Moving the Needle: Tips for Teaching Intonation to Beginning Flute Students

Teaching beginning flute students about intonation is often like pretending to be a waiter carrying five stacks of trays filled with water glasses. The slightest clumsy move could see the glasses knocked unceremoniously to the ground and the waiter humiliated and quite possibly wanting to quit. Learning the flute is hard. There are fingerings to remember, breathing techniques to conquer, solos to tackle, and regular practicing required. Controlling pitch on top of this is a bit daunting for newbies. The trick to taking the mystery out of intonation is to turn it into an exploratory, fact-finding mission. In this blog, I will be outlining some of the basic concepts surrounding intonation and ways to make these methods accessible to beginning flute students. Let the tuning games begin!

Check the cork. This is a good practice to demonstrate for your students. Check the position of the cork by placing the opposite end of the cleaning rod, which is marked with a line approximately 17 mm. from the end, carefully into the headjoint. If the line lines up with the center of the tone hole, you’re good to go! If the cork seems to be out of adjustment, check in with your local repair technician to see if your cork needs to be adjusted or replaced. Please do not try to adjust your cork on your own - since this part of your instrument affects your intonation drastically, it is best for an experienced repair technician to make adjustments.

Demonstrate how to use a tuner app. Students can purchase tuners easily from a music store or  download tuner apps to a smartphone. Ask students to bring in their favorite tuner option and show them how to read the tuner needle. Some tuner apps turn green when the note is in tune and red when it is out of tune, but it is still best to read the exact needle marking as slight changes in embouchure, air, and posture can move the needle ever so slightly to the center.

The power of the headjoint. With the tuner app on, we can demonstrate how the headjoint affects intonation. Ask the student to push the headjoint all the way in. Super sharp, right? Now ask the student to pull the headjoint way out. Super flat! Now take a page out of the Goldilocks playbook and push the headjoint in until the flute is in tune according to the tuner app. This is often located with the headjoint pulled out about a quarter of an inch but will vary between flutes. When the student finds that sweet spot, they may carefully mark it with a fine-tipped permanent marker or a spot of nail polish.

Every note has a different tuning tendency – Figure them out together. This is a super fun homework assignment for your students, especially if they are really into math, science, or any other problem-solving activity. Ask students to work with their tuner to determine the tendency for every note on the flute. Have them create a list. How many cents flat or sharp does each note fall?

Air speed affects pitch. When the air stream is slower, particularly in the low register, the pitch tends to fall flat. In the high register, where we typically need a faster air stream, the pitch runs sharp. Ask the students to flip the script! Try using faster air in the low register on long tone warm-ups and slower air on high register exercises. Turn on the tuner and ask students how this affects their pitch.

The angle of the air also affects the pitch. When the airstream is angled higher, the pitch naturally runs sharp and vice versa. In my studio, we practice aiming the air straight ahead towards a giant stuffed bear named Charlie. A great way to expand on this is to ask students to aim their air stream at different objects. A helium balloon that touches the ceiling could help students hear a sharp note while a set of weights on the floor could be the perfect target to demonstrate how the pitch falls when angling the air downward.

Remember: Dynamics also affect pitch. Ask students to practice a simple scale while making a crescendo and decrescendo on each note with the tuner on. What do they notice? Have them record their findings over the week to discuss at their next lesson. Remember: the octave will also effect how pitches react to this exercise so it is best to assign a two-octave scale if possible.

The amount of tone hole coverage also alters pitch. When the flute is positioned high on the lip, there is a tendency for the lips to cover more of the tone hole, resulting in a consistently flat pitch. Likewise, if the lips are placed too far back, the pitch tends to run sharp. Ask students to take a few flute lip selfies or videos. How much of the tone hole do they tend to cover with their lips? They may need to lower the flute slightly on their lip if they run flat or lift if they run sharp.

Posture matters! When the chin is positioned towards the ground, the pitch is lowered and when pointed too high, the pitch veers sharps. General posture also effects pitch. One of my favorite exercises to improve pitch and posture is the wall exercise. Students are asked to place their backs against a wall with their knees bent while playing the music of the day. The wall provides support so they are able to breathe easier and more directly aim their air stream.

Good times tuning with harmonics. Ask students to play a second octave C using a harmonic fingering on a low C. Then ask them to play the regular non-harmonic version of the same note. Does it sound identical? Is it flat? Push the headjoint in slightly. Sharp? Bring it out. Talk about multitasking! Harmonics + intonation studies = student success!

Try note bending exercises. Armed will all of these techniques, one of my favorite exercises is to ask students to intentionally bend pitches lower and back again using the notes in one of our favorite scales. This is the best way to practice all of the tools we have learned thus far. Lower the pitch by lowering the air stream, speed, chin placement, and tone hole coverage and raise the pitch by lifting all of these elements in the opposite direction. Younger students tend to love pitch bends as they do not often get to hear the flute sound more like a guitar than a tweety bird.

One final word of warning. I did not mention the typical advice that many band directors give suggesting that rolling a flute in will flatten a note while rolling out will help raise the pitch. While this is true, it does not really solve any underlying problems with air stream, support, or embouchure. Instead, it changes the color of the pitch and the relationship of the lips to the tone hole, leading to a very inconsistent sound.

How do you teach your students about intonation? What intonation exercises do you find the most useful? 

Happy fluting!

About the Author, Rachel Taylor Geier:

Rachel Taylor Geier holds a DMA in Flute Performance from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, an MM in Flute Performance from San Francisco State University, and a BM in Music Performance from DePauw University. Former applied instructors include Immanuel Davis, Linda Lukas, Anne Reynolds, and Rhonda Bradetich. Dr. Geier currently teaches and freelances in Davis, California and hosts a popular Flute Friday Blog Series.