Focusing the sound

One reader requested a blog on finding a focused sound, so here’s my way to approach this.

build-your-focus

One has to be careful when setting goals for students or yourself such as “find a focused sound”, since there’s the potential for what Alexander Technique practitioners might call “end-gaining” (see a previous blog). One can try all sorts of things to try and focus the sound, but this can lead to bad habits and/or tension if not done with care or patience. With this in mind, I will suggest below some exercises and processes I practice regularly that I find useful.

Airstream

Firstly, a focused sound is all about the airstream and how it is directed when we blow over the embouchure hole of the flute. The sound is created when the air divides at the back edge of the embouchure hole. A lack in focus can be caused by an airstream that is too spread out, but also by:

  • Misdirected air. When the air isn’t centred, but travels off to the side. ➡️ Try whistle tones exercise. Whistle tones are great exercises to use as target practice.  I always sound so much better after I do some whistle tones.
  • Undue tension. Tension in the lips or body from tightening or holding muscles, which inhibits resonance. Tension in the throat or mouth doesn’t allow a free passage of air from the lungs out of the mouth, but rather distorts it so the exchange is not as smooth as it could be. Too much tension in the lips creates airiness in the sound. ➡️”Pooh” exercise

Pooh exercise

In a previous blog on wobble, I talked about using the “pooh attack”, where your lips form a round shape simply by blowing through closed lips, just as we do when we say “pooh”.

  • Overblowing. When we use too much air, the air escapes around the edges, causing a distortion in the sound. True resonance is found not through blowing hard, but by opening and making space for the sound.(see resonance blog)

Core of the sound

pencil_lead_closeup

Finding a “focused sound” can often be frustrating and I like to think of finding the core or essence of the sound, so as long as we have that core, any air around the sound caused by tension or even dry lips doesn’t detract from the message we want to give. One teacher used to use the imagery of a pencil, where the lead is the core. What creates images and writing is the lead and so that is the most important thing to cultivate. One can then have different shades of sound, depending on how much core (or harmonic content) one uses.

Exercises that help find the core:

  • Pitch bending. Finding where the harmonics are in tune.
  • Muscle memory

On a long note, start from a very unfocused sound, with the lips quite loose.  Gradually introduce the lip muscles that you used in finding a whistle tone (think of creating the vowel sound “ooh” with your lips).  This takes away any habit of tightening lips before playing which might be causing airiness and gives you a sensation of what you do when you hear the sound focusing. This has to be done very slowly in order to gain muscle memory.  You can then reduce the time it takes to reach your desired sound by starting with your lips more formed.

  • Paper on the wall/straw

Use a thin straw and blow and piece of paper on the wall.  Notice how the straw perfectly directs the air into the middle of the paper so that it stays up.    Try the same thing without the straw, making sure you feel the opening between the lips like you did when the straw was there and not letting that collapse.  Keep the air speed constant and well-directed and the paper will stay up. Now blow a note on the flute as you did with the paper and hear the difference!

  • Removing tension

Do some singing and playing at the same time to open up the sound and remove tension.  Allowing your true sound to come through by not tightening the jaw, throat, lips,  abdominal muscles etc will give you a greater chance of finding the core of the sound.  One can try and try to focus the sound, but if you are not letting the air through smoothly without interruption, you will only get frustrated, tense up more and just get further and further from the core.  One needs to be quiet in order to play loudly.  

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!

My book “Mastering the Flute with William Bennett”, published by Indiana University Press, is available on Amazon and in all good flute shops.

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!

Happy 80th birthday, William Bennett!

This year, William Bennett is 80 years old!  To celebrate, there will be a concert in London this August Click here for details.

