should not need to worry about basic tone structure.  That is the freedom of a real flutist.