Back to Basics

Photo by Phu Nguyen

Shortly before the Covid shutdowns, I bought a new headjoint for my flute. A flute has three pieces, and although the material and the workmanship is important to all three, the headjoint is the one you upgrade if you aren’t upgrading the whole instrument.

This particular one is glorious, with a brilliant tone and an ease of motion between high and low registers. It also has a gold embouchure plate. I’ve always dreamed of playing a gold flute; in fact, at one point I saved $10K for it before I accepted that it would be a totally unjustified expense, given that I am not a full-time professional player. And with the many, many muscle & joint issues my body has gifted me with over the last twenty-odd years, I have no business holding an instrument that heavy, anyway. So a gold lip plate is a piece of that dream.

And yet, after the transition, I knew I was playing sharp in the upper range. But until quite recently I hadn’t taken the time to examine just how much so. Now I’ve developed a bit of a neurosis about it. I started asking questions online and playing around with suggestions from the pros.

But then one day I remembered a piece of the basic tone instruction that I spent my entire time in graduate school learning: raise the soft palate. I’ve said this to every flute student for twenty years. Until that moment, I would have said, “Of course I’m playing with a raised soft palate.”

But when I focused on it, I realized I kind of wasn’t. And when I did raise it, suddenly my pitch problems moved from “critical” to “manageable.”

“Duh,” I thought.

This weekend, I attended a vocal workshop. My singing voice feels less… let’s call it obedient… than it used to, so I was really looking forward to some new insights.

Guess what? Once again, I found myself re-learning lessons I already knew, but which had gotten buried under an avalanche of life. I asked about a catch that happens sometimes mid-phrase. The (totally amazing) presenter came over and pushed on my abdominal muscles the same way I have been known to do on flute students, and told me to use my muscles just as I do for flute.

Sunday morning in the car on the way to Jazzercise, I experimented with some of those basic, first-voice-lesson fundamentals. My daughter got a huge giggle out of it; I’d forgotten how silly they sound to others. But it reminded me that those ridiculous exercises are good because when you do them, you CAN’T sing wrong. Not “it’s easier to sing right.” It’s impossible NOT to.

And so later, at church, as my voice danced around the edge of what felt comfortable, I kicked in all my abs to a level I don’t ever in my life remember using for singing. I pulled my head back over my spine instead of thrusting forward, however minutely. All those basic lessons my vocal teacher gave me on day one.

And you know what? Magic happened.

If the non-musicians among you are still reading… which you may not be… here’s the point:

Sometimes we have to revisit the basics, because no matter how well we think we know them, our bodies get lazy and our brains get full, and we forget to put effort into the things that matter most.

I think this lesson probably applies to everyone reading this in some area of life. Hopefully it inspires you.

Happy Monday!