Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

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Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

Post by FascinatedWanderer »

Have been playing around on the Morvan flute I got in response to the my WTB posting (C&F is truly a wonderful place). Now, I have not been playing very much for the last couple of years, so I am quite sure that my embouchure is not in great shape. As you might expect, with an out of shape embouchure and a new flute, I have been struggling to play it in tune for the first couple of days. The first octave has been very flat, even with the slide pushed all the way in, and the second octave has been quite sharp.

Classic weak embouchure problem I'd think. But what's surprising to me is that the first octave sounds very good even if flat. I get a hard, powerful tone out of it, and can hold a sustained hard low D for 15-20 seconds plus. In my past experience, a bad embouchure would not allow you to do that.

Is this just the quality of the Morvan showing through? I'm curious how a weak embochure leads to this particular combination of playing characteristics. Also curious if anyone has any thoughts on what exactly is making it weak, since it doesn't seem to be overblowing/using too much air.
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Re: Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

Post by Conical bore »

I'm the last person to talk about embouchure problems, but I think the common wisdom here when there is a strong mismatch between the first and second octave in a conical bore "Irish flute" design is to make sure your cork stopper is in the right position. Small adjustments there can bring the two octaves into better alignment.

Here is a page from Terry McGee's invaluable web site about stopper position that explains it better than I can: http://www.mcgee-flutes.com/Stopper.html

Pay special attention to the first and second octave G notes when adjusting the stopper to bring the first and second octave in tune. That's been a good guide for the flutes I've owned when adjusting the cork position. You may still have embouchure issues but this is the first thing I'd check with a new flute that was out of whack in the first two octaves.
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Re: Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

Post by Nanohedron »

Conical bore wrote: Mon Aug 15, 2022 7:11 pm [Cork position] is the first thing I'd check with a new flute that was out of whack in the first two octaves.
Agreed.
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Re: Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

Post by Terry McGee »

Interesting, FascinatedWanderer.

Certainly check your stopper position, as others have indicated. (Note where it is set first, in case it had been very cleverly set, and you want to return to it! Or it had been badly wrongly set, and you want to avoid it!) Normally, a stopper distance issue shows up as an issue in the upper 2nd and third octaves, whereas I'm interpreting what you are reporting is a systemic flatness of the low octave compared to the second octave. It would be helpful to have some figures on how flat, how sharp and which notes!

But, I'm wondering if you are encountering a variant of an issue that plagued 19th century English players and subsequently plagued Irish players who picked up their old flutes in the 20th century. For a number of reasons, flutes from that period suffered what I termed "flat foot syndrome" - the notes in the second octave were generally well in tune, but particularly the low notes in the octave below were really painfully flat. Sometimes just a bit, but sometimes dramatically flat, like say 60 cents! The players in both centuries worked out the same solution - force the energy in the lower octave notes into the higher (in-tune) harmonics, by using an offset jet. We call that blowing down towards the bottom of the embouchure hole, rather than blowing across at the top of the embouchure hole.

Woah, wait a minute, I hear you holler. If I force the energy into the higher harmonics say on low D, won't it sound middle d? Surprisingly, no. It still sounds low D, but but a nice edgy version of it. The reason is that you are still exciting the harmonic structure of low D (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) not the harmonic structure of middle d (2, 4, etc). Excepting "1" doesn't sound much or at all, so you end up with (2, 3, 4, 5), not (2, 4, etc). Our very clever brains interpret that as an edgy low D, not a middle D. Turns out we are smarter than we think (thank goodness!)

Now, in the classic "flat foot syndrome" , it's only the foot notes that require this manipulation (lipipulation?), as it's only they that are dramatically flat. But you seem to be suggesting that your whole lower octave at large is flatter than your middle octave? If so, I would imagine the same approach would work - play the whole bottom octave using the offset jet approach - the whole low octave will sound edgy but in tune. Because you are relying on the second octave tuning not the first. It would require you to tune the second octave A to the tuner or the accordion or other fixed instrument, or use the offset jet lower octave A, not the naive lower octave A.

Does that fit your experience, or have I wandered off into the wilderness?

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Re: Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

Post by FascinatedWanderer »

Could be Terry, could be. I actually find the bottom D to be spot on tuning wise (and powerful and hard) with my current embouchure, and the E is ok as well. The F# and G is where it starts to go flat on me. Obviously adjusting the cork would assist with the second octave going sharp, but I'm still a bit puzzled that the first octave is so flat, even with the slide all the way in.

