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Free Course: Tone, Color, & Vibrato

Free Course: Tone, Color, & Vibrato

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Debussy’s signature writing style defined an era of composition, and all of the characteristics of his style can be heard clearly in his majestic flute solo, “Syrinx”.

It’s a work full of rich whole-tone scales, intricate motifs, and a heavy focus on gesture.

In this post, we’ll dive into practice tips and interpretive concepts that you can apply to your flute performance and practice routine for Debussy’s Syrinx.

But before we begin, let’s watch an excerpt from Carol Wincenc’s tonebase course on Debussy’s Syrinx:

This post is based on the material discussed in this course, so if you’d like to really get into the details surrounding how to practice Syrinx on the flute, then head over to tonebase Flute to sign up for a 14-day free trial.

You’ll gain access to dozens of courses from the biggest names in flute, and you’ll receive invitations to weekly live events and access to an online forum of passionate flutists.

Members also receive access to custom annotated scores and workbooks, so if you’d like to push your flute technique to the next level, sign up today!

With that out of the way, let’s jump into the Syrinx practice guide.

Background and history

Carol Wincenc studied this work with Marcel Moyse, who played a significant role in its interpretation, and her very first teacher, Edna Comerchero, who gave her this piece when she was still young.

Syrinx is a sophisticated and nuanced work, charged with theatricality that's inherent in the script that accompanies it, and the story that's behind it. Wincenc calls it a "delicious piece" and invites you to join her in exploring its intricacies.

Originally titled La Flûte de Pan (The Flute of Pan), Syrinx was intended to be played offstage by the flutist Louis Fleury, who was one of the legendary figures in flute history. 

The premiere was for a production of a play titled Psyché by Gabriel Mourey, a contemporary of Debussy's. 

The piece was to be played while a collection of poems was set theatrically, and nymphs were positioned on the stage. It is unclear how the dialogue on the stage went, but what is certain is that Fleury's acapella flute line was a beautiful accompaniment to this theatrical piece.

tre modere from debussy's flute piece syrinx

To respect the original intentions of the composition, Fleury used to perform this piece with a drape so he wasn’t seen. Since then, it’s often customary to perform this piece in dark or subdued lighting, further emphasizing the importance of its emotional and musical impact.

The existence of the text in this piece has a significant impact on its performance, especially during the end of the opening introduction, where the flute reaches its highest note (m. 8). 

According to records, there was a moment where one of the nymphs told the other to be quiet and listen as silence was needed to truly appreciate the beauty of the flute of Pan. 

If one were to perform this piece without the text, it is important to remember the significance of that moment and to allow the audience to regroup and listen to the developmental section that follows in a new way.

The piece's low octave section utilizes the same material as the opening, allowing the performer to gather the listener's attention and lead them towards the final climax that occurs two-thirds through the piece.

measure 9 and 10 from debussy's flute piece syrinx

Wincenc grew up in a musical family in Buffalo, New York, where her father was a symphony conductor and her mother a pianist. 

Movement was an essential part of her early life, and her mother encouraged improvisation on the flute while she accompanied on the piano. 

Movement is also imperative in Syrinx, imbuing a sense of perpetual motion and reflection. Wincenc emphasizes the significance of breath in the work, which shapes the phrasing yet is integral to Pan's lamentation. Fleury possessed this piece for quite a long time and didn’t share it with the public. 

Wincenc believes that the versatility of this work is endless. 

Originally premiered by Louis Fleury in 1913, the manuscript was later retrieved by Jobert, the editor, from Fleury's widow, who subsequently lost it. Jobert asked Marcel Moyse to work on the piece and prepare it for publishing, and it was reported that the manuscript may have been without barlines (though the originals are lost)! 

Barlines were added to cater to hobbyists, providing the piece’s distinctive rhythmic structure. The title “Syrinx” was added later, referring to the wood nymph that Pan fell in love with. Syrinx did not return this love, instead turning herself into a water reed. 

Pan then used the reeds for his flute, imbuing breath and life into them. There are two other nymphs involved in the scene, one describing the magic of Pan’s “seductive song.”


Breath and resonance

To properly execute the piece, it's important to focus on breath control. Improvising with a whole-tone scale, the tonal center suggested at the end of the piece, is a great way to dial in our air in preparation and get us ready for the exoticism of the work.

whole tone scale in debussy's flute piece syrinx

Moyse called the B natural the “teacher note” because it’s relatively easy to produce – his exercise “De La Sonorité” is very famous in this regard. 

But we start Syrinx on a B flat. Wincenc suggests starting on a B natural when practicing to connect with that energy from the very beginning.

It is important to note that the flute is non-resonating. To add a bit of extra warmth and resonance, Wincenc uses a Mancke wooden head joint, since wood resonates more than a metal body.

A direct and firm airspeed is required to bring the resonating chamber of the flute to life. This speed of the air will also define the color of the piece. 

In the opening line of the Syrinx, the whole-tone scale is introduced. To emphasize the quality of resonance, a generous mezzo-forte is necessary. This sets the tone for the introduction of Pan and his last song, a summoning to the audience.

