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For the Contemporary Flutist

introducing the 12 flute etudes on extended flute techniques from the etude book 'For the Contemporary Flutist' by Wil Offermans

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Etude 6: Whisper Tones

In this series on extended flute techniques we have seen techniques like the wind tone (#1), harmonics (#2), the difference tone (#3), the bamboo tone (#4) and the multiphonic (#5). We have discussed the great importance and enjoyment of the extended techniques. Main thought was to regard the extended techniques as a tool to develop the more difficult aspects of flute playing, especially the tone-development, body control and the breathing. With this article we will discuss another most interesting technique with great benefits for especially tone-development and flexibility for the embouchure and throat: the whisper tone. Furthermore we will look to the idea of whispering, again some vocalization, see how to play a whisper tone, propose some daily studies and finally we will look a bit to the Etude 6: Whisper Tones.

VIDEO Etude 6: Whisper Tones
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Etude 6: Whisper Tones

This short sample video is on Etude 6: Whisper Tones from the book For the Contemporary Flutist by Wil Offermans, which contains the 12 studies on contemporary flute techniques. Offermans recorded the etudes on the CD Daily Sensibilities.
* for copyright protection scores in the videos are partly blurred.
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This short sample video is on Etude 6: Whisper Tones from the book For the Contemporary Flutist by Wil Offermans, which contains the 12 studies on contemporary flute techniques. Offermans recorded all the etudes on the CD Daily Sensibilities.

Whispering the Voice

Comparing the airflow
The whisper tone is an extremely soft sound on the flute, however with a dense, nearly laser-beam-like projection. While playing the flute, a whisper tone may sound at random when blown with extremely few air. The name whisper tone seems to explain itself: we are ‘whispering’ the flute tone, similar to whispering with the voice. When you are whispering with your voice towards a person some meters away, you will certainly pronounce your words with extra attention, since you want your whispering to reach the remote person. Also, you will instinctively raise your breath support to direct your words with more intensity towards the other person.

Whispering the Flute

When performing the whisper tone on the flute, we can use the same image of whispering towards a person several meters away. We blow the flute with extremely few air. Without creating a full vibration inside the flute, we now ‘whisper’ the flute sound away from us towards the listeners ear. Naturally, we will take great care for how exactly we produce the sound. This makes us sensitive to the small details in the sound itself as well as to the special actions inside our body, especially concerning the breath support, the throat, the mouth-cavity and the lips. I am sure you will recognize this when you study the whisper tone yourself.

Vocalization

When producing a whisper tone we have to support it by shaping the mouth cavity by means of vocalization. Similar like we have seen with the harmonic, and with the bamboo tone, the higher whisper tones require a smaller mouth cavity (like the vocalization of [ee] in ‘cheese’), while lower whisper tones require a bigger mouth cavity (like the vocalization of [o] in ‘york’).

In theory, all flute sounds can also be played as a whisper tone. However we do have our limits concerning vocalization, simply because we have a natural limit in shaping the mouth cavity to both extremely small (a very sharp [ee]) as well as extremely wide (a very open [o]). So this explains also why there are limitations on playing whisper tones in the lowest as well as the highest registers. Like always, by studying one can extend these limits.

Playing your first Whisper Tone

Difference in Lip-opening
With the Etude 5: Multiphonics I presented a photo of an Egyptian flutist (to photo). In the photograph we can see the end-blown nay flute being performed with a narrow but really high lip-opening (in contrast with our basically horizontally-stretched, flat flute embouchure). This narrow and high 'nay-embouchure' turns out to be perfect for playing whisper tones. We use a similar lip-opening when we whistle with the lips. This ‘new’ embouchure may feel funny in the beginning, but once you got it, you will realize that it adds enormous flexibility to your possibilities. Here are some hints for playing a whisper tone:
Rolling the Flute
  • Use a narrow but high lip-opening.
  • Roll out the flute a little, so that the lips cover less of the embouchure-hole and that you blow more ‘over’ the embouchure-hole.
  • If you have never played a whisper tone before, first try to play one on a high-B.
  • Blow long notes and always with extremely few air. Whenever you hear a ‘normal’ flute sound, you use less (and even less) air. You will actually only need a fraction of the air you are used to blow. It might be so few air, that at first you don’t realize that it is actually possible to blow with so few air!
  • Use a adequate vocalization to support a whisper tone: [ee] for higher pitches, [o] for lower pitches.
  • Use the breath support to direct the whisper tone into the space towards the other side of the room.
  • If you do not get any whisper tone (yet) try to make small variations in rolling the flute in- and outwards, in changing the lip-opening and in blowing even less.

Some Daily Exercises

There are three basic styles to study whisper tones:

  1. Perform whisper tones as long notes, chromatically down from the high-B
  2. Perform whisper tones similar as above, but this time always preceded by a loud staccato (flute sound), like an echo. Try to make the change from flute sound to whisper tone as quickly as you can, so that there hardly is any audible pause between the flute sound and the whisper tone.
  3. Perform harmonics as whisper tones, chromatically up from the low-C (or low-B). Similar to when playing harmonics, again the vocalization will help us significantly to control the correct harmonic.

Three Exercises for Whisper Tones

Etude 6: Whisper Tones

The Etude 6: Whisper Tones in the book For the Contemporary Flutist deals with the whisper tone. In the first part, harmonics are performed as whisper tones with the fingerings indicated by the diamond-shaped note. Actually only three fingerings are used in the first part until half way of the second page. In the final part, we play the whisper tone on the normal fingering. You should realize that this piece is extremely difficult to perform ‘correctly’. But our first goal is not to play ‘perfect’, but indeed to use the extended techniques as a tool to develop. Studying whisper tones for just about 10 minutes a day can upgrade your flute sound tremendously. An additional great advantage of the whisper tone is that you can also study it at night, without disturbing your neighbors!

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