Flute Swabs

Are you swabbing out your flute before you put it away? Hopefully so, it is critical that you keep your flute clean inside and out. But what are you using to swab out your flute?

I advocate using a simple, 100% cotton handkerchief or bandanna. They are absorbant and nonabrasive, readily available and inexpensive. Cotton works great for wiping off the tenons so the joints go together smoothly, too. They are also washable so when they get grubby, just throw them in with the regular laundry (using fabric softeners may not be a great idea, though).
Very practical!

Silk is nice, but it can be fragile and tends to flatten out after a couple of uses. A 10″ or 12″ handkerchief will stay full enough to clean the whole tube for several uses. You could just use a strip of cotton or a square piece of cotton, but I think the edges should be finished so stray threads don’t get caught in the mechanism.

As for the fuzzy things that are so popular, I do not recommend them. They are supposed to “wick the moisture away from the pads”. Great! But what do you do after you have done that? You stick it right back into the flute! Where is the moisture supposed to go? I live in Florida and any moisture that is allowed to sit around leads to one thing, mildew. While I haven’t heard of too many cases of “flute mildew”, I do know that once you get the moisture off the pads, you should keep it away from them. If you feel you have to use the fuzzy things to swab out your instrument, fine, but do not store them in your flute or inside your case. Besides, you will still need a soft cloth to wipe off the joints and the fingerprints, so why not just get a cotton cloth or two and leave the fuzzy things alone. I also suggest that your flute cleaning cloth not be stored inside the case with your freshly swabbed out flute.

This is all part of good flute maintenance, which results in better flute performance. It’s easy, it’s practical and it’s cheap. Besides, you can create a collection of cool “flute” bandannas that will make you the most stylish and hip flutist around!

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Language is important

Whether we are talking with teachers or students, fellow musicians, conductors, etc. we are constantly talking about playing. The language that we use is extremely important to how we think and feel about playing. I’m not talking about terminology here; what I’m talking about is much more subjective.

The words we use when talking about our playing can have a huge impact in how we think about what we are doing. We all know the effect that using judgmental language, especially negative words, can have on a player’s attitude. This is actually pretty simple to address by just avoiding negative words “no”, “not”, “bad”, “wrong”, etc. Other words have a more subtle, sinister, effect, and while they do not sound like negative words, they can have negative effects. For me one of those words is “control”.

I have spent years working on breath “control”, “controlling the air stream”, etc. and, while I have had some success, in general this practice ties me up in knots. To “control” something really means to inhibit it in some way, keep a tight rein on, or hold it in check. These ideas are all antithetical to what we need to do to make any sound at all on the flute. The air has to get out before we can make any sound, so why am I trying to restrict it? I now substitute the word “manage” for the word “control” and immediately the air flows more freely and I am able to accomplish the things I wanted to do when I was trying to “control” the air. Neat, huh?

Different words affect different people differently, and maybe this example doesn’t do anything for you, but unless you are the most positive, balanced person on the planet, it is likely that there are words that affect you negatively as well. Take a look at your practice journal, listen to your conversations about playing, and pay attention when a word causes you to tense up or groan a little, anything that is less than positive. A teacher at a masterclass I attended made a similar point with this little test. She asked us to notice what happened to our bodies when she said different words, like ‘ice cream’, ‘sunshine’, then she said the word ‘flute’. Immediately everyone in the class gasped and some even groaned a little. (What reaction did you just have?) We all had an ah-ha moment when we were made aware of the tension that one little word could cause in us. And this word represented something we loved! Many of us had come to associate the word ‘flute’ with tension and strain. For me, working on ‘control’ magnifies that tension, so I don’t try to do it. Rather than trying to hold things in, I work on managing them as they are happening.

Of course, some things are just wrong, terrible even, and it’s OK to acknowledge that. Just make sure your approach to fixing what’s wrong is as benign and productively oriented as possible.

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Practice What You Don’t Know First

Practice what you don’t know first and most.

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? It is all too easy to start our practice with what is most familiar and comfortable. But that does not help us conquer what is difficult and uncomfortable. Especially when we have limited practice time and are overwhelmed by what we feel we need to accomplish. The simplest and most efficient approach is to start with what we are most unfamiliar with. After all, why practice what we already know when there is so much we want to learn and improve?

