Flutists need to learn to play high notes fairly early on in our playing career. Our repertoire shoots into ledger lines from middle school on, which leaves some players soaring and some players struggling. The problems range from getting lightheaded, forgetting fingerings, or just plain not being able to get the notes out. In order to play high notes confidently, we need to keep a few things in mind.
Use enough air (but not too much)
When the high notes aren’t coming out, or they’re sounding off, that could mean a few different things. One of the most important aspects of our flute playing is air. If we don’t use enough air, our notes won’t be supported, so we should always focus on taking in lots of air before we play. On the other hand, if we use too much air, we will probably have an unfocused sound and become lightheaded. Over time, you’ll find the sweet spot between the right amount of air and combine it with all of the other factors below.
Faster air and higher air pressure
Related to the amount of air you use is the speed and intensity of the air. If you simply blow more air but have no goal in mind, you’ll probably end up lightheaded or have high notes that sound fuzzy and unfocused. Instead, we need to focus the air and make sure it is traveling at the right speed. Imagine you’re blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Your first few attempts don’t budge the flames, even though you use more air each time. Using the same technique is not going to blow the candles out, so you need to add faster air to the mix. You use your abs to send the air quickly through your body, and the flames extinguish. Imagine this scenario when you try to play high notes on flute.
Another exercise you can try is hissing. Use the syllable “tsss” and hiss like a snake. You might be tempted to do it quietly because it feels unnatural, but try increasing your volume. To do this, you’ll feel your abs working and you use more air. Try holding out the “tsss” sound for 4 slow beats without decreasing your volume. This is the sensation we want to go for when playing high notes.
We need to make our aperture, or the hole in our lips, smaller so that our air has less room to move through and therefore, moves faster because the air pressure increases. Think of a garden hose. When you have a hose with no nozzle attachments, the water has room to flow out slowly, and it might only travel a few inches to a foot in front of you. When you cover part of the hose with your finger, there is a much smaller opening for the water to flow out, so it is forced to flow out much faster at a higher air pressure. This results in water spraying much farther and with a more intense flow (this is the technique you would use to spray your friend who is 8 feet away). When you do this with your aperture, paired with higher air pressure, you get the same effect, and ultimately, high notes! Be careful not to make your aperture too small or squeeze your jaw together, because this will lead to a tight, forced, and small tone.
Raise air direction
Along with faster air, higher air pressure, and a smaller aperture, we also need to raise the direction of our airstream to play high notes. We can do thing by bringing our jaw and lower lip slightly forward. Experiment with putting your hand in front of you mouth, blowing regularly, like you would for a note in the middle register, and feel where the air hits your hand. Then, bring your jaw and lower lip slightly forward and feel where the air hits your hand — it should be higher! This is going to help those high notes pop out.
Practice moving between fingerings
For some of us, the actual high notes come out okay, but once we get to the top of our range, we keep forgetting the fingerings or fumble while trying to play them quickly. Because the fingerings in the upper register are less intuitive than lower notes, we have to spend more time with them and give careful attention to each note.
The first step to improving our finger dexterity is to acknowledge that everyone has more trouble with the fingerings in the higher register, so we should remove any judgement or shame about the fact that it feels harder to play the highest octave of the chromatic scale. The next step is to practice slowly and carefully. Slow practice is an important method in all of flute playing. It’s really tempting to play scales fast because they sound fun and it feels satisfying when we can play them at a fast tempo. But if we’re fumbling and making a lot of finger errors, that sends us the message that we are practicing too fast. Slowing down the tempo itself will help a lot, but we also need to practice moving between notes, back and forth, to get the feeling of familiarity between less comfortable fingerings. This intentional practice will help us gain confidence in the flute's high register.
Here is a simple exercise you can do to practice this. Pick a scale and play the highest octave of that scale. Let’s pick a Bb Major scale, second octave (the Bb right above the staff up to high Bb). Turn on your metronome and set it to quarter note = 60. Go between two notes at a time, playing each note in half notes (Bb-C-Bb-C…). Continue going back and forth until the notes feel comfortable. Then move on to the next two notes (C-D-C-D…) and keep playing them until they feel comfortable. Note that the lower end of the scale might already feel comfortable at this tempo, but once you get to the top of the scale, you might have more trouble. Because of this, we want to remain patient and stay at the slower tempo so that our fingers have a chance to catch up. Focus on moving all of your fingers at the same time and keeping your fingers close to the keys. Once your fingers move smoothly at the top of the scale, you can trying bumping up the metronome or playing the notes in quarter notes. The goal of playing scales is cleanliness and accuracy, not speed.
Playing confidently is easier said than done, but it is essential to playing the flute, especially when we reach the high register. If we don’t believe a high note is going to come out, it won’t. If we are scared and embarrassed about what our high notes will sound like when we are sitting in a band, orchestra, or chamber group, we might shy away and not use the support we need to play with focus and control. As a flute teacher, I notice that all of my flute students have different relationships with the high range. Having the space to experiment with playing up in the stratosphere is essential to gain confidence and to find what feels right. Find a place where you feel comfortable experimenting in your home, either in your basement, bedroom, garage, or other room, and spend some time playing in the high range (earplugs recommended!). A combination of time, technique, and repetitions will help you feel and sound more comfortable playing high notes. It takes a lot of trial and error, a lot of squeaks and cracks, and a lot of loud, airy notes until we settle into a comfortable tone in our high range and build the confidence it takes to play high notes on flute.