Rockstro on tone


The era of large-holed 8-key flutes started with Charles Nicholson arriving in London in about 1816 with a flute modified by his father, and subsequently wowing everybody with his tone, power and skill.  We've looked elsewhere at Nicholson's view on tone and how to get it, reproduced from his book, a School for the Flute.

At the other end of the century, Richard Shepherd Rockstro also produced a book "A Treatise on the Flute", 1890.  By then the 8-key flute was being slowly phased out in favour of the new post-Boehm designs, although it would be wrong to dismiss them entirely, plenty were still in use and plenty more were still to be made.

Between Nicholson and Rockstro lay the golden days of the 8-key flute, and all the great names we associate with it - Nicholson himself, Prowse, Rudall & Rose, Boehm, Siccama, Pratten, Hudson, Boosey & Co.  So let's see what Rockstro had to say about tone and how to get it at the end of the period.

I've made a few changes to punctuation and layout to clarify the text, and snipped material unrelated to the topic.  I have included some stuff not on tone where it relates to what you have to do to get a good tone.  I've retained Rockstro's section numbers so you can easily correlate it with the original.  Any comments of mine will be [in square brackets].  The "old flute" is the 8-key conical, the "modern flute" is the Boehm or a variant thereof.  Notes with 1 apostrophe (e.g. b') are in the bottom octave, c'' is the note above b' and marks the start of the second octave.

Even after snipping some material, there's a lot in here, and you really need to go through it carefully if you to understand it.  If you don't have time for the lot, look for the stuff in bold - I've tried to highlight the bits I think have the most to say.  If nothing else, try out the experiment in §746 to see where your normal tone fits in the range compared to that which Rockstro is recommending.

723. The Placing of the Flute to the Lip.

The head of the player being first placed as directed in the last chapter, let the flute be adjusted to the lower lip, on no account lowering the head towards the flute. It will be found convenient to place the flute, at its first contact with the lip, rather below its true position, in order that its final adjustment may be effected in an upward direction. After contact it may be raised sufficiently to cause the inner edge of the mouth-hole to rest against the edge of the red-part of the lip, supposing the mouth-hole to be of the proper size, and the lip to be of average thickness. Under certain circumstances this rule would, of course, require modification, but in any case a sufficient portion of the lip should be left free to protrude so that it may cover from one to three-quarters of the area of the mouth-hole, as may be required. Placing the flute too high would be likely to hinder this necessary protrusion, and to cause a dragging downwards of the lower lip, which might create a fold or crease between the flute and the teeth. Such a fold would inevitably cause the lip to swell, and might be productive of much inconvenience and discomfort.

724. The exact height of the flute must be so regulated that the stream of breath, the air-reed, issuing from between the lips of the player may be conveniently directed against the outer edge of the mouth-hole, and it is of the utmost importance that the centre of this hole should be precisely opposite to the centre of the opening between the lips. The mouth-hole must be inclined towards the lips so that its outer edge shall be somewhat raised above the level of its inner edge, otherwise it will be found impossible to obtain a good tone without bowing the head.

[Note that Rockstro understands that the jet must hit the far edge of the hole, whereas Nicholson preferred to imagine it all went down the hole.]

Some difficulty may be experienced, at first, in adjusting the mouth-hole correctly to the lip. In course of time, the lower lip becomes so sensible to the touch of the flute that the adjustment becomes a mere matter of instinct, but before that result is attained it may be found convenient to feel the outer edge of the mouth-hole lightly with the upper lip. A good master can, of course, guide his pupil rightly, but a looking-glass will be of little service in showing how much of the mouth-hole is covered or uncovered. Some players adopt the objectionable plan of putting out the tongue to feel for the mouth-hole, actually licking the flute. It should scarcely be necessary to warn anyone against this offensive and odious custom, which is, however, not by any means uncommon.

725. Only a moderate amount of pressure of the flute against the lip is necessary. This pressure should be exercised in a slightly upward direction, and should be no more than just sufficient to give the instrument a firm basis on which to rest. Violent pressure would cause swelling and soreness of the lip, even if the flute were judiciously placed. Permanent swelling of the joint, of the first finger of the left hand, attended with considerable pain, is also a not uncommon result of excessive pressure.

[This sounds at least at first as being at some variance with Nicholson's advice.]

726. The Management of the Lips and the Lower Jaw.

The theory of sound-production in the flute has been explained in chapter III, §§84 to 112. We have now to regard the sub­ject from a practical point of view, and to consider the means by which to obtain a tone possessing very desirable quality, and free from any objectionable admixture of extraneous sound.

