How to Cope With a Bad Tone Day

We all have bad tone days. They are usually accompanied by the words: "I can't play." Or "I sound like a third grader." On such days, I typically want to crawl back into bed or change my major.

I don't dive right into long tones on "bad tone days." I use long tones to memorize how it feels to play with ease and resonance. I start them once they feel more productive than frustrating. 


These things make me feel better:
  1. Warm up your body. The body moves best when it is free of tension. Try some tension relieving stretches or yoga poses. Go for a run. Dance in front of a mirror. At UNH, I would walk up and down three flights of stairs to get a drink of water. When I got back to my practice room, my blood was pumping and I could breathe more naturally while playing.
  2. Relax. Reduce stress. Meditate. Take care of something that's taking over your thoughts.
  3. Lay in constructive rest for five to ten minutes. Place your hands on your ribs to feel them moving. Watch your body breathe. Think about the gathering and lengthening of the spine. Release the A-O joint.
  4. "Bobble" at the A-O joint while playing to avoid unnecessary tension.
  5. Check your flute: Leaks can cause an unfocused sound. Some people recommend a COA every year, but I get them done twice a year. It depends on your flute and level of activity.
  6. Is your cork loose?
  7. Blow warm, moist air onto the pads. (James Galways does this in a masterclass video on YouTube. It especially helps with footjoint notes.)
  8. Change rooms, if possible. A livelier room is more forgiving. I like to spend some time warming up in a better room, then return to a dull room so I can hear myself better for tone exercises.
  9. Sing. Do vocal warm-ups. Sing, then play the note.
  10. Sing and play simultaneously. For some reason, I've resorted to sing-playing through the exposition of Mozart's G Major flute concerto as a warm-up. I sound better playing it normally after I've done this.
  11. Do other extended techniques (from Robert Dick's Tone Development Through Extended Techniques) such as whistle tones, timbral trills, multiphonics, bamboo tones... Play through one of Robert Dick's Flying Lessons etudes. These let you work on embouchure flexibility while avoiding straight tone.
  12. Harmonics. Harmonics. Harmonics. There are so many ways to practice them. The most effective for me is playing a harmonic, then slurring to the true fingering. This really helps me to feel a sense of openness and resonance when I play the actual note.
  13. Keep your flute warm. From then end of August to about the end of October, the band room at UNH is about 12 degrees. My flute is cold. My body is cold. It's impossible to sound good. I resorted to bringing a scarf for my flute. Also try complaining until someone turns the air conditioner off. (This does not work at the University of New Hampshire, however.)
  14. Change vowel sounds. Experiment with each possible vowel sound. You might find that your natural tendency isn't the most effective for creating a resonant tone: On "bad days," I realize that my tendency is "eeee" or "ehhh" which results in a thin tone. "Ahhh," "ooooh," and "augh" allow warmer air, producing a warmer sound. Think of how each vowel sound changes the space inside the mouth. Greater volume increases resonance.
  15. If time allows, come back later. I always sound best at night because my body is naturally warmed up from moving all day. As a personal note, I typically have less IBS pain in the evening, making it easier to practice.
  16. Listen to a great recording. Get the flutist's tone in your head.
  17. Mentally practice a tone study. Think about how it would feel and sound when played with ease and resonance. Imagine it three times in a row. Then play it. 
  18. Inclusive awareness. Stop analyzing and just play. Listen back. Get to know the space behind you. Let your sound "open" by not trying
  19. Play in the dugout position, while squatting, while laying on the floor, while bouncing on a balance ball, while pretending to sit on a bench...
  20. Are you covering too much of the embouchure hole? Is your flute too high or low on your chin? If your flute is open-hole, are you covering the holes entirely?
  21. If all else fails,  vivid mental practice can be extremely effective. (Spend time mentally practicing in the morning, then return to your instrument later. You might be surprised!)
How do you cope with a bad tone day?