What If It All Started With the Flute?

Imagine if the invention of the flute was the first step to the invention of computers? Musicians know that musical activities can inspire great ideas in other fields.

Steven Johnson, writer and researcher on the history of innovation, presents an entertaining and informative video describing how the invention of the flute 40,000 years ago can be connected to the invention of computers. Another prime example of how important music is to the human race (and should be in homes and schools, hint, hint!)

Click on the link to see Johnson’s TedTalk video, it’s surprisingly fun as well as informative!

How Play Leads to Great Inventions


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. Cotton is also washable so when it gets grubby, just throw it in with the regular laundry (using fabric softeners may not be a great idea, though). Very practical!

A silk swab is nice, but it can be fragile and tends to flatten out after a couple of uses. A 10″ or 12″ bandanna or kerchief 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 flute swabs 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!

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 Book Update, it’s on Amazon.com!

Just a quick update: my practice book is now formatted for eReaders and can be purchased through the Kindle store at Amazon.com. The content is the same as the PDF version I launched earlier, but formatted specifically for Kindle eReaders. Soon it will also be available through several other outlets such as the iBooks store, I’ll post that information as it happens. The book is still available in PDF form through this site, just go to the Buy the Book page for ordering instructions.

Happy Fluting!

Preparing for Intonation Contingencies

At last week’s flute choir rehearsal, we were discussing how often we might have to tune during the concert because of people having to change to different instruments for different pieces. There were several suggestions made about how to peed the flutes warm so they wouldn’t be so flat when they are picked up for a new piece (maybe there’s a new product or gimmick to be developed here!)

One flutist described a really thoughtful, ambitious method she uses to deal with this situation. She practices the pieces as if in performance and checks the general pitch of each new instrument as she picks it up and has to play it cold. By doing this, she gets at least a general idea of how to adjust the pitch so she anticipate what she needs to do to play in tune when the flute is cold. Paying constant attention to pitch (which she should be doing anyway!) allows her to adjust as the flute warms up. Wow! This person is really thinking! Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone did this? Just one more thing to add to the list of things to do in order to be prepared for every contingency in performance. Thank you Judy for that wonderful, smart idea!

Practical Intonation Practice Manifesto

Practical Intonation Practice Manifesto

1. Everything is a tone exercise. Always use the best tone production possible! Good intonation and good tone go hand in hand.

2. Don’t rush. Give yourself plenty of time to hear the sounds you are producing so you can determine if any changes need to be made. Pay attention to how it feels to produce a good note that is ‘in tune’ and memorize that feeling so you can reproduce it.

3. Regular, small bits of careful practice will achieve more than long sessions of inattentive, mindless practice.

4. Your ears are your most important musical tools. Improving your intonation is as much about improving your ears as it is anything else.

5. Words are important. The words you use to describe your practicing (or others’) influence what you will be able to accomplish. Stay away from judgmental right/wrong statements, instead try works/ doesn’t work, better/best.

Intonation Practice Book Coming Soon!

I’ve noticed that many people come to this blog because of the intonation exercises that I have sporadically posted. Everyone wants to play with good intonation, but it can be a difficult skill to master. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about intonation and how to make learning it easier. So I’ve decided to create practice books that I think will help people improve their intonation skills.

The first one will be a kind of how-to manual for using a tuner to improve intonation skills. We’ve all been told to use a tuner to learn to play in tune better, but how many of us have been shown how? Electronic tuners are cool gadgets, and tuner apps are fun to play around with, but how can using them really improve how we play?
I’ve got some ideas and have designed exercises for this. The next book will be about how to improve your ear, intonation in real life. Can’t have one without the other! Then who knows where this lead!

The book will first be available as a downloadable ebook, then soon after that I’ll get it formatted for iPads, Kindles, or other electronic readers. This means I have to learn how to do some new things, such as formatting for different media, Sibelius software, making shopping carts, PayPal, etc., but this is all part of creating a microbusiness. Later maybe I’ll even get into YouTube video lessons or teaching via Skype. So much to learn!

I’m aiming for a Dec. 1 launch date. What do you think? Will people buy a book about how to use a tuner? Maybe the tuner companies should pay me to show people how to make use of their products! Unfortunately they don’t seem to have had any trouble selling their product, but it would be nice to know how to make use of them!

