Developing effective dynamics in the flute choir

This season the music my flute choir is working is filled with dynamic effects. Some are simple and straightforward, others include big, quick changes. All of them need to be done cleanly and provide big impact. Wishy washy dynamic changes will be worse than none at all.

I have made plans for developing these in every rehearsal. Here is my strategy so far:

1. Practice big effects in isolation. Practice the special effects first, then integrate them into the piece. This draws attention to them, reinforces their importance in the player’s minds, and helps the piece feel more exciting right from the beginning, leaving room to create even bigger effects as the piece comes together.

2. Encourage, nay, DEMAND that players make the biggest effects possible. I want them to really punch that sfz, turn the volume way down on the piano after a fp while keeping the intensity going, etc. It always amazes when I ask for MORE, BIGGER, and players draw back, and give less, play smaller. When I can get someone to really let loose, get into the characterization, it is such a thrill for me, and them. Really, the world will not end if you play something so big that the note cracks, or heaven forbid, you draw someone’s attention. That is what those effects are for, to get the listener’s attention!! Maybe I should get a mannekin to put in the back of the practice hall and encourage people to play to it, give them a target. Hmmmmmmm.

3. Dynamic levels are relative. The particular dynamic level of any one part at any one time, depends on the role that part has in the music. There are no concrete dynamic levels. Excellent ensemble playing requires sensitive, ACTIVE attention to individual dynamic levels every single second. If every part is marked at mezzo forte, and everyone dutifully plays their concept of mezzo forte, but the melody line is indistinguishable, that doesn’t work. It may be ‘proper’, but it is not good music. The melody line has to be louder than the supporting parts, so either that player has to play out or the others have to play quieter, or both. Then as soon as the melody line moves to another part, the players have to balance that out. This requires engagement on the part of every player and attention on the part of the ensemble conductor or coach if there is one. I feel an idea for an ensemble balancing exercise blossoming!

Really when you think about it, while dynamic levels can be quantified using a decibel meter, who does that? I have personally practiced an exercise that required the player to make distinctions between 8 dynamic levels, from ppp to fff. This is great for developing awareness and control, and is an area that I don’t pay enough attention to in my own practicing. However, the most musical concept of dynamics is not to try to play at numerically defined levels, but to make sure your dynamic levels are discernible to the listener, fit the context of the music, and have the desired impact.

That’s more than enough for now. Time to put this into practice!!

Intonation in Action at the Florida Flute Fair 2014

Yay! My proposal to present at the 2014 Florida Flute Fair has been accepted so I will be presenting a workshop on Intonation in Action. I will also conducting my flute choir, the Tampa Bay Flute Choir, at this year’s event, so I will be busy in January!

The workshop will involve audience members in demonstrations and techniques that I use to work on intonation in playing situations. This isn’t about being able to hit a target on a meter; it is about learning how to develop intonation awareness and develop the ability to respond to changing pitch contexts. Exercise and develop those intonation reflexes!!

More about this later. You know I can’t keep from talking about intonation stuff! Check out more about the Florida Flute Association and the yearly convention here:

Introducing Difference Tones to the Flute Choir

I am always looking for more effective ways to enable the flute choir that I conduct to play in tune. In the past I had used warmup exercises that focus on ensemble intonation, but at the beginning of this year’s rehearsal season, I tried to use sections of pieces to do the same thing. This was not so successful, so I have gone back to using intonation-focused warmups that are targeted at situations in the pieces we are working on.

These mostly consist of having part of the group play scales and arpeggios against the rest of the group playing a drone, then switching the groups so all have a chance to practice. The newest twist is working on difference tones in order to ‘fine-tune’ the group’s sense of intonation even more. Please excuse the pun! I got the idea after reading about it on Flutelist, and decided I had to try it with my group!

Difference tones, some people use the term resultant tones, are a phenomenon that occur within your ear as a result of hearing two tones of different frequencies. All pitches vibrate at a different frequency. When the difference between two frequencies equals the tone associated with a different frequency, that creates a difference tone in your ear. If you’ve ever noticed an annoying buzz in your ear when playing high harmonies with another player, you were are hearing difference tones. When the interval formed by the regular tones is perfectly in tune, the difference tone will sound like a real note that you can identify, because it will also be in tune. Very cool!!!