I can get it properly in tune once in a rare while, with a very nice tone, so I think it's a case of the Morvan needing a very specific embouchure that I'm not able to give it yet.
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Re: Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

Post by paddler »

I would look at the cork position first, as others have mentioned. Often on antique flutes, and Irish flutes based on them, the cork needs to be pushed
a lot further back than the diameter of the head bore. Generally, for me, when the cork is one bore diameter back from the center of the embouchure
hole, the second octave is much sharper than the first, and the cork must be pushed back several mm. So this could explain the relative pitch difference
between the two octaves, but it wouldn't explain why the lower octave is so flat for you.

Two possibilities come to mind for the flat lower octave. The first is that maybe you cover the embouchure more than the flute maker anticipated. This
would have a flattening effect, and more so on the notes in the upper part of the first octave. If the foot tuning was designed to be consistent with
flat-foot antique flutes, then the foot notes would be intended to be blown with a lot of embouchure coverage, so maybe that might explain the reason
why the bell note is fine but higher notes in the first octave are flat.

My other thought is that maybe you have an air leak somewhere which is affecting some of your lower octave notes but not others. Generally, when this is the
case you would not have a strong low D, but depending on where the leak is it could affect some notes more than others. I would do a thorough test of all
keys, sockets, tuning slide, etc. I have often found that leaks affect the lower octave notes more than the upper octave notes, and that they generally
flatten the notes as well as weakening them. It makes you feel like you have a weak embouchure, but really the flute just has a leak. In this case your
upper octave notes would be sharp simply because your tuning slide was pushed too far in.

In response to Terry's comments about the flat foot syndrome (and I apologize if this is too much of a diversion from the original thread), my latest theory
is that the flat foot syndrome originated from the use of corps de rechange. Early flutes tended to be targeted to tunings much lower than A=440, and
were constructed such that all notes were well in tune. As pitch standards rose, or the range of pitch standards expanded upwards, separate body sections
were added that were shorter than the original ones, but regardless of which body section was used, they were all used with the same foot section. In this
case the flute may or may not exhibit flat foot syndrome depending on which body section was selected. Eventually, when pitch standards started to settle
at a higher pitch, the longer body sections were no longer used, and were eventually discarded. The best flutes, with their shortest body sections, and hence
exhibiting a flat foot, then became the defacto standard on which subsequent designs were based. Players adopted the blowing style necessary to play these
flutes in tune, and the hard D became a characteristic sound of the flute, and became desirable in certain kinds of flute music. Makers who wanted to preserve
the, by then, traditional sound and playing characteristics of the flute deliberately perpetuate the design idiosyncrasies. In certain musical genres this
characteristic sound became a desirable feature. In others it was not, and there, players would tend to choose a different kind of flute (say a Boehm flute,
or a bansuri, or an early baroque flute) for a different sound. The whole concept of "perfecting" the instrument is a very tricky issue, because what is or
is not desirable really depends on the music, genre, traditions etc, which is inherently subjective.
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Re: Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

Post by rama »

yes, it can. :boggle:
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Re: Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

Post by Terry McGee »

Hi Paddler

Yes, I think you've identified the corps de rechange as a probable ingredient in the "flat-foot syndrome" story. Some flutes from the time had feet with an extendable "register" on the bottom end to allow the foot note to be tweaked to suit the corps de rechange chosen. But not all did, and so it makes sense that, as pitch rose, such a foot would appear to flatten.

But I think we can identify more probable culprits in what we can probably look back on as the wildest days of flute development! Let's see if I can convince anyone...

Next came the C foot, which a glance through the history books will confirm was a very controversial development. Those opposed conceded that it was nice to have the extra low notes, but argued that they came at massive cost to the D note. Considering that the D note had been perfectly vented and the bore flared to optimise its tuning and power, to suddenly reduce it to the status of just another imperfectly vented note must have seemed a backwards step. And the now more complex 3-key foot was now a further impediment to keeping up with pitch change.

Then we have the tuning slide, and with it the assumption that it replaced the need for corps de rechange, which of course it can't. But we're back to a single body, sometimes fitted with two heads! Senior Monzani, I'm looking at you....