If the front teeth be even and of moderate length, the lower incisors falling naturally behind those of the upper jaw; if the lips be of average thickness, and endowed with strength, flexibility, and smoothness of surface; if, also, the chest be capa­cious, Nature may be considered to have conferred every physical requisite for the production of perfect tone. By perseverance, however, the ill effects of most of the common impediments may generally be, to a great extent, surmounted. The least inconvenient of these are abnormal receding of the lower jaw, and excessive thickness of the lips: the most serious are the projection of the lower beyond the upper teeth; weakness, thinness, or insurmountable roughness of the lips, and, worse than all, shortness of the upper lip combined with exces­sive length of the teeth.

727. The receding lower jaw may be rectified by pushing it forward, placing the front teeth edge to edge so that a strip of paper can be held between them. A little practice will render it easy to hold them in this position, which may afterwards be modified according to circumstances. The thick lips may gene­rally be made thin enough to answer every practical purpose by stretching them very tightly across the teeth. Persons with thick lips generally find it easy to produce a powerful tone. The possessor of an "under-hung" jaw may sometimes succeed in drawing it back sufficiently to prevent its causing serious inconvenience, or he may so bring forward his upper lip as to obviate the ill effects of the prominence of the lower teeth. Weakness of the lips may generally be entirely overcome by diligent practice. A person with very thin lips will hardly succeed in producing a powerful tone, but he will possess a great advantage over those with redundancy of lip in the facility with which he will acquire delicacy and softness.

Roughness of the lips is seldom incurable; the frequent application of cold-cream, or some other appropriate unguent, will generally remove it, and its recurrence may be to a great extent prevented by cultivating the habit of keeping the mouth closed, breathing only through the nostrils. If the roughness cannot be cured, it may be regarded as an almost insuperable obstacle to flute-playing, and the same may be said of the unfortunate combination of a very short upper lip with very long teeth.

728. It is obvious that the first step towards the production of fine tone must be to make the instrument "speak." This may be readily effected, in a rough kind of way, by placing the flute to the lips, as indicated above, and blowing against the outer edge of the mouth-hole, but as the quality and the com­mand of the tone will depend on the direction, the shape, the size and the force of the air-reed, it will be well to study the action of the lips, and the formation of the aperture between them, before a looking-glass and unfettered by the contact of the flute.

729. It is desirable that the aperture should be in the middle of the lips if their configuration, and that of the teeth, admit of its being in such a position, but this is not a very important point, and the advantage of a perfectly central opening lies chiefly in its appearance. Some writers on this subject have, as I think, attached undue weight to it: on the other hand, Quantz gives his opinion as follows: "He who has very thick lips will do well to make the opening towards the left side of the mouth instead of exactly in the middle." Two of the best English players of the last generation, both pupils of Charles Nicholson, formed the aperture towards the side of the mouth. One of them, Joseph Richardson, formed  it to the left of the centre; the other, Samuel Thornton Saynor, to the right. The last ­mentioned was celebrated for the power and brilliancy of his tone.

730.  Amongst many good reasons for making the opening on one side or the other, may be mentioned the following:
  1. The presence of any irregularity of surface in the middle of either lip.
  2. The presence of a projecting incisor in the lower jaw, which would cause pain or inconvenience if the flute were caused to press the lip against it.
  3. The absence of perfect correspondence in the position of the upper and lower incisors, preventing the central divisions of the teeth from being vertical to each other when the teeth are placed edge to to edge. In such a case it will generally be found convenient to allow the centre of the opening in the lips to be as near as may be to the central division of the lower teeth.
Those who are able to do so, should always make the opening exactly in the middle of the lips, but those who cannot, should make it as near to the middle as possible. The orifice should resemble a barley-corn in shape.

A Rule!

The arcs formed by the edge of the uncovered portion of the mouth-hole, and the upper edge of the labial orifice, should be nearly concentric, and the cusps of the orifice should be in a line parallel to the flute.  False intonation and impure tone would be the almost inevitable consequences of neglecting this rule.

