A few years ago I was taking a lesson with a flutist I greatly admire in preparation for an audition. The most frequent comment I got from her was about dynamics. In her words, “The flute has the dynamic range of a teaspoon.”
When I think about it, yeah, it does. While we’re not as limited as a harpsichord, which will only play the note one way regardless of how you hit the key, we are challenged in ways other instruments are not. Personally, I blame physics.
A lot of these reasons come down to how the flute is played. Our sound is determined by the direction and speed of our airstream and we don’t have the benefit of a mouthpiece that goes in or around our mouth. Dynamics are determined by how much, or how little, air hits the edge of the mouth hole. It’s easy to “blow less” to get a softer dynamic, but the pitch is going to drop like a stone because the air is also moving slower. The opposite happens when we try to play loudly—the sound gets harsh, very sharp, and the note will likely crack because there is too much air at play.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we can do to play with varied dynamics with beautiful tone and stable pitch.
First things first: check your angles. To play softly in tune, the air stream must be higher. This is done by pushing the jaw forward so that your bottom lip is more in line with the top. Yes, you could in theory roll out, but the smaller muscle groups in your face do this motion more consistently and with finesse rather than the larger muscles controlling your wrists. In addition to pushing the jaw forward, I find it helps to “push” the air out using the wet, inner part of your lips. This helps keep the air stream moving at the correct speed while you tighten your embouchure to restrict the airflow.
Next, we need to address the enigma known as support. If you ask a dozen people where your support is and how to engage it, you’ll get thirteen different answers. There’s a general consensus that it’s somewhere in the body. I can only tell you what works for me. Support, for me, is limited to within the ribcage. While some people may say you need to engage the abdominal muscles or the pelvis, I find that is usually only true on the inhale. When I need to support my sound and pitch when playing softly, I feel my support in my chest and my back under my shoulder blades. It's entirely likely this works as a visualization only, as the muscles I'm engaging as my support could be somewhere else. It allows me to control my sound with less effort or stress and without straining my embouchure. Something else may work for you, it’s worth it to experiment and try many different things.
The most important step, that cannot be missed, is practice.
Sorry, I know you were hoping for something else. A quick fix, perhaps? Nope. There’s literally no way out of it. To quote Trevor Wye, this is a slow process that requires “time, patience, and intelligent work.” Grab your tuner and get to work. Do your long tone practice as softly as possible, or with huge decrescendos. Play some tone exercise (Trevor Wye’s Practice Book 1: Tone is one of the best) with a soft dynamic and beautiful, resonant sound. Figure out how far you can push your sound before it gets choppy or cuts out entirely, then practice going just shy of that point of no return.
To help give the impression of greater dynamic contrast, use tone colour to your advantage. It’s not cheating. A broad colour palette is an asset. You still need to project, so use any change you can create. Think about it this way: the modern interpretation of dynamics is loud and quiet. But the terms we use for dynamics, forte and piano, mean strong and soft, respectively. You could think saturated and unsaturated, or bright and pale, or magenta and lavender. You will be expected to play quietly when the situation calls for it, but solo piano is anything but quiet.
There are a number of exercises that I like when I want to focus specifically on soft playing, but in general, it's a skill that should be practiced pretty much all the time. Long tones, scales, technique, and repertoire should all be practiced with varied dynamics. Here are a few of my favourites:
Basically any exercise out of the Trevor Wye Tone book, ending everything with a decrescendo instead of the printed crescendos. Pages 18, 19, and 23 are particularly challenging and make for great practice.
Walfrid Kujala, The Flutist's Vade Mecum, exercise 18. This exercise is based off of the opening bars of Beethoven's First Symphony. He takes you through every key and as many different nuances as possible. Crescendos and decrescendos all over the place, subito dynamics, different articulations. Do a few each day and cycle through the page every couple of weeks.
I like to play whatever technique book I'm using with different dynamics. Grab your Taffanel and Gaubert, Moyse, Maquarre, Reichart, or whatever you're working on at the moment, and try an exercise with extreme dynamics. Be sure to try all three octaves!
In all honesty, the best way to get comfortable playing softly is by incorporating it into everything else you do. I don't enjoy dedicating any amount of time in my practice to dynamics exclusively, so instead, I simply add dynamics to everything else I do. Long tones, scales, tone, even studies and repertoire can all be worked on with a focus on playing piano.
If you find yourself struggling or straining as you play quietly, definitely talk to your flute teacher about it. They'll be able to see where you're holding tension and give you strategies to help minimize it.
Do you have a favourite exercise to work on soft playing? Let me know in the comments!