It’s not easy learning an instrument if you live in a residential area, so here are some tips on how to practice the flute without annoying the neighbours (too much)
While the flute is certainly not as loud as a trumpet or a drum kit, it is still loud enough that if you practice regularly and live in a residential area, you might find your relationships with your neighbours strained. And no one wants to have their practice sessions ruined by passive aggressive notes stuck to their doors.
As much as we love the flute, it’s not to everyone’s taste. And even if some neighbour might enjoy the sound of the flute, they may not like hearing it every day… Which is fair… I guess.
So here are just a handful of tips and exercises that will help you continue learning the flute while keeping your neighbours happy.
Introduce yourself to your neighbours if you don’t know them already and explain that you’re learning the flute. You can chat with them about how excited you are and that you are aware of the potential noise issue that it could bring up. This should hopefully help you build a friendly and relatable relationship with your neighbours from the start.
Ask them about their schedules. Are there times that would be good for you practice (when they’re away) or times that would be particularly bad (maybe they have regular Zoom meetings or nap times for small children). This will help you plan your practice time accordingly.
And don’t forget to ask them to approach you directly with any problems, rather than going to the landlord or council first – it will save you a lot of heartache!
If your neighbours have suggested a few times of the day or week that they’d prefer you don’t practice, then it is essential to be mindful of those times. Either schedule your practice around that time, or use some of the quiet exercises listed below. In addition, avoid practicing very early in the morning or late at night. It doesn’t matter how much you love the flute, nobody wants to be woken up by some fourth octave long tones in the middle of the night!
If possible, try to find a room in your home where your playing might have minimal impact to your neighbours. Rooms with lots of furniture and carpet will help mute the sound, and choosing a room in the centre of your home (if possible), will help you reduce the number of walls you share with neighbours.
Consider sound proofing
If you are particularly worried about causing trouble, you can invest in some sound proofing to help dampen the noise. There are lots of different soundproofing options including latex liners and soundboards, but the easiest solution are acoustic foam panels like these. They are super cheap, easy to install on the wall, and will help absorb and deaden the sound.
If money isn’t an obstacle and you want to make sure you absolutely avoid any troubles with neighbours, you could even invest in a practice booth that can be installed at home. But this is an extreme solution.
Quiet exercises for the flute
If you do find yourself needing to practice at unsociable hours of the day or when a particularly sensitive neighbour might be around to hear, here are a handful of my favourite quiet or silent exercises to work through. These are all very valuable exercises that will help you progress in your playing, even though you’re not making loud sounds. (In fact, every single one of the below exercises should be incorporated into your practice whether you need to be quiet or not!)
Whistle tones: Whistle tones are made by sending a very focused and extremely slow stream of air over the embouchure hole. If done correctly the whistle tones sound like a quiet tea kettle whistle. You should be able to get a whistle tone on just about any note and in most cases you should be able to sound various harmonics on that note. You will probably find some fingerings will be easier to sound the whistle tones on than others, so play around and see which one works best for you. An A seems to be my personal go-to.
In order for these to sound, the air has to be MUCH slower than you think! It should feel almost like you’re sending a single molecule of air over the embouchure hole at a time. These also sound much easier when our embouchure is as round as possible. Often students will need to actively think about making their embouchure taller to get that round shape.
So this exercise is excellent practice to help work on breath control and embouchure shape and should be practiced regularly (even if you don’t need to be quiet), but are SUPER good exercises for when you do have to be conscious of noise.
Practicing pianississississimo with resonance: Sometimes we focus so much on resonance in a strong, healthy tone, that we forget we need that same resonance even when playing quietly. So try experimenting with your resonance on the quietest note you can possibly sound. Start with one of the low register notes, which should be easy to sound with very little air. Find the catch point (where the note just starts to speak), and then see if you can create a sense of resonance while staying that quiet. Don’t forget your tuner! (These quiet notes will almost undoubtedly be flat!)
