The tone secrets of great flute players!
Updated: Feb 19
Just like our voice, every flute player has a unique ‘voice’ that defines that player. Such variations of flute ‘voices’ take their special place in the kaleidoscope of flutists around the world. Today we take a look at five phenomenal flute players. Not only are they technical masters of this instrument, but they are also inspiring because of how different they each sound. Their playing techniques, the physicality of playing, and the very nature of their sounds are all as unique as the players themselves.
Without further ado, we present the masters of our favourite craft:
This flute player brings his decades of performance expertise to show us how flute playing changes as we age. Jean-Pierre Rampal was born in France in 1922, and is credited with making the flute a popular solo instrument for performances. During his life, his defining characteristics were his gentle, shimmering golden sweet sound with lots of color. He began learning the flute at age 12; under the tutelage of his father, a professor of flute at the Marseille Conservatoire. Rampal’s flute ‘voice’ is characterised by the very French flute school type of sound he produces:
Gounod/Bach - Ave Maria
In this video look at his position:
Rampal presents this wonderful angle of the flute to the shoulder to make a gorgeous sound. He plays a little more rolled-in than other players and this produces a darker and sweeter sound. Listen to the nuances of his delicate sound, controlled by his physical movement. Rampal moves with the flute; rolling with the music from his feet rather than bending into himself from his abdomen.
His embouchure is off to the side, and you can sometimes hear breath or throat noises, but it doesn’t affect his sense of tone and overall performance. These are characteristics that give shape and life to his playing.
Enescu Cantabile et Presto -
As we age, our playing tends to change a little bit. Compared to the previous video, where Rampal was a bit older, we can see how his playing changed. Again, we get the slightly more rolled-in position, off-centre embouchure and flute slanting downward but his intonation is flawless and his high notes don’t suffer from his positioning. The playing itself produces a passionate, delightful sound.
Here is a flutist who pours his heart into the playing. James Galway’s defining characteristics are a full, warm, and clear sound with lots of vibrato and expression. This is a definite shift away from Rampal’s more delicate sound. Galway was born and raised in Belfast, and continues to have an active career - he’s been playing publicly since the 1950s!
Galway’s embouchure rests more toward the centre, and it looks so incredibly natural and effortless. Granted, it takes years of practice and dedication to master such subtleties, and Galway is a delightful example to learn from.
Danny Boy -
In this performance, Galway’s body-to-flute alignment is a 45 degree angle. There is a slight tilt of the head to the side and the flute is angling down. The flute and the lower lip are aligned to deliver the best possible sound.
Galway is in his 70s here and still continues to impress!
Godard - Waltz
As we saw with Rampal, this performance by a really young Galway captures how he has shifted and changed his playing capability over time. His technical proficiency is immense, and the way he produces a precise sound even in lower register is just plain inspiring!
Also, notice how the way he’s swaying from his feet isn’t cutting off his breath control. He’s still enjoying the music, moving to physically express the mood, and his sound remains the star of the show. What a master!
The world of classical music is changing thanks to the talented and confident women who shine on stage. Jeanne Baxtresser is inspiring to us, particularly because of how precise and articulate her playing is. Born in Pennsylvania, USA, in 1947 Baxtresser was inspired to pursue music by her mother, a concert pianist. Although she tried the piano, she found her calling as a flutist when she was just 10 years old! She went on to study classical music at The Juliard School, and played as the principal flutist for the New York Philhamonic Orchestra for over 15 years.
As a performer, her defining characteristic is how she produces a brilliant, clear, and rich sound. It almost sounds like rich chocolate in the lower registers.
CPE Bach - Concerto in D minor
Barber - Canzone
Notice how her playing position remains at a lovely, open angle to support her breathing. There is a fiery, passionate sound highlighting the rounded tone and rich expression. Baxtresser also plays with quite a bit of vibrato, giving it a virtuoso characteristic.
Jasmine Choi, born in 1983, is a Korean-born musician who trained at Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School. Having been raised as the third generation of a musical family, she was inspired to pursue music early in life. Choi picked up the flute at age nine and the world was changed since.
She is excellent player with a delightfully nuanced style, bringing subtlety and grace to her performances. Her defining characteristics are a gentle, warm, and colorful tone with incredible tone control.
Goddard - Suite de trois morceaux Op.116
Enescu - Cantabile et Presto
Notice Choi’s very nicely centred embouchure - do later see that it may be ever so slightly off the the right. She holds herself upright, bending from her knees, to ensure smooth breathing. Her style is very different from Galway and Rampal in how she produces a colourful, nuanced sound.
You can see how low she positions the flute on her lip, making a cushion of the lower lip on the flute. The flute sits at an angle, where the inner edge of the lower lip is in line with the lip plate. This kind of embouchure produces a tiny opening that makes a more precise, controlled sound. This sound is dark, rich, yet remains gentle and sensitive.
Emmanuel Pahud, born in 1970, is a Franco-Swiss flutist is a classically trained musician whose interest was nurtured since he was just four years old! He trained at the Conservatoire de Paris and was quickly recognised as an incredible talent.
What immediately strikes us about Emmanuel Pahud is the effortlessness of his embouchure. A few of his defining characteristics are a smooth, and clear sound with lots of warmth and color. The tone seems to just flow out of him so naturally! Pahud makes his air strike the flute hole just right (straight-in). He plays a bit more rolled out, lower lip folds under and top lip goes just over the lip plate to angle the air down into the flute. It is so exciting to be able to see all these details in this video!
Debussy - Syrinx
The full video:
Stay tuned for more in-depth blog posts breaking down each of these musicians! Until then, keep practicing!