Changing octaves on the flute: a survey of published opinions

On the flute, there are several notes that have identical fingerings: each note from bottom-line E through third-space C-sharp has exactly the same fingering as the note an octave higher. Obviously, some factor other than fingerings must account for the octaves, but flutists as a group seem to be unclear on what it is.

I got curious and dug through some pedagogical sources to see what flutists have published about it. I have compiled my findings into a chart:

To achieve the upper octaves on the flute

I have started from the baseline of the lowest octave’s tone production methods, and framed the authors’ ideas in terms of what has to be done to move into higher octaves. And I’ve grouped the answers together as best I can, hopefully with reasonable accuracy as to the authors’ intended meanings. For example, “move jaw” and “move jaw forward” obviously overlap, but I separated them to try to maintain the authors’ original levels of specificity. And “jaw” and “chin” may really be the same thing for most flute-playing purposes, but I’ve separated in them in a case where the author seemed to see them as distinct.

Some of the authors address the issue specifically and in detail, while others just mention something in passing, so the chart does not necessarily represent their complete and definitive views. I have provided a bibliography with page numbers so you can read the authors’ words in context, and I highly recommend doing this if you’re interested in the topic. I’ve color-coded things so you can see at a glance which ideas are most popular, though I don’t think this is an issue to be settled by popular vote.

There are some surprising outliers. Most authors who mentioned the size of the aperture indicated that it should get smaller in the upper octaves, but a couple insisted that it should not change. Several authors indicated that the distance from the aperture to the blowing edge decreases for upper registers, but one said it actually increases. There’s significant disagreement on whether blowing harder is part of achieving the higher octaves.

I think some of the differences of opinion shown in the chart may be due to flutists actually doing the same things but describing them differently. It’s also possible that the techniques listed can be combined in different ways to create different tone production “recipes” that produce similar results.

I’m interested in continuing to expand this in the future. If you can point me toward a published source, then send it along (I’m not really interested in anecdotes or private opinions), or let me know if you think I have misread or misinterpreted someone’s views (especially if you’re the author!). Continue reading “Changing octaves on the flute: a survey of published opinions”

Best practices for accidentals in online music writing, and introducing jQuery Accidentals

In an ideal world, you see five musical symbols here:

flat natural sharp double-flat double-sharp

But, depending on the device you are using to read this, you may notice one of these problems:

  • None of the symbols show up properly: they are either missing or replaced with squares, diamonds, question marks, or some other “placeholder” symbol.
  • The flat, natural, and sharp appear properly, but the double-sharp and double-flat are missing or placeholders.
  • The symbols don’t quite match each other—they appear as though they come from different fonts.

And for the blogger or other online writer, there is an additional problem: these characters aren’t easily typed from a keyboard. Using them means copy-and-pasting or remembering obscure numeric codes. And then you hope that your readers’ devices can display them.

So, for most situations, some kind of text substitution is made. Two styles are fairly common:

  • Spelling out the symbols in words, such as “A-flat.”
  • Using a “close-enough” character, such as “A#” (pound sign, number sign, or hash) or “Bb” (lower-case B).

Using words is my preferred method, since using “#” and “b” is semantically incorrect, garbles the meaning for non-visual browsing devices (such as screen readers for the blind), isn’t compatible with all fonts (such as those that don’t have a clearly-differentiated upper- and lowercase B), and can be ambiguous:

  • “Today I did my patented Ab Workout. It’s basically all the major and minor scales starting from Ab.”
  • “Today I did my patented Ab Workout. It’s basically a bunch of sit-ups.”

Thus, I recommend this usage: “A-flat,” “B-natural,” “C-sharp,” “D-double-sharp,” “E-double-flat.” Note the hyphens (with no spaces), and the lower-case accidental names (even for titles: Sonata in D-flat).

This solves the major issues of typing and reading the accidentals in an onscreen situation, but leaves us with a rather inelegant and typographically boring representation of the true musical symbols. This would be intolerable for print media, and, as screen text steadily replaces print text, a better solution is required. Here are some possible scenarios (warning—a little technical): Continue reading “Best practices for accidentals in online music writing, and introducing jQuery Accidentals”

Why do some instruments transpose?

I find it difficult to explain to the uninitiated the concept of “transposing” instruments. The what is confusing. The why is worse.

To get the what across, I usually have to resort to an example: “Okay, so it works like this. If I am playing an alto saxophone, and I see an F-sharp on the page, I think ‘F-sharp,’ and do the correct fingering for F-sharp, and then I blow into the instrument and an A comes out.”

Sometimes a visual representation is useful (here are transpositions for some common woodwind instruments):

Instruments Written pitch Sounding pitch
Down an octave

Up an octave
Clarinet in E-flat
Down a m3

Up a m3
Flute, Oboe
Clarinet in B-flat, Soprano saxophone
Up a M2

Down a M2
Clarinet in A
Up a m3

Down a m3
Alto flute
Up a P4

Down a P4
English horn
Up a P5

Down a P5
Alto saxophone
Up a M6

Down a M6
Up an octave

Down an octave
Tenor saxophone, Bass clarinet
Up a M9

Down a M9
Baritone saxophone, Contrabass clarinet in E-flat
Up an octave and a M6

Down an octave and a M6

This system is, shall we say, “difficult:”

  • Composer/arranger/copyist: “What was that transposition for alto flute again? A fourth, I think, but was it a fourth down or a fourth up? Or was it a fifth?”
  • Conductor: “Let’s see, the alto saxophones have an E and a B, the tenor has a D-sharp, and the baritone has a D-natural. So that chord would be, um…”
  • Educator: “Okay, everybody play a B-flat scale. I mean, ‘concert’ B-flat. So C for clarinets and tenor saxophones, G for altos and baritones, E-flat for English horn… or is it F for English horn?…”
  • Gigging musician: “I need to buy the fakebook in E-flat. Hmm, and I guess I also need the B-flat, in case I play clarinet on anything. I wonder if I’ll need the C book for flute, too? Wait, let me make a phone call.”

(And that’s just the system used for the modern band and orchestral instruments!) Continue reading “Why do some instruments transpose?”

Why college music education majors need applied study

Most of my university students are music education majors, with plans to become public school band directors. Their academic schedules are absolutely packed full with core music theory and musicology classes, keyboard proficiency, teaching methods, ensembles, and of course general education requirements. There isn’t room for anything extra. And yet they are required to take “applied” private lessons on their major instrument every semester in residence (on paper, that’s seven semesters, with the eighth being a student teaching assignment; for many students it turns into more semesters than that). At my school, I think the requirements for the music education applied sequence are pretty typical: weekly 1-hour lessons, 12 or more hours of practice per week (that’s my studio requirement for music education students), a scale/arpeggio exam, juried playing exams each semester, and a small juried recital. That’s a pretty serious multi-year commitment for a student who is already swimming in term papers, exams, rehearsals, and probably a part-time job.

Photo, peffs

And it’s likely that many of them, once settled into jobs, won’t have much time to spend with their instruments anymore—they will be consumed with the endless details and crises of running a public school band program, and the ensemble itself will become their primary “instrument” for musical expression. Few of them will ever again perform solo repertoire.

So why put so much emphasis on applied study for music education undergraduates? Is it possible or wise to reduce the individual instrumental study burden? I don’t think so. Continue reading “Why college music education majors need applied study”