731. In order that the breath may be properly directed, the upper and lower rows of incisors must be nearly opposite to each other; the lips, if kept close to the teeth, will then be level, or nearly so. If sufficient pressure be exercised at the sides of the mouth, on the wind being gently forced between the lips, the opening through which it passes will naturally assume the desirable fusiform shape [i.e. tapering at each end]. The aperture may at first be allowed to have an exterior length of about half an inch, and by care­fully avoiding any turning inwards of the lips, it may be made to form a tube, of considerable length, extending from the teeth to the outer orifice. By increasing the strength of the wind current and the pressure of the lips against each other, still avoiding turning them inwards, the opening may be gradually reduced without being materially altered in shape. The upper lip should then be stretched across the teeth, as in the act of smiling, the blowing being continued. The stretching of the lip must be regulated according to its thickness and to certain other matters hereafter explained, but it should generally be moderate.

732. No precise rules can be laid down for regulating the distance between the upper and the lower teeth, as so much will depend on their length and on the thickness of the lips. It may, however, be stated generally that the distance should be as little as circumstances will permit, in order that the surfaces of the lips may be brought into contact sufficiently to give the tubular opening adequate length from its interior to its exterior orifice; the breath will thus be prevented from spreading unduly before it reaches the edge of the mouth-hole.

The lips should always be everted during playing [the inside surface should be turned outward], not only that the air-reed may pass over the smooth, moist parts of the lips which are not generally exposed to the air, but especially because the requisite shape of the opening cannot be otherwise maintained. How far it may be desirable to evert the lips will depend on their general conformation and on their thickness.

On moisture.

733. Those parts of the lips over which the wind has to pass must be kept moist, but not wet enough to cause the risk of any saliva passing out of the mouth with the breath. As a further precaution against this risk, the amount of saliva retained in the mouth while playing must be carefully regulated. In moistening the lips, the tongue need never protrude to the extent of a quarter of an inch; the less, indeed, the better.

734. The chin should be exercised by being slightly pushed forwards and drawn backwards. During the performance of these operations, the lips should be firmly pressed together and their surfaces caused to slide, one over the other, while breath is forced between them. By the alternate protrusion and retraction of the lower lip, caused by the action of the chin, the upper lip remaining almost stationary, the direction of the breath may be changed at the will of the operator.

The greatest care should be exercised to prevent the cheeks being puffed out by the wind forcing its way between them and the teeth. They should be drawn in sufficiently to bring parts of them between the upper and lower back teeth,so that if the mouth were suddenly closed they would be bitten. The beginner will probably experience a slight pain in the muscles of the cheeks, which may be regarded as satisfactory proof that he is making conscientious use of them.

735. The Production of Sound.

After the acquisition of some command of the lips and the chin, the flute may be placed to the mouth, in the manner indicated, while the upper and lower rows of incisors are opposite to each other. There should then be no difficulty in producing the note b' by blowing gently against the outer edge of the mouth-hole, but the tone will, no doubt, be at first of a hollow and generally unpleasing character.

The lower lip being subjected to the pressure of the flute, its position will be thereby slightly altered while that of the upper lip will remain unchanged, the air-reed will therefore be deflected. If the chin be drawn back, so that this deflection may be gradually increased, a marked improvement will take place in the quality of the tone; the pitch will also be changed, becoming flatter than before. It will be found a useful and instructive exercise to draw the chin back gradually, and at the same time to turn the flute inwards, causing the sound ultimately to attain its limit in flatness; then, by reversing these processes, to cause the sound to attain its limit in the opposite direction, in neither case allowing a harmonic to take the place of the fundamental sound.

The exact mean, between the lowest and the highest pitches possible, is the true pitch of a well-tuned flute, and at this pitch only should it be played.

736. The outlines of the theory of intonation are given in the first part of this book, and the consideration of the details of this important subject from a practical point of view, will be found in subsequent pages. It may be stated, in passing, that a flute will generally give the best quality of tone when sounded at its mean pitch, but the question of intonation may be set aside for the present, and efforts may be made to improve the tone, regardless altogether of pitch, by:
  1. Varying the tension of the lips.
  2. Turning the mouth-hole inwards or outwards.
  3. Raising or lowering the flute on the lip.
  4. Altering the deflection of the air-reed.
  5. Increasing or diminishing the opening of the lips, by greater or less compression.
  6. Increasing or diminishing the force of the breath.
None of these alterations should be made at random, but the effect of every change of method should be carefully noted, otherwise a good sound might be produced by mere accident, and the student would probably be unable to ensure its repetition or even its continuance. Some guide as to the necessary force of the breath may be found in the fact that a practiced flute­player, with lungs of fair capacity, should be capable of sounding the note b' uninterruptedly for thirty seconds. The subjects of respiration and the general management of the breath are fully treated in chapter XX.