As the piece progresses, one encounters the difficulty of creating a beautiful diminuendo at the end of the first phrase. Wincenc advises not to spend too much time on the tenuto, as it is only meant to generate resonance.

Moving on to the fermata and first breath indicated in the score, timing plays a crucial role, especially since the piece is documented to have been played offstage. 

It is not unusual for Wincenc to play it in the dark! The first phrase sets the stage for the piece, and the second phrase has the same potency, until the subito piano in the fourth bar. 

Be very careful with intonation here so we don’t play flat – maintain air support! 

Think about how the inflation of the lungs supports our sound, much like a singer. The piece has a vocal quality that anyone can imagine themselves singing to help them connect with it.

tres modere from debussy's flute piece syrinx

Debussy wrote the C-flat in parentheses in the fifth bar, a spelling which suddenly creates some tension. It’s very important to honor the sextuplet rhythm in this bar, using that to create a sense of motion and lift. 

The phrase marked “Retenu” is a great opportunity for coloration. The decrescendo must be very delicate, and there should be a pause before we proceed – where the other nymph says, “Quiet! Listen!”

Measures 9-16

measures 9-16 in debussy's flute piece syrinx

As we move ahead, the grace note adds a spirited element to the piece, and it's important to convey that sense of spontaneity and balletic movement. 

Hesitating slightly before moving ahead can add to this effect and make the overall performance more captivating.

This marking “un peu mouvementé, mais très peu” roughly means “a little movement, but very moderate”. 

Note how Debussy varies the passage in the fourth bar of this section, writing thirty-second notes instead of sixteenths. 

Be careful not to crack the notes here by keeping the pinky finger movement smooth. Consciousness of the embouchure muscles (of which there are nearly a hundred) is essential for a flawless performance.

Wincenc reflects on this figure, describing it as rustling leaves or the sound of Pan's agitation in pursuing his goal or possibly finishing his last breath. 

Players must beware of rushing the fifth bar, a mini-climax, and hold the whole-tone element together during the chromatic descent.

The arrival at that A-natural should sound glorious! 

Thinking like a singer requires engagement of the lower part of the torso and low back. We can’t see the air moving, but we should feel and hear the movement. 

It’s like a cry – a beautiful expression of emotion in its purest form.

Moving forward, there is some lore about Marcel Moyse having difficulty with breathing. 

Wincenc never witnessed such an issue, as he was an elderly gentleman who rarely played. Most of the time, he would speak about his ideas, and it was only occasionally he would pick up his flute, becoming rather frustrated.

There’s a very long phrase coming up in the music – and Mr. Moyse actually added a breath mark that Debussy wanted to avoid (the end of the bar marked Rubato). 

If you’re capable of it, an inspired musical interpretation could be to play the entire line from the F natural on beat 4 to the high D-flat three bars later.

measures 15-20 of debussy's flute piece syrinx

Keeping one’s body in good physical shape is essential, as breathing is paramount to playing the flute. 

It is crucial for flute players to be able to reach the end of a phrase without gasping for breath. The subito-pianos create a push-pull effect in terms of movement. The octave jump on D-flat is often played as a harmonic, where you can just overblow on the low D-flat; this produces a nice subdued color. 

The D-flat is one of the most vulnerable notes on the flute, along with the C-natural. There are lots of ways to color this note, so experiment! 

Measures 16-27

In preparation for the climax, perhaps of Pan's frustration or perhaps fear of his own mortality, Wincenc advises the musician to cry, exclaim or plead during the scene, giving it a sense of urgency. The breath must be expressive.

The manuscript indicated that there should be an “en animant, peu a peu,” which many interpret as an accelerando. 

Wincenc suggests instead that the musician hold back, giving it just enough push forward to create suspense and anticipation. When the rhythm changes from sextuplets to thirty-second notes, Wincenc recommends keeping the excitement by playing trills, with each trill representing a thrill to the audience. Lift the whole hand off the keys when playing trills to create speed and add to the excitement.

manuscript for debussy's flute piece syrinx, not in debussy's hand

Wincenc has very closely examined each note and phrase played. 

She observes the air rushing forth with steady support, bringing the tonal center back to the B-flat. Wincenc emphasizes the importance of maintaining constant motion in the air while taking occasional breaths to add excitement and momentum to the piece. 

The music's momentum brings us to measure 27, the most emphatically expressive measure yet. Debussy would have appreciated a sense of finality in measure 28. 

Note the warm and lively effect created by the hairpin figures, representing the last bit of life left in Pan to complete his mission of blowing into the reeds. 

Another very long phrase begins in measure 30, so Mr. Moyse added a breath mark that allows us to play the retenant and conclude with some serenity.

measures 29-35 in debussy's flute piece syrinx

Hold onto the final note, letting it resonate out into the ether as if it would never end.

This particular three-and-a-half-minute composition by Debussy stands out to Wincenc. 

It’s packed with potential and portrays sensuality and highly nuanced coloration, ideas present in Impressionistic paintings. 

