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.

Try Gary Schocker’s trick of using a wine cork to improve flute tone

I’ve been concentrating on improving my tone lately, and came across these videos from Gary Schocker. He demonstrates how he used a wine cork to develop and improve his sound. It sounds totally off-the-wall, but it makes good sense! And since Schocker does have a glorious sound and amazing air management, this technique must be doing something good for him!

The basic idea is that positioning the cork helps you open inside your mouth and create a freer path for your air to move through. Take a look and give it a try!

Intrigued? Here is more!

Practice Diary 7/24

started with EJ4 at CM
– focus is good, D#’s are much better today, must not be much of a leak
– air attacks and clipped articulation are pretty crisp, appropriately aggressive
– remember the good physical set up!
– arms are getting better
– tkt ktk is really awkward, I’m not always sure I am doint it, maybe should slow it down so I can be more mindful?
– Db’s in Gb M are so high! have to play it slower to add fingers and bring it down, errr…

Moyse triads CM to DM with tuner, up to DR
– keep root pitch in ear, match it internally, actively pursue the intonation
– keep good posture! bring flute to face!!!

wanted to play some music, so blew through the Sarabande and Badinerie of Bach Partita

I may be a bit Romantic on the Sarabande, but I belied that Bach was a very passionate man, and I like to indulge in making the gestures as clear and noticeable as possible

should try recording these things to see if they sound as rough (or polished) as I think they are, something to check out on the new Smartphone

feels good to just blow so openly, once I can add some time to practice, I will be able to do some serious work, maybe next week add a secont, shorter session, neck felt good all day, yay!

Practice Diary 7/23

Neck was stiff this morning, enough to be bothersome but not enough to inhibit movement. After my stretches it was better, so we’ll see how today’s practice affects it. From reading this, you might think that I am in some sort of rehab for an injury. I have arthritis in my neck and sometimes I do things in my playing that aggravate it, like pushing my neck into weird and completely unnecessary configurations. I’m taking a cautious, mindful approach to getting back in performing shape because if I overdo it, I won’t be able to do anything for awhile, let alone play. No pity called for, it’s just another challenge on the journey. You’ll see a lot of comments about posture, alignment, and observations on how different parts of my body feel as I am playing. This is how I monitor and minimize unwarranted physical stresses in my practicing. If I don’t, I injure myself, it’s that simple. Maybe some of the things I try can be helpful to you in working on your own challenges.

– tone warmup from Trevor Wye’s tone book, page 11 or 14, I can’t remember which, I have it memorized. It’s about energizing the air to make smooth leaps
– sound is nicely smooth and steady
– I’m letting my head turn more to the left rather than looking so straight ahead, don’t push it, let it turn!

harmonic on C up to Bb3
– unusually good expansion of ribs, all the way down into pelvis, is this what it means to feel the support in the pelvic floor? hmmmmm….
– right arem is still feeling strained
– air is nicely full and direct

Paganini Caprice #11, the staccato section to end
– all breath attacks, combining exercise with sight reading
– not really separating the air sufficiently for crisp attacks, but have no problem navigating the leaps
– tone is pretty good, air is moving forward well

I seem to have found a really good set up from the floor up where the expansion is really good and free, and the music can really flow out (if I were playing any music!) My right hipbone feels a little out of place, but it seems to work; I can maintain a good alignment all the way up. Can I do this sitting? If I can remember how to do this consistently, will have to translate it to a sitting position, that is where my real posture problems lie.

Right arm and elbow want to fly away from my body (come back, elbow!), creating stress, but that can be worked on

– timer went off, but finished to dt on single pitches, G#m to CM
– have to keep air focused on single (good) spot on the strike wall, otherwise the tone goes splat all over the place
– double and triple tonguing are already better, less air disturbance on the articulations
– what is with the D#’s!!? better check for a leak

Practice Diary 7/22

Woohoo, two days in a row, doing good! Not hurting today so it is full steam ahead. I set the timer for 30 minutes, wonder how much time is spent writing?

long tones in 4’s
– started out with a throat buzz, I’m pushing air through my throat and creating the buzz
– breathing in through nose and a quick lean over fixed it

harmonics on C#
– good flow between notes, easy transitions
– good comparison tones
-totally forgotten the good air support from yesterday, err, take it easy and observe
– up to G#3

played all the Bach Allemande from am Partita using only breath attacks, tiring but helpful
– found that if I go down to D# by leap, I squeeze the left hand keys and the embouchure unnecessarily, makes the sound stuffy, it’s fine if approached by a step, hmmm…

