If you’re a woodwind player, you may find a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to how to play high notes correctly. We often fall into habits that make high notes easier to get out at first, but eventually make us sacrifice fundamental things like good tone and breath control in the long run. Here are the most common myths about playing high notes correctly, and how to fix any bad habits YOU may encounter during your practice.
“I have to blow harder to get my high notes out.”
Do you ever find that you’re constantly running out of air when you play high notes? If you do, this might be the bad habit you’re falling into. There are a couple of major factors here:
1. SIZE and SHAPE of your aperture (the opening in your lips that your air stream is traveling through)
When we play between low to middle to high registers, our aperture size and shape changes. In the upper register, the air stream needs to be much more focused. I like to describe this to my students by comparing it to drinking out of straws. If you sip out of a big straw for thick malty milkshakes for example, your lips are much more open when you drink. If you sip a little tiny red coffee stirrer straw, your lips form a smaller shape.
To create the best embouchure size and shape needed for high notes, we have to think about making that aperture smaller (think tiny straw). A smaller aperture will result in a more focused air stream, which is the exact opposite of what we do in the low register.
2. Air direction
Air direction matters in the same way. In the low register, the air stream flows in a downward angle. As we play higher notes, the air stream slowly raises.
Try this: By blowing “cool” air onto your hand, about a foot away from your face. Without moving your hand or your head, start by blowing your air straight into the middle of your hand. Then, slowly lower that air first to your wrist, and eventually all the way down to your elbow. On the second try, start your air in the middle of your hand again, but now raise it to the tip of your middle finger. This demonstrates how you have complete control over your air direction by making your lips roll over and under each other. While practicing your high notes, try to think about directing that air upward toward your fingertips.
3. Air speed
Instead of blowing harder, try thinking about using FASTER air. In the low register, the aperture needs to be wider and more open, resulting in a slower air stream. Alternatively, the aperture becomes smaller to create faster air as you move into the upper register.
“I have to squeeze my high notes out by tightening my embouchure.”
Let me say this very directly. We do not need to SQUEEZE to get our high notes out. In fact, we should be doing the opposite.
How to fix:
1. Lessen tension in the lips
When we talk about “tightening” the embouchure, most commonly students will squeeze the corners of their mouth, make their lips too firm by “eating” their lips, puckering their lips forward, or tightening their cheeks so you see dimples when they play. All of these can be fixed by relaxing the cheeks and creating only a small amount of tension in the corners of the mouth to help with focusing the air stream with a smaller opening in the lips. We don’t want to tighten our lips because that means we have tension – the enemy of flexibility. We want our embouchure to MOVE, so don’t restrict that movement by squeezing. Think of making a tiny “pout” in the corners of the mouth rather than a smile.
2. Create tension in the belly
When you get rid of the tension in your embouchure, you may find your tone going flat and that nothing is holding the sound up – making the note drop down to the lower register frequently. We can replace all the tension in our lips with tension in our belly. “Supporting the sound” is the result of this, which means engaging our abdominal muscles while we play. That tension will help to keep the air stream consistent and focused, so your high notes stay high notes instead of dropping down and going flat. Pick one note and try to feel that tension in your belly. Squeeze your abdominal muscles like you would if you were to cough or do a sit up. See what happens and listen to your tone instantly improve!
“I have to create a lot of tension and CLOSE my mouth, my jaw, and my throat so I can push my high notes out.”
When we close everything up, we have no room for our beautiful sound to resonate. Each instrument has its own unique sound, called a “timbre.” This is what makes a piano sound different from a violin or a trumpet or a flute. They all sound different because there are a series of frequencies (called “overtones”) resonating at the same time that you play each note. When we create our own unique sound, it’s only partially created by blowing our air through the instrument. What is equally important is the sound we create by allowing it to resonate in our mouth, our throat, and our whole bodies really. We have to OPEN to allow that to happen, creating the most resonant, rich, beautiful tone we can possibly make on our instruments.
How to do this:
1. Open your mouth by dropping your jaw.
Think about putting a baby carrot between your back teeth on each side. I have a beginner student who hates carrots and says that’s too big for her to fit, so we say Twizzlers instead because she loves those! Same thing, just consciously think about that space existing between your back teeth.
2. Open your throat
When we tighten our embouchure, often our throat closes too. Opening the throat may be a little more difficult to do, but it’s similar to thinking about singing with the vowel “TOH” or “TAH” rather than “TEE” or “TOO.” If you notice when you yawn, your jaw drops and simultaneously your throat lowers down and opens up as well. Pretend there is a hot potato in the back of your throat. That feeling is what we want to maintain when we play high notes. OPEN rather than CLOSE.
What to Practice
Octave leaps are a fantastic way to practice high notes and gain better control of air direction, air speed, support, and flexibility of your embouchure. Pick any scale that you can play two octaves, and slowly shift from the low register to the high register on the way up. On the way down the scale, start on the high note and shift down to the lower register. Be sure to focus on relaxing any tension you feel, supporting the sound, and making your lips do the work.
Harmonics are created when you start on a very low note (on flute, our low C is the best one to use), and then shift your embouchure forward and raise your air stream direction to create another note above it without changing your finger position. Then, do it again to create a higher note, and so on until you can’t get any higher notes out. By doing this, you can teach yourself embouchure control and flexibility, along with the air support and direction needed for high notes. They will be much easier to play once you do this, I promise!