TWELVE TERRIFIC TIPS FOR POWERFUL PAN FLUTE PLAYING

By David Osborn

Theoretically, the art of playing the Pan Flute is something that can be studied and understood very simply, even within the space of an afternoon. The art of Pan Flute playing can be distilled down to a few very basic principles. However, it’s the consistent application of those principles through daily practice where the real time and effort needs to be put in, to bring the body and the actual physical execution of those principles and practices into line with the underlying theory. In this article, I will distill the basic principles of Pan Flute playing down into a set of some twelve tips or guidelines, starting with the most basic and preliminary, and working our way up to the most advanced, step by step.

Tip One: Posture – The player should sit or stand in a comfortable posture with the spine, neck and head held erect. By “comfortable”, I mean that there should be an absence of undue stiffness or tension in the principal parts of the body concerned – the head, neck, shoulders, arms, back, chest, abdomen or torso. The body should not be unduly hunched over the Pan Flute, neither should it be stiffly or rigidly drawn away from it in a kind of military posture; neither should it be crouched or leaning over to one side or the other. This comfortable yet erect posture should allow for balanced and efficient movement, and for the free interplay between the player and his instrument. Being balanced also means being centered. 

Tip Two: Hand Position and Holding the Pan Flute – The correct and efficient manipulation of the Pan Flute for playing purposes depends on the proper way of holding it, with each hand having its own clearly defined and differentiated role to play. The right hand, which is the dominant hand in most people, should hold the longest or lowest pipes of the Pan Flute firmly anchored in the palm of the hand, in much the same manner that one would hold a gun, with the index finger of that hand outstretched along the bottom frame of the instrument. The job of the right or dominant hand is to guide the instrument quickly, accurately and reliably back and forth from pipe to pipe, to play the notes desired. The job of the left hand, which is the non-dominant hand in most people, is to steady the instrument, and to execute the vibrato as well as the grace note inflections. The left or non-dominant hand holds the shortest or highest pipes of the Pan Flute lightly between the thumb and the finger tips, with the wrist being in a comfortable and relaxed position.

Which hand is the dominant hand? It is the one you write with. The dominant hand is also the one that is the quickest, most powerful and most accurate and reliable in its movement, so it is given the crucial task of moving or guiding the Pan Flute back and forth from one pipe to the next, as desired. And so, the traditional rules for playing the authentic Romanian style Pan Flute, which has a wider span than the various types of panpipes from South America and the Andes, dictate that right handed people should play with the low pipes on their right, whereas left handed people should play with the low pipes on their left. Since the various panpipes from South America all have a narrower span than the Romanian style arched Pan Flute, mainly because the pipes are in two rows or tiers, the correct division of labor between the two hands is not as crucial. And so, with the South American panpipes, which side one plays on is usually a matter of habit, and which side one’s teacher played on, with virtually all players from Ecuador (I have yet to find a single exception) playing left handed, and players from Peru or Bolivia tending to play right handed – with Mexico and the rest of Latin America falling somewhere in between, on mixed sides. I have heard of one Bolivian player, Carlos Crespo, who can play panpipes with equal virtuosity on both sides, but he is a unique phenomenon, and definitely an exception to the rule.

Tip Three: Proper Breathing – The Pan Flute is the closest instrument to the human voice, and as with singing, proper breathing is also very important for playing the Pan Flute. To play the Pan Flute, we use deep abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, supplemented by chest and shoulder breathing for a full breath from bottom to top. Deep abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing is done by expanding the lower ribs, also called the floating ribs, out to the sides, enabling the diaphragm to descend fully on the inhale – and it is possible to do this rib expansion independently of breathing. With abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, the abdomen, all the way down to the pelvic cavity, goes out or inflates with the inhale and goes in or deflates with the exhale. There are physical exercises one can do to strengthen or enhance one’s abdominal breathing capacity, such as lying on one’s back and placing a pile of heavy books on one’s abdomen while breathing abdominally. This foundation of deep abdominal breathing is supplemented by taking additional air into the chest and tops of the lungs, around the shoulder area. Full deep abdominal breaths are taken between longer phrases, with shorter “catch breaths” taken between shorter phrases, as needed.

Tip Four: Proper Embouchure – The correct lip and embouchure formation for playing the Pan Flute closely resembles that for playing the transverse classical flute, except that the lips are held more tightly, and the lower jaw is thrust outward more in a kind of smiling configuration. Otherwise, it is quite similar to blowing soup on a spoon, with the tightened lips focusing the air stream on a single point. To play or blow a note, the center of one’s lips needs to be aligned with the center of a pipe, with the lower edge of one’s lower lip sitting right on top of the pipe rim. Then, with the lips properly aligned and in place with the pipe, blow downwards at an angle of approximately 45 degrees, so that one’s air stream hits the far edge of the pipe rim. This should produce a clear, strong and focused tone.