[Snip.  Rockstro wanders off on the topic of tonguing before returning to discussion of tone]

745. The Production of the Notes from c' to c" , inclusive.

When the note b' can be articulated clearly, and produced with a fairly good tone, a', g', f and e' may be taken in succession. Each note must be attacked firmly with the tongue; repeated many times, and held for some seconds at each repetition. Then the next lower one may be attempted. In descending the scale it will be found necessary to enlarge the labial aperture; to increase the force of the breath, and to tighten the upper lip by drawing it over the teeth, turning the corners of the mouth slightly upwards, as previously directed. For all the notes of the first octave the lower incisors should be kept somewhat behind those of the upper jaw, in order that the air-reed may be sufficiently deflected to produce a firm, resonant tone, free from any trace of dullness. Turning the outer edge of the mouth-hole towards the lips may at first seem to produce the same effect as drawing back the chin, but although there may be some resemblance in the results of these two movements, as regards quality of tone, it will soon be found that turning the mouth-hole inwards not only causes the tone to be thin, but also flattens the pitch below that just mean which it is so important to preserve.

746. An experiment to discover the best tone

It would be impossible to describe exactly the quality of tone that the student should strive to obtain. He should, if possible, hear frequently some good flute-players, and select one of them as a model for imitation. Most persevering persons will succeed, sooner or later, in producing the kind of tone that they admire.

Failing the opportunity of hearing tone worthy of being set up as a standard, some guide to the best quality of tone producible from a good flute may be found by experiment. A moderate command of the muscles of the mouth having been attained, place the flute to the lip; turn the mouth-hole well outwards, then, with a loose upper lip and a large air-reed, produce softly the note g' with the dullest, or most hollow, tone possible. Such a sound will be nearly simple, that is, it will be almost free from the admixture of partials: see chapters V and VI.

[Rockstro is more-or-less describing the modern art-music approach to embouchure.  But then ....]

Slowly turn the flute inwards, at the same time tightening the upper lip; reducing the size of the air-reed, and increasing the force of the breath. If the experiment be carefully conducted, the sound of g", the first partial [the second harmonic], will gradually come into hearing, and the quality of the tone will be proportionately improved. On further carrying out the directions last given, the g" will become more and more prominent, while the lower sound [the fundamental, g'] will by degrees become merged in the higher until it will at last be scarcely audible. The tone, at this time, will be almost destitute of volume, and, as a consequence, it will be hard and thin, but midway between the two extremes of dullness and hardness, will have been found the true brilliant tone of the flute. See §§229, et seq.

747. By reversing the process, the best tone may be recovered, and this should be practiced unremittingly until it can be obtained with certainty.

Some firmness of tone having been acquired on all the notes from b' to e' inclusive, the remaining notes of the first octave may be practised. On a good flute, in proper order, there should not be much difficulty in descending to c', but should success not be achieved at first, the following hints on the probable causes of failure will be found useful.

748. If the desired note utterly fail to sound; only a rush of wind being audible, the failure may be attributable to:
  1. The imperfect closing of one or more of the lower finger­holes.
  2. The pursing up of the lips, causing the edges of the opening between them to become corrugated, and the stream of air to be consequently irregular in form.
  3. The wind being directed towards the right or the left side of the mouth-hole, instead of straight across it.
  4. Insufficiency in the rapidity of the air-current. The last-mentioned fault is the least likely to happen, as beginners generally blow too violently.

749. If, instead of the desired fundamental, one of the harmonics should sound, this may be due to:
  1. One or more of ,the upper finger-holes being imperfectly closed.
  2. Excess of rapidity in the air-current.
  3. Insufficiency in the size of the labial aperture.
  4. The mouth-hole being too much covered.

The last-named fault may be caused by:
  1. Turning the mouth­hole too much inwards.
  2. Placing it too low on the lip.
  3. Allowing the lower lip to project too far over it.

Other frequent causes of failure to produce the lower fundamental sounds, are the too backward position of the chin and the bagging forward of the upper lip. In either case the outer edge of the mouth-hole will be too close to the upper lip to allow the air-reed to attain the requisite size, for the production of low notes, before striking the edge of the mouth-hole.

750. On a properly constructed modern flute, the c" may be blown similarly to the b', but the c"#, on account of its necessarily small hole (see §§360-4) and the shortness of the column of air employed, will require to be rather more tenderly treated; increased firmness of the upper lip may also be neces­sary. In forcing the tone on this note especial care will be required to prevent the pitch from rising.

The ordinary veiled c" of the old flute is naturally too sharp, and, being also weak; therefore requires great care in its production. The upper lip should be kept as firm as possible, and the chin should be drawn back, so that the position of the air-reed may be almost vertical. The c"# of the old flute always requires sharpening.