“Shhhh” playing: This is a great exercise to work on when you need to be quiet, but still want to work through your breath control. For this exercise, just play a scale, exercise or piece as normal, but instead of blowing into the flute, blow across the embouchure hole making a strong “shhhhhhhhh” sound. The “shhh” provides resistance that helps us focus on keeping our air column strong and healthy. The focus should be on our support. You can chose do this exercise without the flute, but I find it helpful to connect the sense of support with a passage or phrase.
Playing with relaxed embouchure lower on the headjoint: This exercise is great if you need to work on relaxing your embouchure. For this one, place the flute so that your lips rest further down the headjoint, closer to your fingers. Then practice a passage, blowing air as if we were blowing into the embouchure hole, but instead of having to worry about making the notes sound, you can shift your attention to a relaxed embouchure (making sure the corners of your mouth don’t pull) while trying to keep the air stream focused.
Practice with your fingers only: Anyone who has ever played in an ensemble knows this trick already. While the conductor might be working with other sections, flute players love to practice through runs with just our fingers. This is a great exercise to use when you’re struggling to build muscle memory on a particular pattern or passage. By taking the sound out of the equation, this allows us to focus on the kinetic feeling of our fingers and muscles.
You can chose to practice this exercise either with the flute held in playing position, or angled so that you can watch your fingers. Both ways are helpful for different reasons: the former because it mimics the actual feel of when you play normally, and the latter because it can help you make sure your finger movement is precise and accurate.
Breathing exercises: Excellent flute tone comes from excellent breathing. It seems like an obvious statement to make, but it’s easy to forget. Practicing our breathing is almost as important as practicing tone and fingerings. There are hundreds of exercises to practice your breathing but here are a few of my favourites, which don’t involve the flute so they’re conveniently quiet!
- Inhale a large breath. Focus on breathing deep, to the bottom of your lungs and into your back, and relax the throat as you breathe (if you make a noise breathing in, your throat is too tense). Then continue to take in small amount of air until you can hold no more. Be Careful! This can go too far, don’t push yourself too far! (Fun fact: The lungs contain approximately 2,400 km or 1,500 miles of airways… that’s a lot of air!) Repeat 3 times.
- Exhale, keeping your air at the same speed until there is absolutely no air left in you. Then hold yourself like that for a second. Simply relax your lungs and allow them to reflexively fill back up. Notice that you do not actively need to breathe in. When expelling all the air, push yourself (you cannot hurt yourself with this exercise). Repeat 3 times.
- Sizzling… Exhale making a hissing (or strong “shhhh”) noise until there is no air left, then relax your lungs and allow them to reflexively fill back up. Repeat 3 times, push yourself.
Armchair practicing: This is what my teacher used to call mental practice (practicing while sitting in your comfy armchair rather than in a practice room), and I loved the term so much it’s stuck with me all these years. There are a couple of ways to do your armchair practicing. My favourite method is to listen to whatever piece you’re working on, while following along with the score, also known as ‘active listening’. If it’s a chamber or ensemble piece, pay attention to how the parts link together. Listen for phrasing: What does the performer you’re listening to do well? Are there any musical choices you want to observe in your own playing (or even avoid)? Listen out for and note changes of mood or tonality in the piece.
Another extremely effective way to approach armchair practicing is to visualise actually playing. There have been many studies that have proven that a combination of mental and physical practice can even be more effective than physical practice alone. Visualising the movements fires the same synapses in our brain as if we’re physically practicing and can help build muscle memory as much as if we actually practiced the fingering. But note that this means you have really concentrate on the exact kinetic feeling of the movement – the visualisation should feel as precise as possible. Vague visualisation will not do the trick.
You can either try this exercise for an entire piece, or use it to visualise passages or pattens that always cause you to tense up. What would it feel like to make those movements while relaxed? Visualising making those movements with ease will have profound effects on your actual playing.
While it can be stressful to deal with neighbours who are less than enthusiastic to have a musician next door, hopefully these tips and exercises will help take your flute playing to the next level while still preserving the peace!