Tip Five: The Attack – After obtaining the proper embouchure and lip alignment with the pipe to produce a clear, strong focused tone, the tone can be given even more power, clarity and definition by initiating it with an attack. The attack is performed by initiating the tone with a clear articulation of the tongue, as if you were saying, “TU”. Most notes and musical phrases on the Pan Flute are usually initiated with an attack. The attack can either be harder or softer, as in articulating “DU” instead of “TU”, but usually, it is desirable to begin the note or phrase with some sort of attack. The particular musical circumstances of the phrase or passage will dictate whether your attack is harder or softer, but the attack is a big help and support to tone formation.  Maestro Zamfir would tell me that the attack was like the crucial moment of a race at which the gun goes off and the runners leap out off the blocks – everything flows from that moment.

Tip Six: Practice Long Tones Daily – In the beginning of each practice session, it is highly desirable to first practice long tones, as long as you can comfortably hold them, in order to secure a good, clear, strong tone. This will help you greatly in strengthening and firming your embouchure, in giving you a steady, dependable tone quality, and in establishing a steady and firm rapport with your instrument. In Pan Flute playing, there are two basic exercises that will greatly strengthen and firm up your embouchure; the first is practicing long tones, and the second is tonguing. To these basic two, when the player is advanced enough to tackle it, comes playing the chromatic notes. But first, a good, strong embouchure needs to be set and cultivated, and for this we practice long tones.     

According to my teacher, Damian Luca, a Pan Flutist’s tone is a direct expression of his or her inner Soul, and all the subtle spiritual qualities thereof. A remarkable statement, indeed, but from what I’ve heard and known of players and their tone, I would have to say that he’s right. And practicing long tones is the best way to develop one’s tone to its fullest expression, so that your inner Soul may express itself more fully through your instrument. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of developing a strong, full and solid tone. I remember the time when Damian Luca took me aside and blew faint, pretty notes into his Pan Flute; he said to me, “That might sound pretty, but it is not NAI” – the Pan Flute. Although it is also good to have full control over things like volume and sound level, the basic or default mode on the Pan Flute is to play with full power and intensity of tone. So, in addition to one’s innate Soul qualities, one’s personal power and vitality also shines forth through one’s playing. 

Tip Seven: Practice Tonguing Exercises Daily – In playing most other musical instruments, there are six to ten fingers available for articulating and playing the notes. In playing the Pan Flute, we have just one “finger” that articulates the notes, and that is the tongue. In Pan Flute playing, we have four basic tonguing techniques: Single Tonguing (TU, TU, TU), Double Tonguing (TU-KU, TU-KU), Triple Tonguing (TU-KU-TU, TU-KU-TU), and Flutter Tonguing, which is like rolling a long Spanish “R” while blowing into the pipes. Single Tonguing is like a single, simple stroke of a pick on a guitar string; Double Tonguing is like a double stroke of the pick on the guitar string, which can either repeat the same note, or articulate two different notes consecutively – and so on. Besides blowing long tones, doing tonguing exercises daily is the other secret to developing tone and embouchure. While long tones help with building the basic volume, breadth and steadiness of the tone, tonguing exercises develop precision, sharpness and focus of the tone and embouchure. The masterful utilization of tonguing is also one of the secrets to developing speed and technique in your playing.


Stefan Stanciu, boy wonder of the Pan Flute, plays Hora Staccato in 1995.

Tip Eight: The Laws of Movement – Being able to play the Pan Flute with any degree of fluency and proficiency requires that our movements from pipe to pipe be quick, efficient and accurate, with a minimum of wasted effort and motion. The cardinal or guiding principle here is to move the instrument to you rather than you to it. In other words, your head, neck and torso should remain, as much as possible, still and steady as the central pivot or fulcrum around which everything else revolves. Because the Romanian style Pan Flute has a curvature or arch to it, a player can conveniently move from pipe to pipe by deftly pivoting or rotating his or her arms and shoulders to and fro. When we are playing the low pipes – on the right for most players – the shoulders, arms and hands should rotate towards the left, and vice-versa for the high pipes. Although one cannot keep one’s head, neck and torso absolutely still and motionless like a statue, there should still be the definite feeling that you are moving the instrument to you, and not you to it. Another thing that establishes stability and reliability of motion is keeping one’s lips in contact with the rims of the pipes. Interval exercises also make one’s movement on the Pan Flute more refined, efficient and accurate. Moving from one pipe to the next, no matter what the interval or distance, should be as sure and natural as walking. 