751. The Production of the Notes d" and d"#.

When fingered in the ordinary manner the notes d" and d"# cannot be considered to form part of the first octave, or register, of the flute, inasmuch as they are harmonics of d' and d'#, assisted by opening the c"# hole as a vent-hole. See §§149 et seq.

Neither can they be considered to belong to the notes of the second register, because all these are played as unassisted harmonics. The d" fingered as the assisted harmonic of d', is more easily sounded than any other note of the flute, and, but for the skill required for the perfect closing of the holes, it might be advan­tageously selected for the student's initiatory practice. On a good flute the note, when thus fingered, should be blown similarly to the b'; if blown in the same way as the notes of the second octave it will be too sharp. On the old flute the d" is invariably too flat, and will therefore require the chin to be brought well forward. When this note is fingered as a fundamental, ex. gr. the 'open d" ' of Mr. Carte's flutes, it will require even greater precautions than the c"#.

A slight increase in the tension of the upper lip, and in the pressure of the lips against each other, will generally be required for the production of the d"#, as on many flutes this note has a tendency to crack, particularly when blown softly.

752. The Production of the Notes e" to c''' inclusive.

These notes being ordinarily played as harmonic octaves unassisted by vent-holes, and being therefore fingered in the same way as their respective fundamentals, their production must necessarily depend on the peculiar management of the breath. It has been shown in §§91-2 that the harmonics of the flute may be produced by simply increasing the strength of the air-reed. The necessary strength, or stiffness, of the reed may be obtained, as Sir John Herschel points out (see §§ 91-2), by blowing more strongly, but it is obvious that this method could not satisfy the require­ments of musical art. Were there no other means of producing the harmonic sounds of the flute, all the upper notes of the instrument would be loud in direct proportion to their height, and all the lower notes would consequently be comparatively weak. Taking into consideration the inherently piercing quality of the sound of high notes generally, and the importance of this being counterbalanced by efficient power in the lower notes, the flute could scarcely be pronounced fit to rank amongst the instruments of music if its higher notes could only be produced by strength of blast.

753. Although the harmonics of the flute may be sounded by force, we are happily independent of this, and the necessary speed of the wind-current, or, in other words, the stiffness of the air-reed, can be obtained with the greatest facility by simply reducing the size of the labial opening. If greater pressure of the lips, against each other, be exercised, the tube formed between the lips will become longer, and therefore the air­current, being less inclined to spread, will retain its velocity for a greater distance.

Other important advantages gained by pressing the lips together for the production of the harmonic sounds, are the condensation of the air-reed in its passage between them, which of course adds to its stiffness, and the protrusion and eversion of the lips, which, by shortening the distance between their orifice and the edge of the mouth-hole, produce a further effect in preventing the spreading of the air ­reed. It may be taken as a positive fact that, cœteris paribus [other things being equal], if the compression of the lips be gradually and continually increased during the sounding of any fundamental note, the harmonic octave of that note will supervene [literally: over come] as an infallible consequence. It must be self-evident that in order to effect any great increase in the pressure of the lips against each other, it will be necessary to reduce the tension of the upper lip across the teeth.

754. An octave harmonic, obtained by the means indicated above, will be too flat, as compared with its fundamental, unless some precautions be adopted to prevent that result, and the flatness of the upper note will be inversely proportional to the strength of the air-current. It has been explained that the pitch of any note may be raised, without increasing the force of the breath, by:
  1. Turning the mouth-hole outwards.
  2. Elevating the head.
  3. Pushing forward the chin, while keeping the upper lip close to the teeth.
The first of these methods would be improperly employed in tuning an octave harmonic, because it would cause the mouth­hole to be more uncovered for the higher than for the lower note, which would render the production of the harmonic difficult and uncertain on account of the increase in the length of the air-reed which would thereby be caused.

The second method would be as improper as the first, and its adoption would be followed by precisely similar results, turning the mouth from the flute amounting to the same thing as turning the flute from the mouth, except that the movement of the head has a more ungainly appearance.

The third method is the only justifiable means of producing the unassisted harmonics in tune, unless, for the sake of a particular effect, the higher note is required to be much louder than the lower one, in that case the increased strength of the breath is a sufficient corrective.

765. Each of the notes, from e'' to c''' inclusive, will require a slightly different pressure of the lips, and a slightly different position of the chin. The pressure of the lips and the advancement of the chin must be directly proportional to the height of the note, and inversely proportional to the strength of the sound.