– started on EbM, got up to g#m in tkt ktk pattern
– started using metronome and drone, discontinued both after awhile
– harder to land on correct pitch when descending, don’t think I’m as mindful on descents
– if I concentrate on holding the drone pitch in my imagination, I am much closer to it than when I just check the target pitches with the drone generator, hmmm…
– not too bad overall, the tk’s are really uneven, very obvious difference
– practice on double and triple articulations is a must

physical fatigue is setting in just before alarm goes off, right shoulder and arms are already tired, neck is not bad however

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!

Flute Practice Epiphany 1

I think one of the benefits of getting older is that I have had the opportunity to hear many different ideas and perspectives on flute practice. Every once in awhile one of these ideas will spark an epiphany, a little bolt of intellectual lightning that lights up my brain. The solution to a problem suddenly becomes clear, the reason for doing something finally makes sense, or an idea that seemed unrelated to anything in my personal life hits home. I had one of those epiphanies last week.

I was rehearsing with a flute quartet and I realized that I was leaning more forward than I needed to be. I don’t play this way when I stand so it confounds me that I do it when I sit. Consequently, I am very uncomfortable when I have to play sitting and my sound isn’t as full. But I wasn’t just leaning forward from my seated position, EVERYTHING about my playing position was forward, my embouchure, my head, my neck, on down. I seemed to reaching out for something with every part of me.

When the little alarm bells went off a light went on and something that flutist Diane Boyd Schultz said in a presentation on playing posture popped into my head. She is a very engaging and entertaining speaker and I was struck by the theatricality with which presented the following concept. She described the flutist’s head as the queen and the arms as her servants. The servants always come to the queen, the queen never goes to the servants. At the time I recognized that this was good advice for better tone production, but I didn’t think I needed it. In my rehearsal I realized that I had gotten into the habit of making my queen go to the servants as much as possible, distorting not just my posture, but my embouchure, too!

After that I sat in a more neutral position, supporting my torso on my sit bones so I could breath easily and fully, unkinking my spine and neck so my head was properly supported and free to float, and bringing my flute to my face and lips rather than the other way around. My sound automatically opened up, my playing was more musical, and best of all, my neck didn’t hurt after rehearsal!

As a student, you never know when something a teacher says will strike a chord with you, so try to gather as much as you can. And as a teacher, you have to accept that you will not see most of the effects that you have on your students, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give them as much as you can. Who knows when that light bulb will go off!

A Different Flute Breathing Exercise

Lately I’ve been working on a new breathing exercise that has made a big difference for me. The goal is to learn to breathe in quickly and quietly so you can take a breath whenever you need it instead of whenever it’s convenient. While this idea is not new to me (Alex Murray advocates taking several quick, quiet, little breaths and maintaining good tone quality, than taking a few big ones that may attract unwanted attention), I’ve never been able to incorporate that effectively into my playing.

I have a lot of tension management issues so I’ve concentrated on learning to take full, easy, quiet breaths. This has done me a lot of good, but those wonderfully relaxed breaths are also slow breaths. My quicker breaths tend to be a little sloppy and entrances after are not as refined as I would like. This new exercise addresses that!

I got this exercise from a masterclass given by Jill Felber at the 2011 Florida Flute Association convention. She said that basically “you have to learn to pant like a dog”. She suggested playing the Bach Partita, breathing after every note. When you are comfortable doing that, then try after every beat, then every measure. The goal is to take quick, unobtrusive breaths. (You could also do this on any long articulated passage, or on scale exercises.)

Practicing the quick intake and immediate expulsion of air (while producing a good sound!) is really tiring at first. The biggest challenge is to not take in too much air on all those mini breaths, but eventually I am able to reach an equilibrium of intake versus outgo. When it’s really working, it feels like a kind of internal bouncing action that is really freeing. It sounds like you are using circular breathing when in reality you are breathing much more than normal. Neato, huh!

Working on this exercise has really improved my ability to take unobtrusive breaths in all situations and to reenter with good tone. It was just the tweak I’ve been needing. Maybe it’ll work for you, too!