Tip Nine: Inflection of the Chromatic Notes – The Pan Flute is usually tuned in the key of G Major, but if we wish to venture outside of this key, or to play accidental notes, we must learn how to play the sharps and flats, or the chromatics. All chromatic notes are executed on the Pan Flute by lowering the natural pitch of a pipe by a half step (or occasionally more) by either tilting the instrument towards you (the beginner’s method), changing the blowing angle and blowing more downwards into the pipe, or a combination of both. The tilting of the instrument is done mainly with the left or non-dominant hand. Although the beginner will mainly tilt his or her instrument to play the chromatic notes, as one advances in one’s playing, it will be done mainly by altering the position of the lips and jaw, and blowing more downwards into the instrument. As Maestro Zamfir once explained to me, when playing the natural notes on the Pan Flute, the instrument is in a normal, upright position, but the lips and embouchure are in an abnormal position, with the lower jaw jutting out. Conversely, when playing the flattened chromatic notes, the instrument’s position is not normal, being tilted or inclined inwards towards the player, but the player’s lips and embouchure are in a more relaxed, normal position, in which the lower jaw is not jutting out to hold the instrument upright. So, to summarize, when playing the natural notes, the instrument’s position is normal, but the lip and jaw position is abnormal; when playing the chromatic notes, the player’s lips and jaw are in a normal position, but the position of the instrument is inclined inwards, or not normal.

Because all chromatic notes on the Pan Flute are produced by lowering the natural pitch of a pipe by a half step, the note C-sharp, for example, is played like a D-flat, by lowering the natural pitch of the D pipe by a half step. And so, when playing in sharp keys like D Major, for example, we skip the C pipe and play two consecutive notes – C-sharp (played as a D-flat) and D natural, both on the same pipe. The keys involving flattened notes are usually more straightforward, especially the simpler, more basic ones. To play in the key of C Major, for example, the only chromatic alteration that is needed is to lower the F pipe, which is naturally sharp, by a half step to F natural – and the C Major scale involves a straightforward playing of all eight consecutive pipes, with no skipped nor doubled pipes. Proper tuning and intonation on the Pan Flute are not automatic, however, and we must listen to the chromatic notes in order to play them in tune.

The full development of a player’s tone and embouchure on the Pan Flute is accomplished by the simultaneous, coordinated strengthening and development of three anatomical structures: the lips, tongue and jaw. In tone work and development on the Pan Flute, we have three basic types of exercises: long tones, tonguing exercises and chromatic exercises. Playing long tones focuses mainly on developing the lips and embouchure. Tonguing exercises strengthens and quickens the tongue. And practicing the chromatic notes mainly strengthens the jaw muscles. Once the player has progressed beyond the initial stages of playing the chromatic notes, a great exercise for developing one’s lips, tongue and jaw muscles is to play a series of triple tongued triplet figures up and down the G Major scale, with the first note of the triplet being natural, the middle note being flattened by a half step, and the final note being natural. I guarantee that when you first try this exercise, you will feel your lip and jaw muscles burning – and, as all bodybuilders say, you don’t grow without burning. Full embouchure development in Pan Flute playing requires that we strengthen our lips, tongue and jaw muscles to Olympic proportions.

Tip Ten: Listen to Play in Tune – Unlike other Western instruments like the piano, whose tuning is set, proper intonation is not automatic on the Pan Flute; one must LISTEN to play in tune. There are two main areas in Pan Flute playing in which proper intonation is crucial: the high notes and the chromatic notes. Beginning players will find that the higher they go above a middle “D” on a regular Alto Pan Flute in G, the more the pitch tends to sag, and the more breath and embouchure support is necessary to play in tune. Sufficient “pucker power” only comes with regular and persistent practice. The other critical area in which it’s necessary to listen to play in tune is in playing the chromatic notes. The more you tilt or incline either the instrument or the blowing angle downwards and inwards towards you, or both, the flatter the pitch of a pipe gets, but the lowering of a pipe’s pitch by an exact half step – or any other desired amount or degree – is not automatic, and requires one to listen as one practices to play in tune, to get the execution right. Since proper intonation is not fixed or predetermined on the Pan Flute, it is also capable of playing Oriental style microtones, as has been demonstrated by Egyptian Pan Flutists. 

Tip Eleven: Appoggiaturas / Grace Notes and the Vibrato – In Pan Flute playing, the left or non-dominant hand is used to play a kind of peculiar appoggiatura-like figure that is a frequent embellishment of notes, especially in traditional dance forms like the Hora. The left hand wiggles or dips the instrument towards the player, combined with an accompanying alteration of the embouchure and breath to execute a particularly pleasing ornamentation. In executing the vibrato, a long note is played, and the left hand slowly wiggles the instrument back and forth, bending to and fro loosely from the wrist, to execute the vibrato, in much the same manner that a violinist executes the vibrato with his or her left hand. The incredible fluidity and openness of tone, texture, pitch / intonation and sound on the Pan Flute is definitely one of its most distinctive and appealing features.

Tip Twelve: You learn technique to forget it – When I was studying music in college, one of my music professors told me, “You learn technique to forget it.” Although that might sound like a kind of odd statement, what it is saying is that you must thoroughly practice all of the above techniques on the Pan Flute until they become second nature to you, and you can perform them automatically, without even thinking about it. Then you will reach “the zone” of real Pan Flute mastery, that Zen-like state in which everything comes together perfectly in a state of selfless ease and abandon.