In tonguing the higher notes of the second octave softly, or even with moderate strength, it may be found convenient to allow the tongue to strike a part of the palate rather nearer to the teeth, and generally to occupy a more forward position in the mouth, than for the lower notes, but the most stringent precautions must be taken to prevent contact of the tongue with the teeth.

756. The principles of sound-production set forth in this chapter were advocated and explained in more or less precise language, by Quantz (1752), Devienne (1795), Hugot and Wunderlich (1801), Drouet (1827) and many others, but of all the writers on this important subject, Quantz has been the most explicit. I have met with many players who have instinctively produced the notes of the second octave in the manner here indicated, without knowing that they did so, but I have never heard anyone play these notes softly and in tune by any other means, and I believe it to be simply impossible to do so.

757. In the preceding remarks, c'" has been considered only as a harmonic octave, but this note has many fingerings on the old flute, and almost everyone of these requires a special method of blowing. Further information concerning these matters will be found in the next chapter.

758. The Production of the Notes c"'# and d"'.

The precautions necessary for preventing excessive sharpness of pitch in the notes c"# and d" must be reversed in playing c"'# and d"', or these notes will be too flat. The c"'#, when taken as a harmonic octave of the c"#, may be played perfectly in tune on a well-constructed flute, but as on modern instruments the c"# hole is always necessarily smaller than the others (see §§360-1), and as small holes give flatter harmonics than large ones (see §346), the chin must be placed further forward for the c"'# than for any other note except the d"', which generally requires similar treatment.

No rule can be given for the production of the c"'# of the old flute. The remarks on the c"' of this instrument, in the preceding section, are equally applicable to the c"'#.

759. The Production of the Notes above d"'

Almost all the high notes of the old flute have a tendency towards flatness; this tendency is much more strongly marked in some notes than in others, but as a general rule all the notes of this instrument, above d"', require great compression of the lips, in order that they may sound, and considerable advancement of the chin, in order that they may not be too flat, in fact, the notes are false unless corrected by the player.

On all the best modern flutes the chief precaution to be observed in producing these notes, is to avoid any further pushing out of the chin than for the corresponding notes of the second octave. Compression of the lips, in direct proportion to the height of the sound, will of course be absolutely necessary for their production, but the notes require no correction in their intonation, as on these flutes they are true unless rendered false by the player.

On flutes of modern construction with ill-placed holes, the remedy must be adapted to the circumstances. It will often be found necessary, on such instruments, to drawback the lower jaw, and at the same time to turn the flute inwards, in order to arrive at any approach to correctness of tune. See §§594, 668-9, 673 and 680.

760. The position of the tongue may be about as forward for the notes of the third octave as for those of the upper part of the second octave, and the tension of the upper lip must be relaxed as the pressure of the lips against each other is increased.

761. The remarks on the importance of economy in the expenditure of breath, for the production of the first series of harmonics, will apply also to the notes of the third octave. It is obvious that sufficient force of wind must be applied, in order to obtain the desired power of sound, but the increase in the rapidity of the air-current, necessary for the actual production of the higher notes, should be obtained rather by vigorous action of the lips than of the lungs.

762. Intonation.

The necessity for correct intonation, in all musical performance, is so self-evident that it would be unnecessary to draw attention to the importance of the subject, were it not for the unfortunate fact that many players, on both wind and stringed instruments, appear to consider perfection of tune as being simply a desirable consummation if attainable without too much trouble, or without the sacrifice of some comparatively unimportant accomplishment on which they particularly pride themselves, such as expression, tone or execution, and though perhaps few would be bold enough to give utterance to such sentiments in so many words, yet many, by their manner of playing, evince their real opinions clearly enough to justify these remarks. Now, without desiring, in the least, to underrate the value of any other point of excellence, I would urge that intona­tion is, to say the least, the most important point but one in the whole range of the art of music: it may even be considered to include the playing of correct notes, inasmuch as all musical sounds depend upon pitch for their identity.

763. A flute tuned on correct principles will be in tune only when blown at its mean pitch, the influence of the manner of blowing being inversely proportional to the distance of the note­hole from the mouth-hole. The mean pitch and the mean strength of tone being maintained, and the precepts given in the preceding sections of this chapter being followed, the happiest results may be easily obtained. If a player will insist on blowing sharper or flatter than the mean pitch, he must have an instrument made expressly to suit his vicious method. If he will blow too sharp, the flute must be made longer; the holes (contrary to an assertion of Boehm's) must be placed more closely together than would otherwise be necessary, and vice versa.