I first had two choir members sitting at opposite ends of the group play a short excerpt to introduce the concept of difference tones to the group and make them aware of what they should be listening for. Some people’s eyes got very big as the ‘buzz’ of the difference tones went through their heads. I then explained why we would be doing this as a group and why it was important to work on as a choir. Besides improving our ability to tune intervals, when the group is playing intervals of a minor third in high enough registers, the difference tone that is created is a major third below the lower note, filling out the harmony in the listener’s ear and creating that lovely, rich, ringing sound that makes a small group sound twice as large and much, much grander; always my goal for our group.

Half of the group played the A Major scale while the other half played the C Major scale. We tried it for two octaves, a good test of player’s abilities to play beautiful high notes and a great opportunity to create some ‘major buzz.’ It was a little painful, but the point came across wonderfully. Everybody’s ears and brains were a little jangly after that, but people were pretty excited to have learned something new. At the next rehearsal the things went a little more smoothly and the overall intonation is markedly improved. YAY!!

You can read more about playing difference tones on flutes and much more about characteristics of great flute playing as taught by the legendary William Kincaid in John Krell’s book, Kincaidiana. This is one of those books all people serious about playing flute should read, one of the Flute Bibles. Thank you Flutelisters for reminding me of this!

Calming Pre-Concert Nerves

Before our flute choir concerts, I like to do a calming exercise with the group so they can play with more relaxed bodies and clearer mental focus. It is a simple breathing exercise that has had good results so far.

I have them breathe in through their noses for a slow count of 4, then breathe out through their mouths for 4 counts. I count off out loud to get them started, then transition to holding up fingers for the counts.
Breathing in through the nose automatically opens up the throat and chest, making it easier to take a fuller, more relaxed breath. The slow pace of the breathing helps get heart rates down, calming pre-concert nerves. It also makes everyone be quiet for a few minutes so we can get focused on making beautiful music together.

We do this for a couple of minutes at most, then proceed with our regular playing warmup. It is amazing the effect this has! As I lead the group through it, the pitch of my voice drops as my own body relaxes. The slightly worried looks on some faces ease, raised eyebrows return to their normal positions and stiff postures relax. When we are ready to pick up the flutes, everyone looks more confident and eager to play, rather than afraid of how that first note is going to come out.

This exercise is helpful in just about any situation when you want to get your heart rate down a little, or take the edge off jittery nerves. I even used it during a concert I played in last weekend, between pieces. My nerves were threatening to get the better of me, though I knew there was no good reason for them to. My heart was beating double-time so I did the exercise for a few breath cycles. It took enough of the edge off that I was able to launch into my part on the next piece with less fear and more gusto. Simple, but effective!

Thoughts on Conducting a Flute Choir

I’m just recovering from the most recent performance of the flute choir that I conduct, (the Tampa Bay Flute Choir). It was a lovely performance in front of a large, enthusiastic audience. It could hardly have gone better!

I have to admit that I was VERY, nervous going into the performance, almost unreasonably so. I am a novice conductor and can really mess things up if I’m not on top of things. I also tend to take responsibility for every little bit of the performance, such as the degrees of dynamic change, the impact of accents, the expression in a melodic line, etc. When I get obssessive about these things, I have to remind myself that in performance what the flute choir needs most is a steady beat and a sense that everyone is where they are supposed to be at that particular moment. The time for micro-management is over. I’m a good ensemble coach, which is great for rehearsals, but during a concert the group needs a leader, fearless or not.

As a new conductor, I’ve learned that a great deal of personal preparation is needed in order to create a good performance. Conducting a musical performance can be very different from performing on an instrument. My prep isn’t that different from what I do to get ready to play in an ensemble, but instead of worrying about the technical issues of flute playing, I’m worrying about how to move the baton or my hands in order to guide the players through the music. Sometimes I think of the choir as a large, living musical instrument and I am its player. In reality it isn’t quite the same thing, but if the group dynamic is really good, it can be close! I love the coaching side of it, encouraging the players to play more musically than they thought possible and giving technical advice that will help them accomplish that (only when needed!)

The rehearsal theme this season (described in an earlier post) has been that we are weaving a musical tapestry with each player responsible for their own thread, sometimes bringing the thread to the surface so it can be heard, at other times taking it to the background so other threads can be heard. This concept has worked well, with players quoting the idea often.

We are already hard at work organizing and rehearsing for the next concert. I hope I can carry the successes of the last two performances (Christmas was good, too!) forward to the season finale so we end on a good note. I literally try to always end rehearsals on a good, beautiful, resonant chord so we leave feeling both like we accomplished something and looking forward to duplicating that experience next time. This last concert has had that effect on the group; I want to keep it going!!