This work reigns supreme not only because of the legend behind it, but also because it gives us an opportunity to transcend the flute. Aspiring musicians who wish to tackle this particular piece will need tremendous control and poise to bring out the beauty of the final climax, which leads to the concluding finale. 

Wincenc also studied vocal training and sang professionally for years, bringing an awareness of air and vocal conception of the music to her flute playing.

Interestingly, the biggest debate surrounding this piece is the marking, with some people suggesting that an accent should be made on the final B natural. 

Wincenc believes this is necessary to give the note weight and poignancy, emphasizing the beauty of perdendosi, “dying away,” as the music comes to a close. 

She advises players to use a little breath accentuation and adjust the vibrato to suit their style, but to ensure that the paramount feeling conveyed is that of finality and conclusion after an exciting journey.


Breath is the life force that brings colors and resonance into a non-resonating tube. 

In order to play with life, one must understand how to control air speed and how to fill all the spaces in our bodies with air. 

The “almighty” breath and the “Hawaii” breath are two variations on the idea that mouthing certain syllables while inhaling can help inflate different parts of the torso. 

For example, the HA or ALL syllables inflate the belly. The WAA or MAA syllables inflate the low back and rib cage. The HEE or TEE syllables help inflate the high chest without raising the shoulders. Inhaling with all of these syllables can help us achieve a more resonant and vibrant musical performance.

flute breathing exercises

Breathing through the nose before playing can also be very helpful, as it helps us find more space in our bodies for air. Don’t assume you’ll have enough air to perform – be conscious of how much you take in, and learn to breathe deeply and quickly.

When practicing Moyse exercises for breathing, don’t be afraid to come to complete emptiness. 

This experience allows one to appreciate their fullness and hence, the importance of being both empty and full. Performers should do this exercise without any anxiety by giving themselves full permission to breathe deeply.

carol wincenc in her tonebase course on syrinx by debussy

Grace Notes and Trills

The trill and grace notes are intriguing in Syrinx. 

Wincenc explains that the rapid diminuendo after playing the grace note creates a sighing effect, similar to how a voice would quickly fall.

grace notes and triplets in syrinx by debussy

To achieve the excitement the trill deserves, Wincenc cautions against playing the E-flat out of tune compared to the vulnerable D-flat. 

To get the correct color on the D-flat, she suggests angling the head slightly down while supporting the thumb, as pictured below:

carol wincenc demonstrating how to hold the flute to play trills properly

Executing the trill requires swift movement and flexibility with the thumb to free up the hand, which needs to return to its original position quickly.

Wincenc cautions against exerting added pressure or holding the instrument too tightly, which can impact the quality of sound produced. She observes that many of her students tend to grip the flute too tightly, evidenced by the whiteness of their nails during practice. 

Instead, she advocates for a deft touch, characterized by minimal finger movement and keeping the fingers close to the keys at all times. 

Such an approach requires relaxation, and Wincenc recommends that students shake out their hands and stretch regularly during practice sessions to maintain a supple upper torso and minimal weight on the instrument. 

Crafting a Diminuendo

Syrinx presents many challenges that cater to both an advanced level player and those who are just beginning. 

To illustrate this, Wincenc draws attention again to the importance of breath control and support, which are instrumental in producing a vocal quality with high coloration. Aside from these general technicalities, the piece requires a great deal of attention to detail, particularly when it comes to diminuendi. 

Wincenc explains that this involves a series of specific movements, such as that of the embouchure and jaw. Ensuring the support does not drop, which often results in flatter notes, is key.

measures 15-17 in debussy's syrinx

The size of the aperture is also an essential factor to be taken into consideration as it affects the jaw movements and space inside. 

The positioning of the tongue inside the mouth plays a significant role in shaping the quality of the note produced, including clarity and color. 

It is essential to determine and adjust the placement of the tongue precisely, from its height to its forward or backward position, depending on whether rapid tonguing is required. 

The tongue can also influence whether we achieve a breathy sound or a more laser-focused sound.

Wincenc demonstrates how to apply this technique to the first two bars of the piece, where one has to make a seamless diminuendo from mezzo-forte. 

This involves moving the jaw forward and manipulating the palate. The space inside the mouth plays a crucial role in creating the perfect sound, although it is impossible to see with a camera. 

Instead, Wincenc has to rely on her experience and intonation to guide students. As the aperture decreases its size, the lips remain engaged to produce a clean and clear sound.

Moreover, she notes the significance of maintaining correct posture while playing. Lifting the chin slightly and positioning the top of the spine correctly are both very helpful in moving the air properly.


Going forward, try to keep in mind Wincenc’s analogy to singing when practicing and performing Syrinx.

It’s a work built on large gestures and gymnastics of melody, so let the flute sing!

Are you an active flutist looking to take your performance to the next level?

Be sure to check out tonebase Flute’s vast library of courses from the world’s best flutists, such as Jasmine Choi, Mark Sparks, and Carol Wincenc, whose course this post is based on.

Members are also invited to weekly live events, an online forum of passionate flutists, and gain access to exclusive workbooks and custom-annotated scores.

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