Inspiring greatness

I was sitting in orchestra rehearsal last week, looking around at all the different people, and thinking about what makes a great musician ‘great.’ Everyone in the orchestra tries hard to play well, to get the notes and entrances right, to satisfy the wishes and directions of the conductor, but probably no one in the group could really be considered to be ‘great.’ After all, we’re not playing at Carnegie Hall anytime soon!

To me, what makes a musician ‘great’ is how they use their bodies, minds, skills, and personalities to present music to others. While a sense of an individual’s own personality may be evident in the performance, it is not a selfish or self-serving display. It is all about the music, not the performer. I believe that it is the task of all performers to find the great things in a piece of music and illuminate them for the listener. A great performance seems to spontaneously flow out a performer, rather than be a quasi-recitation of musical ideas. A great performer demonstrates that he or she understands how the music is constructed and has specific ideas about how to lead the listener on a kind of aural tour through the piece. All secrets are revealed one note at a time.

I have recently discovered flutist Jasmine Choi, whom I consider to be a great flutist. At first I thought that she is primarily an orchestral flutist, but actually she plays many different styles of music, all of them with the same verve and skill. The performances she has posted on YouTube show a performer who is fully engaged with the music and uses every ounce of energy and personality she has to present the music to her audience.

What I appreciate most is a lack of self-consciousness in her performance, nothing gets in the way of the music. This is a quality that I admire in many of the musicians that I consider to be ‘great.’ I find this inspiring and it reminds me of what I want to achieve in my own performances. This is one of my own great weaknesses, my difficulty to be relatively unself-conscious in my playing. It is what often keeps my playing from sounding like I enjoy what I am doing and want the audience to share my enjoyment. I get too wrapped up in trying to get everything ‘right’ and end up suppressing the joy of playing the music. We earn the right to that joy with diligent practice and study, but it is easy to forget that enjoyment of performance could be the goal. I had forgotten this over the past year, having become distracted with too much work and too little meaningful practice, but I’ve been re-inspired and am trying to get back on the ‘joy of music’ bandwagon.

So listen to those that inspire you, let them give you that extra boost you may be needing to help you find your own greatness. Then perhaps you can provide wonderfully inspiring performances for your audiences!

New Flute Goddess

I’ve read about Jasmine Choi, but this week is the first time I’ve listened to her play. Turns out she has several videos on YouTube in which she plays everything from JS Bach to Ian Clarke. I had gotten the idea that she is seriously good, but I had no idea she was this good. She has terrific command of her instrument and really presents all the musical gestures and nuances, creating engaging, inspiring performances. In addition she has been creating her own arrangements for performances. Can’t wait for those to be published!!

Take a look and listen for your self. Then go back to the practice room!

Musical Craft Project

I just finished cutting and pasting the second flute and picc parts for our next orchestra concert. It took about three hours to go through each part, deciding which passages on each instrument were most needed to convey the musical intentions of the composer. Quite presumptuous of me, don’t you think! I haven’t done anything like it for quite awhile. It reminded me of playing for musicals, and having to transpose parts or shuffle parts from different books.

The reason I was doing this is that here is quite a bit of piccolo in the upcoming concert program, but not a lot where the 2nd flute and the piccolo are needed. We have two regular, permanent, full-time, whatever you want to call us, flute positions, with the option of bringing in someone to play 3rd/picc. If someone had been brought in to play piccolo only, either that person or myself would have been sitting idle for a lot of concert, assuming we didn’t double parts where possible. Not an unusual situation for orchestral playing, but not the most fun for the players. Our conductor let us make the decision of either bringing in an auxiliary or to try to cover the parts ourselves. Guess which we chose!

I do feel a little badly because we have kept someone else from having an opportunity to play, but I am also really psyched for the challenge. Advantages are that we will save the group a little money by not having to hire someone else and we can continue to develop what is a newly formulated wind section. (And a kickass wind section it is turning out to be!) There will not be any new variable introduced into the mix.

There is the issue of whether the music will be adequately served. It could be argued that it should be done exactly as the composer wrote it. This creates a clash with the operating practicalities of struggling orchestras. I have tried to be as true to what I perceive as the composer’s intention in my choices, preserving the impactful gestures and prominent harmonies. All told, I’m pretty satisfied with my musical craft project. We’ll see how it works in rehearsal!