Flute superstitions 

“I can only play well if…”

I think we all have our own pre-performance rituals, but sometimes it can get a little out of hand (myself included!).  Here are some common ones that I relate to. Your comments are appreciated!

Food/drink

“I must eat [pasta] before I play”


Often people have a particular food that they must eat, such as rice, sushi, bananas, chocolate etc.  For me, it’s always been a mocha or hot chocolate.  Ever since I did a successful audition at Royal Academy of Music after a hot chocolate, I’ve found the need to drink it before every important concert.  Somehow the hot milk calms my nerves and the chocolate makes me sound better.  I wish I had a less calorific ritual!  Conversely, if I drink tea (especially green or mint) or red wine, it makes me sound worse.   How about you?  What’s your go-to or must-have food/drink before you play? 

Lip balm


I’ve seen players apply this like crazy, whereas some say it makes their lips even dryer.  I find I need to do a sugar & olive oil scrub once a week to make my lips smoother, especially in winter, when they tend to get chapped.  Every night, I apply lip balm to protect my lips from the dry air.  But then there are so many choices!  These days I find Aloe Vera Vaseline works well (sadly not sponsored!) 

How do you protect your lips? 

Warm up

 I always do a solid warm up before I play, but try not to do too much, just little and often, mostly to check my sound is alright.  I do singing and playing, whistle tones, harmonics and pitch bends to help find my sound.  When that doesn’t work, I’ll do some lying down semi-supine (Alexander Technique).  It helps get my body aligned and, in turn, makes my sound better.  

What about your warm up routine?  I’d be interested to hear what people do!

Exercise

Doing stretches and going for a walk/swim/run are common things to do before playing.  It gets the endorphins flowing and distracts one from concert jitters.  I often do some stretches and breathing exercises, just working on keeping the air steady and expanding the areas of the body responsible for breathing.  Tension goes straight to the breath and airstream.  

Quiet vs chit chat

I’m a big fan of silence or having a moment of calm before a concert, but have often played with people that let out all their stress right before the concert, which is frankly a nightmare.  Of course, I listen and nod but I’m secretly thinking “It would be nice to hear about this person’s problems after the concert over a drink!”

Let me know your thoughts and findings! This is a topic which fascinates me! 

More flute imagery

Following on from the tennis shot analogy, here are some more examples of imagery I use in teaching flute:

Scales

When I want a student to play scales with a really good even tone from top to bottom and with a great legato, I use two images.

1.  Walking through water (or honey) instead of normal walking.  The effort it takes to take each step is like the effort required to blow from one note to the next- no giving up on the airstream, but a good healthy supply of air through the whole scale

2. Passing a carefully wrapped present upstairs


Since scales are literally stairs or ladders (from the Latin scala, like escalator), one can think of taking a beautifully wrapped present up stairs, passing it to another person a step higher (or lower).  So, take a beautiful sound from the first note and pass it to the next one.  As you go higher, more effort is required (air speed and angles).  As you come down, the present should look the same (the sound should be the same) as it did when it was first passed.

Air speed and vitality

Imagine your body, more specifically your breathing apparatus, is full of water instead of air. Visualise how your air leaves your body.  You can even fill your mouth with water and notice what happens as you let it out.  If the air comes out too slow, the water will just droop like a water fountain that isn’t working very well.  The air speed needs to be fast enough for a good vital sound.  

 Similarly, you could think of your sound as a plant- without enough water, it wilts and dies.  So, don’t let your sound die- give it the air speed it requires (at all times) to keep it alive!   But not too fast – that also kills it (“squeak!!”)

Imagery in flute teaching

Lately, I’ve found I’ve needed to be more creative to explain concepts of tone production and note endings to students.  Here is something I used that I’d like to share:

Playing tennis

I used to play a lot of tennis when I was young and was constantly inspired by the superstars that played at Wimbledon- Sampras, Agassi, Graf, Williams, Federer etc.  When you watch the top professionals play tennis, it’s as if time stands still.  You see a beautiful form and approach to each shot.  “Keep your eye on the ball” is commonly taught as a metaphor for staying focused.  But my concern is the actual shot process:

Backswing – touch – follow through


Without backswing, we get an unreliable and often wayward resulting shot.  On the flute, this relates to preparing the airstream before playing a note.  When we sing, air moves over the vocal folds before a sound is heard.  Before we play a note, the air speed and direction need to be in mind and the air moving before a sound is heard.  Blow with the jaw forward and gradually aim the air down to find the speaking point.  


The point where the racket touches the ball is our speaking point, where we hear sound.  In tennis there is something referred to as the “sweet spot”, the point where the ball hits the middle of the racket, producing a satisfying ‘ping’! On flute, this is where your sound is focussed with the harmonics in tune, where the air speed and angle is just right.


Finally, we have the follow through, the stroke that follows the trajectory of the ball, so the result is one smooth action from start to finish.  On the flute, this means finishing the note beautifully, not abruptly by closing the throat or mouth, but by lifting the airstream with the jaw, ensuring the note decays without going flat.  By practising this movement with the jaw, we can get a natural, fluid “stroke”. 

My book goes into more detail on this technique, known as messa di voce (placing of voice).  

Then, of course, we have different ways to attack the note or colour it, like a tennis player has a whole repertoire of shots to play, with different shades and intensities.  The imagery works for almost all aspects of flute playing!

More imagery in the next blog post!