Good English flutes are generally, and always should be, made of such a length that when blown at the medium pitch, and the slide is drawn out an eighth of an inch, they may give an a' with 452 vibrations. When the mean pitch of the instrument is known, it is an excellent plan to test the accuracy of the blowing by means of a tuning-fork of similar standard: see Sect. 300.

The method of preserving the intonation during those inflections of tone so necessary for musical expression will be presently indicated.

764. Flutes of evil construction, whether by reason of imperfect boring or ill-regulated positions of the finger-holes, must be compelled to come into tune, and the player must not hesitate to sacrifice everything else, if necessary, to gain that end. I am here assuming that, for no matter what reasons, a man is wedded, for the time being, to a particular instrument, and that this is a bad one. In that case let him consider true intonation as the one thing needful. It may be difficult to attain, but it will not be impossible, and perseverance, with careful attention to the fore­going directions, will help him to find the way to achieve his object. Let him therefore follow the advice of excellent Robert Herrick :

" Attempt the end, and never stand to doubt;    
Nothing so hard, but search will find it out,"

765. The Use of the Tuning slide.

As no flute, without altera­tion of its length, can be advantageously played except at one particular pitch (see §§325 and 356), every flute-player should try to discover the good or the bad points in the tuning of his instrument.

It will be evident that the intonation of a well made flute must be injured by elongation above the finger-holes [i.e. extending the slide], and also that if these be too far apart the tuning will, on the contrary, be improved by such a procedure. In §327 it is shown that the defects caused by altering the length of a correctly tuned flute, can be to some extent obviated by a judicious change in the manner of blowing; therefore, in flattening the pitch of such an instrument by means of the slide, care should be taken to draw this out sufficiently to compel the blowing to be sharper than the mean pitch of the flute.

The excess in the drawing out of the slide, and the consequent sharpness of the blowing, must be regulated by the amount of flattening required. It is almost impossible to play in tune on a properly made flute if its pitch be flattened more than a quarter of a tone.

The ameliorating influence of the position of the "cork" or "stopper" is described in §§328-332.

766. In tuning to another instrument, or to a tuning-fork, the flute should always be brought up to the temperature which it is likely to reach during playing. The readiest way of effecting this object is to finger c', and, placing the mouth-hole between the lips to breathe through the tube. Several notes such as a', d',d", a", a', may then be sounded, so that their true bearings may be obtained, and finally a good, firm a' of medium strength may be given, and compared with that of the accompanying instrument.

Should it be necessary to alter the pitch of the flute, let the slide be adjusted according to the above directions, carefully guarding against the slightest attempt to alter the pitch by the blowing. In order to avoid being tempted to fall into this error, it is always advisable to sound the flute before hearing the pitch of the instrument with which it is desired to bring it into accord.

The a' of the old-flute being a badly veiled and generally uncertain note, it is better, when practicable, to select g' as the tuning note. This gives a far more accurate idea of the average pitch of the instrument than a'. In order to find the bearings of the notes, it will be well to sound g', d', d", g", g'.

[Snip - a section on notes sensible]

769. The Tone of the Flute.

No instrument is susceptible of so much variety in the quality of its tone as the flute, and for this reason it requires the greatest care and discretion in the production of its sound. One of the chief aims of every flute-player, should be the preservation of the natural charm of the instrument, and in this. as in so many other matters connected with music in general and the flute in particular, it is well to remember Apollo's advice to his son: "In medio tutissimus ibis." [loosely: the middle path is safest].

The most perfectly lovely quality of tone that can be obtained from the flute is the exact mean between the hard, thin, penetrating tone, which, somewhat resembling that of the hautboy, is almost nasal in its character, and the open, hollow sound which is similar to the cooing of a dove.

770. The hard, thin tone, which is obtained by covering too much of the mouth-hole; by over tension of the lips; by excessive protrusion of the upper lip; by insufficiency in the volume of the air-reed [too thin an aperture through the lips], and especially by the combination of all these faults, is greatly admired by many persons, and it certainly has the advantage of being brilliant, but it is not the true tone of the instrument; it is inflexible in the highest degree, and it is invariably attended by flatness of pitch. It will be remembered that the partials are always excessively prominent in the hard tone.

[Is Rockstro at odds here with Nicholson, who seems to advocate such an approach and such a tone?  And perhaps with the hard tone of the modern Irish flute-player?  Is Boehm's enthusiasm for the fuller, softer tone starting to impinge on British sensibilities?]

