Charles Nicholson on Flute Tone




It was Charles Nicholson who introduced the idea of large holed flutes to the world, ushering in the style of flute that would quickly become the norm for 19th century English players and ultimately become the norm for modern Irish music.  And it was Charles Nicholson who stunned Theobald Boehm, making him realise that only by a further redesign of the flute could he hope to compete with this mighty player, thus leading to Boehm’s invention of the modern flute.  So, if we want some insights into how to play the 19th century Improved (i.e. large-holed) flute, who better to listen to than Charles Nicholson?

Fortunately for us, he published his thoughts in his two-volume treatise “A School for the Flute”, 1836.  I've extracted his views on tone and how to get it.  In order to make it more understandable, I've broken up a few extra-long sentences, taken some liberties with punctuation, and slipped in some comments and observations along the way [in square brackets and indented].  I've added a few paragraph headings; I've also “snipped” some mechanistic bits, preferring to concentrate on the philosophy – you can always buy your own copy if you want the lot!  Anything underlined is Nicholson’s emphasis, anything bold is mine. 

Even with these aids to comprehension, it's not light reading.  You'll find Nicholson has crammed a lot of fascinating information in here.  Don't attempt to skim-read it, rather take each sentence as it comes, savour it for all its meaning and don't pass on to the next until you feel you've understood him.  Reading it with a flute in hand is best.

I have included first his section on holding the flute as you will see that his method of forming the desired embouchure rather depends on being able to pressure the lower lip with the flute, and this in turn requires using a hold that permits this.

On the Manner of Holding the Flute

This is one of the most essential requisites, and of the greatest consequence to the pupil; for unless the flute is held properly, elegance of position, facility of execution, steadiness and freedom of tone will become materially affected.

The position I recommend my pupils to adopt in their practice is to keep the head and body as upright as possible; by which means the chest is rendered more capable of expansion, and the performer is enabled to produce a more full and free tone than would result from a stooping as well as an ungraceful posture.

The position of the flute should be nearly horizontal, being supported by placing the second joint (about an inch above the first hole) against the side of the first finger of the left hand, resting it nearly as high as the knuckles.  By this means, that finger will have free action, and the second and third fingers can be more easily brought over the holes, than if the flute were placed lower down on the joint of the finger.

The first and second holes should be covered with the points of the first and second fingers; and the third hole by the third finger, using the broad part immediately under the nail.  By which the first and second fingers become properly curved, the little finger will find its place exactly over the G# or Ab key, and the thumb will be over the A# or Bb key.

The thumb of right hand must press against the third joint of the flute, being placed nearly under the fourth and fifth holes, but nearer the fourth.  The fingers must be curved, particularly the second.  Great care must be taken to avoid the third being  straight, for to this fault may be attributed the difficulty experienced by many amateurs in the use of the F natural and lower C keys.  The little finger should be over the D# or Eb key.

This being understood, place the mouth-hole of the flute at the centre of the under lip, resting the instrument between that and the chin.  With the pressure of the thumb of the right hand acting against the pressure of the first finger of the left, and the flute being placed to the lip, as here described, the instrument will obtain the proper and only support it should depend upon.  This will be fully experienced when the pupil is sufficiently advanced to play in the keys of B with five sharps, or A with four flats. (Snip)

[We can thus see that Nicholson favoured what has become inappropriately known as the Rockstro Grip; Nicholson came a long time before Rockstro and Nicholson makes no claim for having invented this approach.  It requires that the right thumb be applied more to the side of the flute than the bottom.  You will see below that this grip is essential in order to use Nicholson's embouchure approach.]

As this position of the instrument will be found somewhat difficult, it may in a great measure be relieved by pressing the thumb of the left hand on the second joint of the flute, just above the Bb key.  So convinced am I, from long experience, of the necessity of the instrument being held with great firmness, that in order to accomplish it, I have a groove cut out of the second joint (a­bout half the thickness of the wood) to receive that part or the finger on which the pressure lies, which brings the hand closer, and at the same time gives additional support to the instrument.