Then Charles Nicholson Senior opened up the holes on his old small-hole Astor, ushering in the Improved Era. But you can imagine the effect on tuning of making the finger holes bigger but not doing anything to the foot key holes! And if you find a period Clementi Nicholson, that's what you find - foot notes sometimes more than 50 cents flat! Nicholson quips in one of his books that people reckon he is the only person who can play them in tune!

And then we have the young bucks in the Philharmonic movement trying to ramp English pitch up from around 430 Hz to 455Hz, making all of this worse. Interestingly, you don't come across many period 8-key flutes that seem to really want to be at the sharp pitch, but you do come across many multikey flutes. Many of which were fitted with the French style combined tuning slide and socket which was too short to get down to the lower pitch, or even to 440. Talk about burning bridges!

So, a trail of destruction across England right across our period of interest. We inherited a mess!
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Re: Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

Post by paddler »

Terry, I agree with all of the above. One could argue that the root of most of this just lies in the decision to try to make a flute that can play at multiple different pitches.
It seems to be just a fundamentally flawed concept, and the various attempts to solve this unsolvable problem seem to have regressed over time. As we know, each
pitch ideally would need its own bore (both length and diameter) and its own tone hole matrix. That is how the problem was originally solved: make a new flute for
each pitch.

When we use corps de rechange we are constrained in how much we can tweak the bore diameter, but we give ourselves the freedom to extend the bore
length and distance between tone holes in an almost unrestricted way, aside from the distance from the last tone hole to the end, at the foot. This is actually a pretty
good solution, but expensive. Quantz introduced the tuning slide in addition to corps de rechange, which enabled even more refined tuning, and we almost reached
the pinnacle of the multi-pitch flute design. The last problem to be solved (the flat foot for short corps de rechange) was addressed by the idea of a foot register, but
it seems that Quantz, who was very influential at the time, interpreted the foot register as a alternative proposal to his new tuning slide (which of course it was not) and
quashed the idea. This is addressed explicitly in his book, in fact.

It is a pity because a flute with a tuning slide, multiple corps de rechange, and a tunable foot, would have worked well at a range of pitches, albeit at great expense.
From there we seem to have gone downhill, though, replacing flawed approaches with even worse ones. We tossed out the idea of a foot register, then rushed to use a tuning slide
as a replacement for the multiple corps de rechange, rather than a supplement to them. Presumably, this was all in an attempt to save costs. Of course, this just doesn't
work because a tuning slide only allows the bore length to be extended between the head and the rest of the flute, leaving the tone hole matrix constant for all pitches, which
is far inferior to the effect achieved by corps de rechange. At best you get a flute that works well at one pitch.

Fundamentally, any given flute is really only balanced and in tune at a single pitch, temperature, humidity and with a given player, on a given day, playing music in a given key under
a given set of temperament assumptions. In all other cases (i.e., pretty much all the time!) the player has to wrestle to play the flute in the way that is expected/preferred (which is
subjective). Even way back in the mid 1700s Quantz writes extensively about how the embouchure should be altered when playing the foot notes in the bottom register in order to bring up
their volume and quality of tone to match that of notes higher up the flute. The proposed embouchure changes (which we are still familiar with today) that allow for this relative volume
increase required an appropriately compensated foot tuning target for the flute, i.e., flatter in the low octave. Of course, this flattening was not of the magnitude caused by the other
effects we have been discussing, but the relative flatness was discussed at the time in probably the period's most influential writing about flute playing, so that likely influenced subsequent
rationalization about the acceptability of flat foot notes.

In terms of sensitivity to tuning, temperaments, harmony, etc, I really do think that flute makers have mostly regressed over the centuries.
But then who needs good tuning when you can play louder! :devil: :really:
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Re: Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

Post by Terry McGee »

paddler wrote: Sat Aug 20, 2022 11:07 amIn terms of sensitivity to tuning, temperaments, harmony, etc, I really do think that flute makers have mostly regressed over the centuries.
Uh-oh. Be aware folks that when Paddler assumes the Presidency after the 2024 Midterms, he is planning to mandate a return to baroque sensibilities in order to stem what he sees as a long-term decline in musical and therefore civic standards. At least we flute players will be able to fall back onto our baroque-era enharmonic fingerings. (Although we might want to redeploy one of those duplicated F keys as an E#?) The concertinas and keyboards with 19 keys per octave are going to be a good deal heavier to lug around. And what is the guitarist, sorry, lute player going to do to keep up with rapid changes in key between tunes in the sets? Scruggs pegs?

