For this month’s edition of Frequently Asked Flutey Questions, we’re going to dive into the reasons why flute high notes can be such finger-twisters
“Why are high note fingerings so difficult?”
I’m so glad you asked this question because this is one of my favourite flute nerd topics! It combines science and maths and is just downright fascinating. I’ll try to keep my explanation as simple as possible, but please pardon my excitement. 😇
The third and fourth registers on the flute are a constant source of headaches. Finding the perfect balance between the air speed and direction without losing the resonance or control of the notes is something even the best players are constantly working on.
But you may have noticed that as we climb higher and higher on the flute, it’s not just the sound production that gets harder. The fingerings are just diabolical!
So let’s have a look at why these fingerings feel so different, and I’ll offer a couple exercises that you can try at home to help become more comfortable with them in your own practice.
A quick look at the mechanics of flute sound
Here’s the fun, geeky part. Let’s start with how the flute makes sound. Bear with me as this will feel like a bit of a tangent but it will be important to understanding what’s going on.
The flute uses a process known as oscillation. When a player blows a stream of air across the embouchure hole, a vibrating column of air travels through the body of the flute and that’s what we hear. The pitch of that sound is determined by the length of the column of air, which can be adjusted by opening or closing holes along the length of the flute.
But—and this is super cool—when we play a note, we aren’t producing a single soundwave. Instead, the sound that we hear is rich with layers of overtones, or resonating frequencies, which flesh that out tone. The lower the note, the richer this series of overtones, or harmonics.
What are harmonics?
Please excuse me while I nerd out—I could talk for hours (and very well may in a future post) about how fascinating this concept of harmonics is. There’s a lot of maths and physics involved, and it blows my mind. Music is a beautiful, culturally constructed art form, but also science… very cool stuff. But I digress…
This series of overtones that we can hear in a note is ordered and each one relates to each other in precise mathematical ways. What that boils down to is that if we play a low note (called the fundamental) and overblow, we can hit a specific series of higher notes that relate to that original fundamental. The first note that would sound is an octave above the fundamental, and the space between each note above that gets smaller and smaller. For example, if we take a low C, we can also play the notes C, G, C, E, G, Bb, C (or in other words, the tonic, fifth, tonic, third, flat seventh, tonic).
It doesn’t matter which note you choose, you should still be able to (theoretically) hit those same scale degrees above the original fundamental. So, if we play low B, we’d get B, F#, B, D#, F#, A, B.
So why is this important?
The only notes on a flute that act as fundamental harmonics, that lowest sounding pitch in the series, are our low register.
Every other note we produce is actually one of those upper harmonics, and their fingerings demonstrate that in fascinating ways.
The easiest notes to see this effect on is our middle register (E to C#).
The low and middle register fingers are exactly the same. We simply overblow the low register note to hit the first harmonic, one octave higher. So our low G and middle G are exactly the same fingering.
Things get more interesting when we get into the high register (D to D 8va).
We are still using our harmonics to reach those notes, but rather than using the fundamental fingering, we begin modifying those fingerings to help with ease of play and intonation.
For example, let’s take the third octave D. It’s fingering it quite different from its lower octaves. What does that fingering actually look closer to?
That’s right, a G! And think about it this way, if we played our low G fundamental, what note would our second harmonic sound like? The third octave D!
Try playing that harmonic, and then lift the lefthand index finger to hear how much clearer that D sounds.
Our third and fourth register fingerings are full of these modified harmonics. For example our high G and G# are just a vented version of the low fundamental, made by lifting our thumb.
And in some of these modified fingerings, you can really see how they relate to other fundamentals. For example, the high E looks just like a vented low E, but it also feels very similar to an A, and if we played A, this E would be our second harmonic!
Harmonic fingerings make things harder
Now that we can see that our high note fingerings are all modified versions of our harmonic fingerings, it starts to make sense why they are so hard.
When we’re playing an ordered string of fundamentals, notice how the fingerings seem to follow a fairly intuitive pattern. As we go up, we progressively lift fingers and as we go down we close keys further down the flute.
But because the high notes are modified fingerings and not always of consecutive fundamentals, these fingerings become so much less intuitive. And to make things worse, often our modifications include venting various keys, which has the tendency to create lots of awkward ‘forked’ fingerings and means we’re often having to swap fingers (some up, some down) for each note.
Exercises to help improve your high note technique
Great, so know you understand why they’re so difficult, let’s chat about some exercises that can help you wrap your fingers around those complicated patterns.
Practice slowly! I know I say this a lot, but remind yourself that these fingerings are unintuitive and will simply need more work to build that muscle memory. When building your muscle memory, try not to allow your fingers to move between the notes ‘finding’ the fingers. Keep hold of the previous note until your brain knows exactly where your fingers need to go next.
Practice scales and scale patterns in small chunks. Allow your brain and fingers to focus just on just the difficult changes. You don’t need to always start from the beginning of a An Major scale every time, if the only fingerings that trip you up are the high F#, G#, to A.
Be conscious of balance changes. Because our fingers are often swapping and the fingerings are naturally less stable than their lower registers, we need to be conscious of our posture. [hold the flute with the correct balance points so that our fingers are able to dance over the keys without changing our balance. Watch yourself in the mirror, if the flute moves as we change notes, that’s often a sign that our balance is shifting]
I hope this has not only help you understand why these high register notes can be so difficult, but given you some valuable ways to practice.
Need a flute fingering chart?
If you don’t have a quality flute fingering chart yet, check out this comprehensive one I’ve put together. It’s a FREE 17-page resource that includes fingerings for the flute’s full range, fourth octave notes, alternative fingerings, and trill fingerings!
What are your flutey questions?
Have any other burning questions about the flute you’d like me to answer? Get in touch and let me know and I may feature in my next edition of #FAFQs.