The third joint I have also grooved out on the part where the thumb presses and inserted a piece of seal-skin; which prevents the thumb from slipping and gives great firmness to the right hand.  (Snip)

[Above - a flute believed to have belonged to Nicholson and certainly bearing an engraved lip plate proclaiming this.  The substantial cavity for the first joint of L1 is clearly visible at the top of the body.  Just visible under the hole for R1 is the sealskin covered insert for the right thumb.  The flute also has a flattened area around holes 4 and 5, another idea popular with Nicholson.

Note also the alignment of mouth and finger holes.  The flute has line-up dots at every joint and I carefully aligned these for the photo.  Compared to the finger holes in the left hand section, the embouchure hole is considerably turned back towards the player, assisting covering the embouchure.  The right-hand fingers are dramatically advanced the other way.  This considerably assists the right thumb to press the flute against the lip, as Nicholson has been talking about.

Now that we understand how Nicholson expects us to hold the instrument, we can see how he expects us to get the best out of it....]

On Tone.

The analogy between the flute and voice (the proudest boast of the instrument) demonstrates the importance of a fine tone.  To the generality of flute players, it is very difficult to ac­quire, and consequently deserves the greatest possible attention. 

[So if you struggle a bit with your tone, don’t feel alone!]

I have frequently heard flute players, possessed of good execution, who have utterly failed of producing a pleasing effect for want of a good tone; and on the other hand, I have witnessed the utmost pleasure evinced on the performance of the most simple melody accompanied with pure good tone.

[An early statement of the "Keep It Simple, Stupid" principle.]

How to get it.

To acquire which [good tone], [I will] commence by stating that the lips must be first closed, and a little drawn back,  preserving­ as much as possible their natural position free of distortion.  Place the mouth-hole of the flute to the centre of the upper part of the under lip, but not so high as to prevent the lip from covering at least one-third or half the mouth-hole. This must be done by pressing with the flute the under lip against the lower teeth, the lips remaining nearly parallel; there being a slight projection of the upper lip only.  Having proceeded thus far, force an aperture through the centre of the lips with the breath, directing it into the uncovered part of the mouth-hole.  Very little exertion is required to do this; and indeed, in this early stage of learning to blow, the less exertion used the better.  ­(Snip)

How to get a strong bottom octave.

Strength of tone in the lower part of the instrument depends on strength of pressure on the lip; for however hard you may blow, unless there is a resisting power, your exertions will prove abortive.

[This pressure of the upper lip on the lower is a recurring theme and clearly not to be ignored.]

This resistance is in confining the embouchure [opening] of the lip to the exact size of the uncovered part of the mouth hole, and taking especial care that the upper lip is as close to the flute as seen in plate Fig. I, in order that the breath may have as short a distance to pass from the lips to the flute as possible.  Otherwise it will spread, and consequently diminish in power. 

[Unfortunately, my copy of the document does not show the figures with useful clarity, but we can gain the impression from the text that Nicholson intends the jet length to be short, not long as is modern practice. ]

The under lip is made firm by the pressure of the flute, and the upper one by its powerful bearing upon the under one.  In this state an embouchure [opening] is forced [by the pressure of the breath], and the breath ought to enter the mouth-hole in a vertical line [i.e. directly downwards], to produce the lower notes with fullness and precision.

For the [low] D and C a trifling enlargement of the mouth-hole will be requisite, which may be done either by drawing the upper part of the under-lip a little back, or turning the flute more out, or [away] from the lip.  I have before stated, that the lips should be placed together with firmness.

[Firmness – there’s that pressure again.  And just in case we haven’t got the message …]

I not only mean the edge or surface, but that the soft or interior parts [of the lips] should press on each other, thus forming a substance to blow through.

The utmost care must be taken to avoid the breath escaping at either side of the mouth; and to effect this, keep the lips free from moisture, for, wherever it exists, the breath will spread, and pass over the flute, instead of into it, causing an exhaustion of breath, and destruction to firmness of tone.  