I learned this firsthand when there was a period of time where I had a lot of unfamiliar music to learn and limited time in which to learn it. I tried to make the most of what little time I had, ten minutes here, maybe a half hour there, if I was lucky. Subsequently I was amazed that by concentrating my full attention (and please note that I am emphasizing attention and not pressure) on the passages that I was least comfortable with, I made quick progress toward being performance-ready.

I credit my teacher during this time, Alex Murray, for this approach. He gave me many practical, common sense ideas to use in my practice, and this is one of what should have been one of the most ridiculously obvious of ideas.

So if you have little time to practice, start with the passages that give you the most trouble. Give them that laser-like focus that you have when your time is limited. You might be amazed by what you can achieve.

 

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Intonation Naivete; Be Kind to Your Listener’s Ears

Image result for ear hearing music

 

When I was young and naïve, I liked to program unaccompanied pieces, because I thought that I didn’t have to pay as much attention to intonation. If there was no other instrument to compare my pitch to, nobody would notice if I was a little (or a lot!!) flat on the low notes or just a tad (or a mile) sharp on the high notes? After all, only those extremely rare people with perfect pitch could tell the difference and even that was about the notes, not the intonation, right? HA! I was so wrong, and if you think this way, too, so are you!

Learning to play in tune isn’t just about learning to play in tune with others, it also about learning to play in tune with yourself. If you are playing without accompaniment, the pitch of the first note you play determines the placement and intonation of every note that comes after. EVERY NOTE.

In the listener’s ear, the intonation is always relative to some reference point. As a piece progresses, the reference might shift a little, but the listener’s brain is constantly measuring and comparing each new pitch to pitches that came before. The proportions of the intervals are dictated by mathematical proportions that occur naturally. Your brain recognizes them, even if you don’t know specifically what they are. Even if no one in your audience has perfect pitch, there is something in each of their brains that says “Hm, the notes seem like they fit, but something is a little off.” If the intervals between the reference pitch and succeeding pitches are too big or too small, you run the risk of sounding ‘off-key’ if it’s really bad, or just not quite right if it is only a little. So, yes, your intonation matters even when you are playing unaccompanied pieces.

To address this, practice your unaccompanied pieces against a drone pitch,  usually the tonic pitch of the piece or section you are working on. I advise you to practice this way for two reasons. First, so you can work on keeping a consistent pitch center, not letting your overall pitch wander around. Second, so you can work on learning the sizes of the intervals between the tonic and the other notes in the piece. It’s not enough to know the notes and which keys to press and how to make each note sound pretty, you have to learn the actual sizes of the intervals.

Just like when you sing and you don’t have keys or finger positions to help you find the pitches, you have to learn the size of each interval from one note to the next and from the tonic to each note. (Knowing the pitch tendencies of your instrument and how you play it is very helpful in this endeavor, hint, hint) This is what ear training courses are supposed to teach you, though most forget to teach you why you might want to know how to do this.

I’m starting to ramble now, and maybe rant a little, so I’ll summarize by saying this. Yes, your intonation does matter when you play unaccompanied pieces, so you have to subject them to the same careful intonation practice that you would anything else. Your audiences will thank you for it!

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Intonation in Action Exercise

In my mission to help people improve their intonation, I’ve had to come up with exercises that people can do in their own practice. Once I’ve convinced players that notes need to be adjusted according to their context in the music, regardless of what any tuner’s meter says, it helps to have exercises to back it up.

The attached handout is part of a set of exercises that you play against a drone, the tonic note of each exercise. In this case, all exercises are in C Major, so set your drone, tone generator, or helpful friend to play the middle C. As you play each exercise, you pause to listen to how your note compares against the drone; e.g. is it sharp, flat, or in tune with the drone? Don’t move on to the next note, until you get your note in tune!

introductory intonation exercises

 

The exercises start out by working on matching the unisons and octaves in the context of ascending and descending scales and arpeggios. Then they progress to tuning more of the notes in relation to the drone. The arrows indicate which direction the pitches need to be adjusted in relation to the drone pitch, assuming that you are playing them perfectly in equal temperament, i.e. in tune with a tuner meter. You may not need to make any adjustments, but let your ears be the judge.

So, give it a try! Then play it in all Major keys. Minor keys will require different adjustments, but after practicing the major keys for a few weeks, doing this in minor will be easy.

Reminder: we don’t hear in equal temperament. In order for our ears to register different harmonies as being “in tune”, we have to play the harmony note either higher or lower than a tuner would tell us to. (If this is new information to you and you need more proof than my say-so, there are many sources you can look up on the Web or in the library.)

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