Wobble vs Vibrato

A couple of students have recently come to have lessons with a bit of a wobbly tone. This isn’t uncommon and can creep up without much notice, so I would like to discuss this further and give some tips.

Wobble vs vibrato

The main difference between a wobble and vibrato is that the former is something that is quite uncontrolled and automatic, often disrupting the phrase and disguising the core of one’s sound, usually quite slow and wide. Vibrato is something that adds an expressive quality to the sound and can help build phrases and changing the expression or character. I like to think of vibrato as “spinning the sound”, which implies that it doesn’t get in the way, but makes the sound come alive.

One of my teachers would often say “vibrato is like ketchup” i.e – one shouldn’t smother your food in it, but rather add a tasteful amount to enhance the dish. If one can get a lively and expressive sound without vibrato (i.e. a sound with a healthy air speed, core and resonance), it is then possible to add some vibrato tastefully.

Getting back to wobble, one of my students played a melody from Moyse’s Tone Development Through Interpretation and the sound was shaky and the wobble was automatic and disrupted the tone. Observing more closely, I noticed it was more about an instability of tone and a lack of form in the embouchure. So the air was not being directed as it should. There was also tension due to over-breathing (trying to take in too much air). So, I gave the following exercises:

“Pooh” attack

For keeping embouchure shape

Observe the shape of your lips when you say “pooh”. Also notice how your lips are closed on “p” and then how the air makes an opening in the lips on the “ooh”. Try elongating the vowel sound: oooooo and notice how your lips stay in place.

Now without vocalising the word, almost whisper the word “pooh”, so it’s purely blowing air through the lips.

Next take the flute and try a short “pooh” on one note. Play each note of a melody (e.g The Swan by Saint-Saëns) like this. No force from muscles, just a simple exhalation, like gently blowing out a candle. I suggest breathing in through the nose for this to avoid opening the lips each time.

Next, make the poohs gradually longer – think of the elongated vowel you did earlier. So, start with very short notes and gradually get longer and longer, making sure the airstream is steady.

Then join all the “pooh”s together to form a slurred melodic line. This is muscle memory, starting simple.

This is also great for soft playing. Try it with the slow movement of the Poulenc sonata.

Paper on the wall

Blow a small square of paper against a wall- only using your air to keep the paper up. This requires the air to be steady and fast, directed right in the middle.

Breathing out of time to avoid tension

We often over-breathe in order to sustain a long phrase, creating tension in the body.

When practising, instead of rushing a breath, take time so you don’t force a breath in, but rather allow the air in by itself. The in breath, when done like this, should be silent.

Start with a 4 second breath for each breath you take in the melody. If that goes well and every breath is silent, move on to three seconds, then two seconds, one second and then in time making sure that each breath is not forced in. Breathing in is passive; blowing out is active.

Whistle tones

Try sustaining a steady whistle tone – explained here:

Vibrato

There are several theories about vibrato and I don’t want to go into too much of that, but if we think of vibrato as a fluctuation in pitch, then we can practice several things to help that along. One doesn’t want to create a pulsed vibrato or something that sounds manufactured but something that is spinning and within the tone that creates expression. One wants to aim for a vibrato that is flexible so you can play with a slow and wide vibrato but also a fast and shallow one, depending on the phrase or the character of the music. The depth of vibrato is determined by the degree of pitch change. Allow the pitch to change as you play louder and softer, without adjusting with the lips.

In my lessons with William Bennett I worked on vibrato to help find depth in the sound and reaction in the tone. We practised different numbers of pulses such as going from one pulse per bar to 8. This exercise is detailed in my book Mastering the flute with William Bennett. Wibb would often get me to think of vibrating in 5s or 7s so it was difficult for the listener to count my vibrato. Once you practice this a lot, you can then allow a natural vibrato through where the air moves freely. By doing the vibrato exercise, you are releasing muscles around the diaphragm so the airstream is flexible and not restricted.

One should remember that “no vibrato” is a type of vibrato, so we have a whole palette of vibratos to choose from according to what the music dictates. For example, a haunting solo in a Shostakovich Symphony might call for no vibrato to create an atmosphere representing a cold winter’s day in Russia. Whereas, the climax of the solo from Daphnis and Chloe might require more vibrato to show the intensity of expression. When playing the Brahms 4 solo, a tasteful use of vibrato, increasing toward the peak of the solo. So, there should never be an ON/OFF switch for vibrato, but more of a spectrum of possibilities.

So, first master your airstream and let that be your primary expression.  Then practise all variations of vibrato so you can paint a wonderful picture with or without vibrato, but never wobbly!

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!

Memorisation

Another blog topic from a reader: playing from memory! Keep the ideas coming!

Incentive

Memorising a piece of music, a speech or poem is something that has obvious benefits, but often scares people as it takes away the comfort of having a script or score.