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Re: Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

Post by paddler »

Terry, this kind of ad hominem attack hardly makes for a convincing argument. Why don't you stick to speaking for yourself
rather than misrepresenting my position in order to try to ridicule it.
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Re: Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

Post by GreenWood »

Oh no, not flute politics of regressive vs progressive. I'm still trying to understand french vs german flute, and that was centuries ago.
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Re: Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

Post by Terry McGee »

paddler wrote: Sun Aug 21, 2022 2:26 pm Terry, this kind of ad hominem attack hardly makes for a convincing argument. Why don't you stick to speaking for yourself
rather than misrepresenting my position in order to try to ridicule it.
Oh, definitely not ridiculing, Paddler. You're probably not aware that I studied and played baroque treble recorder long before playing whistle, before taking up Boehm flute, before discovering the wooden flute. And played lute before I played guitar. And made harpsichord family instruments before (and after) making flutes! So very familiar and engaged with early instruments and tunings!

Indeed it was my interest in early music that brought me to Tony Bingham's early music shop "At the Sign of the Serpent" in London back in 1974, where I picked up my first wooden flute! (He had a serpent hanging in the front window of the shop!)

And, in regard to sweeter tunings, I have often wondered in these pages if we should endeavour to come up with an "Irish Temperament", that would sweeten the scales of D and G, pushing the wolf notes into the many scales we don't use. But practicalities like fretted instruments and keyboards probably make that somewhat of a pipe dream*.

(*I should note that a "pipe dream" is a dream occasioned by smoking opium, nothing to do with the Irish pipes!)
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Re: Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

Post by GreenWood »

It's because you mentioned their presi Terry, they're a bit sensitive about that one and it isn't a surprise. I think they are at a point where even Paddler as President vote Scruggs Baroque would be taken seriously.

Paddler, it depends how you read what was written. From outside of the conversation it just looks like ideals compared with practicalities. Though sarcastic wit is pointed, (and more British than Irish or American), and self irony takes some understanding as an expression of humility, it is also fair to jest over or contest the idea of returning to previous standards. This is all to do with sound and music, and I think most musicians realise that there isn't a right or wrong involved. So anything that looks empirical or conflictive is still only ever to be taken as a subjective point of view, i.e. somewhat lightly.

As "spectator" to any conversation, anything anyone says is that "speaking for themselves" you mention, so there is no need to suggest they aren't. Terry just critiqued your position by adding practical considerations, and if taken constructively then it probably would partly answer why the abilities of instrument makers have taken or focused on the directions they have.
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Re: Does a weak embouchure lead to a flat first octave?

Post by Conical bore »

Terry McGee wrote: Mon Aug 22, 2022 5:46 am And, in regard to sweeter tunings, I have often wondered in these pages if we should endeavour to come up with an "Irish Temperament", that would sweeten the scales of D and G, pushing the wolf notes into the many scales we don't use. But practicalities like fretted instruments and keyboards probably make that somewhat of a pipe dream*.

(*I should note that a "pipe dream" is a dream occasioned by smoking opium, nothing to do with the Irish pipes!)
One reason a sweetened tuning is a pipe dream is the invasion of electronic tuners in sessions, performance, and recordings. Even the piper at a session I was at yesterday was using the 12TET tuner app on his chanter and drones (then fine-tuning the drones by ear, ending up in Just temperament for the drones). Of course the pipes will still have their characteristic "Piper's C" slightly sharp, but that's the charm of diatonic instruments in Irish/Scottish trad. Feature, not bug.

Speaking just for myself, I'm happy with the way modern takes on the 19th Century conical bore flute manage to hit 12TET pitch near-as-dammit on notes in the first two octaves, with a few quirks like the slightly sharp cross-fingered Cnat and the flat F#. That flat F# is the only real problem on my Aebi and Noy flutes, the only thing I'd want "solved" if that was possible. Everything else including the low D is in decent 12TET for playing with others, and I don't have to work hard at it.

Maybe there are improvements to be made in the future, but to my mind, and regarding current designs from respected makers (not antiques), I think we're pretty much "there."
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