[This warning to avoid leakage of air to the sides seems to substantiate the pressure which Nicholson intends us to use.]

The old system of bracing the lips, producing an elongation of the mouth, is, for many reasons, decidedly bad, as it renders the lips thin, increases the difficulty of confining the embouchure, and prevents an equal pressure.

[So “bracing” causing “elongation” is bad, but “a little drawn back” and pressuring is good.]

Don't overdo it!

Quality and purity of tone should be the primary consideration of the pupil, and not loudness of sound, which is too frequently heard, and which may be termed roaring on the flute.  Discordant harshness will not be produced by forcing the wind into the flute; for harshness a­rises only from the breath passing over the sharp edge of the mouth-hole, by which the stream of breath is lacerated, and a hissing or whistling noise is the result.

[Nicholson clearly visualises that his breath is entirely directed down into the flute, and that it does not contact the edge, whereas we know this is not the physics of the instrument.  But it tells us what he feels is happening and that’s useful in being able to replicate it.]

Nicholson's Ideal Tone.

Various qualities of tone are to be produced on the flute; but that of which I am now treating is firmness of the lower notes, and for which the position of the lips, as represented in plate 2, fig. 1, will be found correct. 

[Nicholson comes back to an alternative tonal effect later.]

The tone ought to be as reedy as possible, as much like that of the hautboy [oboe] as you can get, it, but embodying the round mellowness of the clarionet.

[This oft-quoted ideal of Nicholson's starts to make sense when we see it in context.  His high pressure, covered hole, short jet approach will redirect energy from the fundamental into the harmonics, avoiding a simpering flutey sound in favour of a dark, hard and reedy one.  There are also clues here as to why some ten or more years later, so many English players opted not to jump on the Boehm bandwagon - the sought-after hard, dark tones not being available on that instrument.

And just in case we momentarily overlooked the pressure issue ...]

This can only be done by pressure, as already explained; and if by this means the lips be hardened, their surface kept smooth where the aperture is forced, and the breath be passed into the flute without being divided by the outward edge of the mouth-hole, this quality of tone will be acquired.  [Snip]

If a good tone is established on G, you have only to move the fingers (and not the flute) to produce the remaining four notes [F, E, D, C – he is not concerned with the accidentals at this time] equally well, by playing strict attention to the observation already made respecting a slight enlargement of the mouth-hole for the D and C.

[Failing to increase the air supply for these low notes will starve them.]

The second octave.

Having for the present taken leave of the first octave, we will proceed to one of much less difficulty, the second [snip].  Here the pressure of the flute on the lip will be less, which will produce a slight thickening of the under lip, and consequently give the current of air, or breath, a more elevated line, acting more horizontally on the uncovered part or the mouth-hole.

[So, back off the pressure being applied by the right thumb and left forefinger, allow the lower lip to plump up and the jet to move from the vertical toward the horizontal.  Just to be sure we get the message, he reiterates it below.]

And here I must observe, strange as it may appear, that because it is the easiest part of the flute, it is generally the most defective, the difficulties or the lower and upper octaves claiming the undivided attention of the generality of flute players. The consequence is a perceptible weakness of tone in the middle octave; therefore let the pupil endeavour to unite the first with the second octave, with an equally clear and powerful tone. For this purpose practise the following exercise [2 octave scales in C].

By the pressure of the flute [on the lip] being less, the mouth-hole and embouchure [opening] will become proportionally enlarged, and consequently the volume of breath increased, which should be the case to produce a full resonant tone.

The third octave

We now proceed to the third or upper octave.  Here again the same pressure must be used on the under lip, with an equal tension of the upper one as in the lower notes.  The difference being a varied action of the breath on the mouth-hole; to produce which there must be slight projection of the under jaw, which will give the current of air a still more elevated line on the edge of the mouth-hole, by which means the upper notes will be produced.