I remember my primary (junior) school made all of the students memorise a poem and recite it to the principal (poor lady- she must have listened to thousands!). But we only recited it in front of her, not the whole class, and afterwards, we received a rather delicious red lollipop! Incentive is key and, to a 6-year old, sweets are always the best incentives! One started to look forward to the next challenge!

Goal

When I was 7 years old, I started learning the piano and memorising short pieces was never a problem. It came naturally. Giving concerts at school, I never thought about using the music.

Skip ahead a year, I took up the flute and was given lots of books. My teacher at the time encouraged me to play in festivals, but (perhaps because I couldn’t see what my fingers were doing) I used music and a stand. Not once was I encouraged to memorise it and so I just got out of the habit. I played from the music throughout my youth until I got to college. At the Royal Academy of Music, one is required to do at least one piece at your end of year recital from memory and this freaked me out! Especially since I’d previously seen people make memory slips in concerts and competitions. So, I gave myself a pep talk and decided I had the ability to do it! I made it a bit easier for myself by picking a short piece without too many notes that I knew really well. And after working steadily through it, I could play it from memory in my exam. I did this every year, making the memory piece a little harder each year. So I had a goal and I stuck to it.

Start simple

In my lessons with Wibb, I was asked to prepare a melody from Moyse’s Tone Development Through Interpretation book, memorised and in about 3 different keys! This was a great way to understand note relationships, harmonies and intervals. One became aware of how the melody modulated, how the phrases were shaped and how the intervals created tension or release. So I now do this on a regular basis. The melodies might be from repertoire or from another technique book, like the 24 Little Melodic Studies. So, start off simple and go from there! It is quite liberating when one takes away the stand. Mistakes and slips will happen along the way, but one has to allow that and embrace it. When we make mistakes, it’s just a sign that we need to practice that passage or phrase a bit more! No big deal!

Memorising a concerto

Having done some smaller pieces and felt confident in the knowledge that I can memorise, it’s now time to tackle a larger piece. I’d like to talk about how I’m going about memorising the Mozart G major concerto, since I will be playing this with an orchestra in Canada in April and I have made the decision to memorise it. It seems a shame if only violinists and cellists do it!

Analysis

I start by analysing the piece. I work on the piece with the score (piano part as well) and find all the different sections and all the thematic material within each section. How do they relate to each other? How do they change later on?

Then I’ll start with the first section and see how far I get without the music, under tempo to give my brain and muscles a chance to process the information. This gives me an idea of where I’m at.

Instagram minute

I then go through the piece in one minute chunks per day. I refer back to the music to check any details I may have left out. Then I record myself up to tempo on that minute and listen back. If possible, I will do this with a backing track. Luckily, there are sone play along videos on YouTube of the Mozart G major, which makes this much more enjoyable and helps you hear what’s going on around you and how you respond to it.

Doing it in one minute chunks might seem tedious, but remember Rome wasn’t built in a day! Try not to overload your brain all at once. Make it manageable.

Tricky passages

There is a passage in the 3rd movement which, for some reason, I find very difficult to play without the music, but quite easily with. This tells me I don’t truly have it under the fingers yet and it’s not quite lodged in my brain.

It’s difficult because there are many notes at quite a quick tempo. So I break it into chunks. Then I practice it like this for each 4 note pattern

  • 1st note only
  • 1st & 4th notes
  • 1st & 2nd notes
  • 1,3,4
  • 1,2,3
  • 1,2,3,4

Making sure that I am practising at least two 4-note patterns so I practice the joins between chunks. Then just move along one and practice the next two chunks. Cover the whole passage like that, then add some chunks together to make the chunks a bit longer. Chunking is so helpful! Take it slowly at first and then try faster.

Warm up

In your warm up, take a simple melody or vocalise and transpose it. This gives your brain a warm up too! Take a section of the piece you are working on and make a tone or articulation exercise out of it. For example, take the opening theme from Mozart’s concerto and play it in 3 different keys in different dynamics. Use harmonics to practice any interval leaps. Use your imagination to think of an interesting warm up that relates to the main body of your practice.

Performance

Make sure to run your piece through in its entirety several times before a concert. Give yourself plenty of time before the concert date to start memorising a piece.

Note any places that you consistently get wrong or forget and focus your practice there.

Remember

Further things to note:

  • Make sure you approach your memorisation practice with a clear mind. Lie down, do some breathing exercises and warm ups before launching in.
  • Don’t get distracted or procrastinate. Let your brain focus on the task at hand. Put your phone away!
  • Memorisation need not be scary. It’s just another skill that can be practiced and it can actually be enjoyable!!
  • One step at a time! Baby steps!
  • Memorisation gives you freedom and helps communication
  • Even if you don’t do it in concert, implement memorisation into your practice so your body has its best chance of good alignment. Being bent over a music stand can lead to many bad habits and a compromised tone.

