The flute is an instrument handed to many a beginning musician. Its sound is produced by air blown across an opening in its head joint, just like blowing across a soda bottle – something every child is familiar with.
Its familiarity doesn’t make the flute an easy instrument to master. Living at the top of the orchestral register of sound presents a special set of challenges to flautists.
It’s Not Easy Being on Top
“We have a bit of a tough job, because we’re always at the top of any texture,” says Kate Lukas, professor of flute at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. “Tuning issues come into it. We always get blamed when it’s not right because we’re heard so much!”
Lukas has played principal flute with a number of orchestras across the world, including the Santa Fe Opera Company and the London Symphony Orchestra. The job of the principal flutist, she says, is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde thing.
“You have to really have your soloistic juices flowing. When the composer lets everything else drop out of the orchestra, and you’re left on your own? There you are. And then, practically in the next step, you’ve got to be part of a texture. That means you have to fit in–your color, tuning, and dynamics–and blend.”
Dominating From Great Heights
“The piccolo has the most dangerous job in the whole orchestra.”
The piccolo sounds an octave above the flute. Lukas says that even when the entire orchestra is playing, an audience won’t miss the sound of the piccolo.
“You sit for hours, it seems, playing nothing – your instruments goes cold; your embouchure seems foreign to you – and then, suddenly, you have to do the most difficult things on earth: play very quietly, possibly very high, very quietly.”
The instrument’s difficulty doesn’t tamp Lukas’s enthusiasm for it. “The thing I love about playing piccolo is that I feel I could control the tempo of the whole orchestra. This little instrument that’s about ten inches long is so loud that you can dominate the whole thing!” The conductor needs to be friends with the piccolo player, she jokes.
The Many Faces of the Flute
The flute often portrays birds in solo orchestral passages, as in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals. In one of the orchestral showpieces for the flute, Daphnes and Chloe by Maurice Ravel, it is used to depict something else.
“One of the main parts of the ballet, Daphnes and Chloe’s love duet, features the flute. It’s actually about 3 minutes long, so it’s a complete piece. You really do have to think about it, not only in inspirational terms, but also in structural terms, so that you can think about how it’s going to peak, how it’s going to end, and certainly how it’s going to begin.”
Kate Lukas has taught flute at the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal Academy of London. She has been on faculty at the Jacobs School of Music since 1990.