771. It follows, as a matter of course, that by uncovering too much of the mouth-hole; by undue relaxation of the lips; by excessive protrusion of the lower jaw; by the employment of too large an air-reed, and particularly by the combination of all these faults, the hollow tone will be obtained. This is far less objectionable than the hard tone, but it should only be employed for the sake of contrast, and never excepting in a piano [i.e. soft passage].

C. N. Weiss (182+ circa) attached much importance to the effect of these cooing sounds. He called them sons creux, in opposition to the sons pleins of the French. The latter expression should not be understood as indicating the hard, hautboy-like tone, but the full, round, brilliant quality that is truly characteristic of the flute.

M. Terschak, in his well-known fantasia "La Sirene," gives the following direction for the employment of the hollow tone: "On imite ici le son de la flute d'amour."  [Imitate here the sound of the flute d'amore.]

772. It will hardly be necessary to repeat that by a judicious modification of the before-mentioned influences, the mean between extreme hardness and hollowness may be obtained. This is the true quality of flute-tone, which should combine, as occasion may require, power or softness; sufficiency of volume (as opposed to thinness); brilliancy (as opposed to dulness); sweetness (as opposed to harshness), and clearness (as opposed to impureness): See §§229 to 238.

773. The only qualities in the above list, which require further consideration, are clearness and its opposite, impureness. Clear­ness is one of the most essential qualities of flute-tone, but it is unfortunately the point in which players are most prone to err. It can only be obtained by eliminating, as far as possible, the sound of the breath, and this must be effected by scrupulously avoiding the least waste. All the breath that passes the lips should be employed in making tone; all that is allowed to pass without being so utilized, not only distresses the player unnecessarily, but tends to cause that intolerable hissing sound which is so prevalent amongst players on the flute, and which gives occasion for one of the greatest and most frequently deserved reproaches that are urged against the instrument.

Another objectionable sound, often made in flute-playing, is an involuntary guttural exercise of the voice, in fact a grunt. The habit of uttering this sound may be easily overcome by a little perseverance.

774. The presence of the partials, in a certain degree, has been shown to contribute to the excellence of tone. They are, of course, far less prominent in the second octave of the flute than in the first; the third octave is almost free from them, but the notes of this octave. are exceedingly liable to the always detrimental influence of the lower attendants* (see §§192-3 and 228); it should therefore be the constant effort of the player to prevent, as far as can be prevented, the occurrence of these objectionable sounds, which, perhaps more  than any other cause, tend to destroy the clearness of the upper notes.

[*lower attendants - the sound of the fundamental or other harmonics heard underneath the note being aimed for, usually because the embouchure has not been fully optimised for the desired note.]

775. The Management of Flutes of various Materials.

The relative excellence of the different materials of which flutes are con­structed is discussed in §§3II to 321, and my preference for ebonite, with the reasons for that preference, are duly recorded therein. A few words of advice as to the manner of avoiding the besetting faults of wood and metal, will be useful to those who have flutes of either of these substances, and to whom it would be inconvenient or distasteful to change their instruments.

776. The chief fault attributable to a modern flute of wood is coarseness of tone. The best means of counteracting this fault is to use as little wind as possible, therefore the lips should be sufficiently compressed to keep the air-reed small, and the blowing should be as gentle as may be. The tendency to hard­ness, which might be induced by the compression of the lips, may be overcome to some extent, by keeping the upper lip well away from the outer edge of the mouth-hole.

777. The chief fault attributable to flutes of metal is shrill­ness of tone. This may be counteracted, in a certain degree, by the employment of a large air-reed, and by abstaining from too much tension or compression of the lips. Although little force of wind is necessary for the actual production of sound from a metal flute, yet a far greater quantity of breath must be expended in obtaining a certain strength of tone from such an instrument than from a similar one of different material, unless objection to shrillness be altogether waived. Those who have acquired, and are unable to discard, the peculiar method of blowing that is best adapted for a metal flute, may be expected to prefer such an instrument, but it by no means follows, as some would wish us to believe, that such a method and such a flute are the best, however well they may be adapted one to the other.


Whew, a lot there, eh?  And some interesting stuff.  Rockstro had obviously put a lot of thought into this topic and how best to convey it, given how difficult description of sounds and how to get them is.  The experiment in deriving best tone gives us a way of judging what Rockstro was looking for - something halfway between cooing of doves and the sound of an oboe.  It enables us to decide where our preferences lie compare to his.

More on tone and holding the flute:

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