Thanks for reading and happy fluting!

Tonguing

Thanks to one reader, I have a blog topic which I think will be of interest: tonguing!

The first step is to get the tongued notes as clear and full as one does without the tongue. It’s all about the airstream and not letting the tongue affect how the air travels out of the body through the lips. Release tension in the jaw and use the slightest touch of the tongue. The tongue is a big old thing and it can be very easy for us to overwork it if we try to use too much of it.

When I was very young, I was taught that the K or G was a reflex of the T or D, which at first helped with speed, but the quality of the K was never as good as the T.  We should practice both consonants as equal strokes like a good string player who practices their up and down bow in equal measure. I had a private masterclass with some of Wibb’s other students given by great violinist and teacher David Takeno, where we worked on the Bach Chaconne and Mozart G major violin concerto. Among many pearls of wisdom, I will never forget that he said an up bow shouldn’t be weaker than a down bow and vice versa. One should be able to do whatever one wants without their technique limiting them. The same goes for tonguing: the K doesn’t need to be weaker or heavier- it should just be another feather to your bow.  Use it interchangeably with a T/D consonant.

Now try this exercise, using any note you like.  The aim is to back and forth between an articulated note and a note that doesn’t use the tongue, but always with a good full sound:

  1. “ha” (detached, but without the tongue)
  2. T/D (tip of the tongue, at the point where the top front teeth meet the gum)
  3. Ha
  4. K/G (middle part of tongue, hitting the roof of the mouth)
  5. Ha ha
  6. TT
  7. Ha ha
  8. KK
  9. Ha ha ha ha
  10. TK TK
  11. Ha ha ha ha
  12. KT KT
  13. Hahaha
  14. TKT TKT
  15. Hahaha
  16. KTK KTK
  17. Hahahaha
  18. TKT KTK
  19. Slur
  20. Stop

This is how I suggest practising Voliere from Carnival of Animals in my book, combining it with harmonics. Harmonics are your best teacher because any changes in airstream will cause cracks and incorrect pitches. Afterwards, when you play with normal fingerings, you will find it much easier!  Have a look below at an exercise from my book.

Anatomy of the tongue (MRI)

To become more familiar with how the tongue works, take a look at some MRI videos of the movement of the tongue, like the one below.  Notice how large the tongue is and how we use just a small part of it to articulate sounds.  Just as with any muscle (although the tongue is a muscular organ), the tongue can be trained with good practice technique.

 

Where is the tongue when you say each consonant

img_4954
CONSONANTS ARE FURTHER CLASSIFIED ACCORDING TO THEIR PLACE OF ARTICULATION, LKPRIMARILY THE LIPS, THE TEETH, THE GUMS, THE PALATE, AND THE GLOTTIS. TERMS USED BY SPEECH SCIENTISTS. TO DENOTE PLACE OF ARTICULATION. INCLUDE LABIAL (LIPS), DENTAL (TEETH), ALVEOLAR (GUMS), PALATAL (PALATE), VELAR (SOFT PALATE), GLOTTAL (GLOTTIS), AND LABIODENTAL (LIPS AND TEETH) FINALLY, CONSONANTS ARE CLASSIFIED. AS VOICED OR UNVOICED. PLACE OF ARTICULATION OF PLOSIVES.

Notice how the tip of the tongue is used to articulate T/D near the teeth and the mid point of the tongue articulates K/G on the roof of the mouth, or palate.

For consistency of sound, I think the vowel is also important, e.g. ta, te, tu, to, ti.  Be sure to keep your vowel sound constant throughout an articulated passage, trying not to change between different vowels, which will affect the colour of the sound.

 

The tongue can also be placed outside the lips like we do for words beginning with “th”, but we can still make a clear “t” without any hissing h sounds. Consonants like “t” are actually very flexible regarding tongue placement.  Most will find T behind the teeth easiest, but some will find articulated in front of the teeth easier.   Become familiar with using both.

To get used to feeling the tongue behind the teeth, try saying “Nnn”.
Then follow that with the consonant, “ta” or “da”.  Nnnn da.  Let the “da” release without any tension.  Think of the words “London”  Or “undone” 

Here is part of an exercise from my book for practising the different attacks/strokes of the tongue:

articulation

© Roderick Seed, Mastering the Flute with William Bennett, Indiana University Press 2018

For more on articulation, please take a look at my book.  Available from Amazon UK/US, Just Flutes, Flutistry, Flute World.

Once the sound is clear on all these consonants, tonguing becomes much easier.  Articulation is primarily about how the air is released.  The tongue is supplemental/supportive in creating clear sounds.  Don’t let the tongue become an obstacle for the air.  As my teacher Lorna McGhee says, “The airstream is the King!  Make way for the King!”

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!