For the last four, [third-octave] G, A, B, and C4, the size of the mouth-hole must be reduced, by turning it more to the lip; always observing that the aperture in the lips, or embouchure, must correspond in size, to avoid the breath escaping over the flute.  To effect this, the upper lip must be as near to the flute as possible, to give an acute action of the breath on the upper part of the mouth-hole. Here will be found the necessity of keeping the lip free from moisture, the slightest presence of which renders it impossible to produce these notes with clearness  Without clearness they become unpleasant to the ear, and more than deficient in effect; but when the proper embouchure is obtained, they can be produced with the utmost delicacy and sweetness, without more than the ordinary exertion of blowing.

Keep the tongue where it belongs!

Moisture on the lips is gene­rally produced by the habit of protruding the tongue frequently between them. There is no necessity for the tongue coming in contact with the lips at all; on the contrary it ought to be particularly avoided.  I have met with many pupils who have given a false support to the underlip with the tongue, the instant it has been withdrawn for the purpose of articulation, tone has either entirely ceased, or become very feeble.  The tongue, in legato or slurred passages, should always be drawn a little back, not only to prevent its interference with the lips and embouchure, but to increase its action when required for articulation, which subject will be enlarged upon hereafter.   

On Playing Piano, or Subduing the Tone

The most finished and delicate effects produced on the flute depend on the acquirement of playing piano [quietly], or subduing the tone [while keeping it] in tune, which has always been considered a great difficulty.  I am not, however, of that opinion, provided the ears of the performer happen to be put on in the right place. Should this not be the case, he is liable to play too sharp in his forte, and to play too flat in his piano passages. [Snip]

In the upper octaves

To produce a soft, clear tone in the upper notes, the lip must cover about three parts of
the mouth
-hole, and be hardened by the pressure of the flute;- but here the upper lip must project, and the soft or interior part only come in contact with the lower lip [more pouting?]. The embouchure [opening] must be proportionately small with the reduced size of the mouth-hole, and the breath (jet) forming a line nearly horizontal.

And in the low octave?

There is a soft, mellow, and delicious quality of tone to be produced in the lower octave of the flute, by forming the embouchure of the soft internal portions of the lips:-it is totally free from reediness, and in some degree resembles the most subdued tones of the clarionet. The muscle of the face and lips must be relaxed, and the mouth-hole about one-third covered, and brought exactly opposite the embouchure [opening] to receive the column of air, which must be impelled into the flute with moderate force. There maybe a considerable body of tone produced in this way [i.e. loud], and so totally different in its quality from that treated in the early part of this article, that when it is introduced in a slow movement, its effect is charming, and at once relieves the ear from monotony. The embouchure[opening] may here be larger than the mouth-hole, for as the lips are relaxed the breath will not be impelled with sufficient force to produce any unpleasant noise from passing over it.

[Now is this Nicholson looking forward to the future - to the more relaxed, more open, horizontal embouchure approach used in art-music today?  If so, we need to remember that he regarded it as an effect, but not bread and butter.]

Nicholson's Conclusion

The sincere and anxious desire I feel for promoting the advancement of those who aspire to perfection on this much-admired instrument, is only equalled by the hope that what I have endeavoured to elucidate in the preceding observations has been conveyed in a manner sufficiently clear to be perfectly understood; and that it may prove advantageous in stimulating the exertions of those pupils who are ambitious of acquiring that proficiency which can only be attained by a strict and uniform attention to tone.

My Conclusion

So what did we learn?  Primarily that the tone Nicholson was after, and for which he was so very famous and influential, was produced by a high-pressure, short-jet, well-covered embouchure approach, entirely at odds with today's art-music's relaxed, low pressure, long-jet, open embouchure approach.  Further, we learned that he employed the 19th century three-point support system (lip, L1, Right thumb) not just to support the flute (although certainly that), but also dynamically to control the amount of pressure applied to the lower lip.


Thanks of course to Charles Nicholson, for that fulsome description of his approach.  Thanks to the Royal College of Music for the opportunity to examine and photograph the flute pictured. Thanks also to Peter Bloom, who publishes the facsimile edition of Nicholson's School for the Flute.  Copies can be had from him at 29 Newbury St, Somerville, Massachusetts, 02144; Ph (617) 776-6512.

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