William Bennett is one of the most influential flute playing musicians in history – his numerous recordings as a soloist and orchestral player show just how wonderful and versatile a musician he is.  Not only that, he has worked tirelessly on the flute’s scale with various flute makers and flute players to help improve its intonation.  On top of that, he is an extremely passionate, dedicated and inspiring teacher – at the Royal Academy of Music and in masterclasses all around the world.  As a previous student of Wibb, I can testify to one of the most enriching and enjoyable periods of my life.  I also remember the first time I heard Wibb – it was on my father’s car cassette player one day about 20 years ago when he picked me up from school.  It was a compilation of different flute concerti and I remember that my favourite recordings were a Bach concerto and the two Mozart concerti.  I looked on the cassette liner notes and all of them were played by William Bennett!

 

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To celebrate this extraordinary man, 3738go  (a company based in Japan) have made some wonderful merchandise, some of which uses artwork by William Bennett himself.  If you wish to buy any of this, it is available on my website:  www.roderickseedflute.com

AND, if you use the code:  rodfluteblog  you can get a further 10% OFF!

All proceeds go towards funding William Bennett’s 80th birthday tour of Japan.

Also available are CDs by Lorna McGhee and Denis Bouriakov.    Prices are in Canadian dollars.   Shipping costs apply.   Shipped from Canada.

This is one of my favourite recordings of Wibb.  Enjoy!   Happy Birthday Wibb!

 

William Bennett plays Handel

william-bennet-flutist

 

Andersen études op.15 – no.8

Andersen 8 image

This etude is one of my favourites – it is very expressive especially when broken down to its melodic core.    If you have read my previous blogs on Andersen etudes, you will notice that I often find the “skeleton” and practise that first.  This is something I learnt from William Bennett, who in turn learnt it from Marcel Moyse, who presumably learnt it from Taffanel.  Indeed, Andersen dedicated many works to Taffanel and the etudes were used in his classes in Paris.  Taffanel referred to Andersen as “the Chopin of the flute”.   Like Chopin’s many etudes for piano, the op.15 etudes by Andersen are firstly very musical and melodic, well-written for the instrument, but not unnecessarily showy.   (For more about Taffanel and his correspondence with Andersen, check out Edward Blakeman’s book, “Taffanel: Genius of the Flute”.   Edward Blakeman gave a very interesting lecture recital on Taffanel at RAM with examples played by Wibb- it was one of my favourite classes!)

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So, here is my approach to practising this etude.

The Skeleton

This melody, as the marking suggests, is quite agitated and unsettled.  F sharp minor brings to mind pieces like Faure’s Pavane, but this melody is a little darker and more haunting.  There is also more Romanticism to it, with the long phrases and unresolved tension.

 

Andersen Skeleton

I have added suggested phrase markings to shape the melody.  Remember that this is in 3/4, so we don’t want a strong 2nd or 3rd beat.

Play this skeleton as if it were a melody in its own right.  Notice how the sequence beginning in bar 9 gets interrupted in bar 14, which hastens the harmonic rhythm and adds to the increasing tension, reaching its peak at bar 16.     Much like a stretto in a fugue, it is an extremely effective compositional technique.

Also notice the intervals.  There is a great deal of chromaticism and plenty of diminshed 5ths (tritone/”the devil’s interval”!).  This gives us an idea of the colour we need to use-  it should be suitably dark and mysterious.

After practising the skeleton, let’s look at the technical aspect of this etude.  Andersen consistently writes with the following articulation pattern:

andersen articulation

I have added micro-phrase markings, so that the slurs have more weight at the beginning and then diminish  and the tongued notes (which shouldn’t be short, but expressive and melodic) have a forward direction.  If you play the notes very staccato and dry, you lose the character and they don’t have any direction.  Use the tongued notes to carry the phrase forwards.      The diminunedos on the slurs will help to show the skeleton.

Often players see a staccato marking and play very dry and short, which can be effective in the right context.  Here, it is not, so one needs to find a more louré style of articulation.  This doesn’t mean make it heavy – think of an up bow on a violin.

Work your way through the etude using these ideas and be careful of the accidentals!  Andersen likes to throw one off with his modulations!

I hope this gives you some ideas.

Thanks for reading and happy fluting!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Andersen Etudes op.15 – no.6

andersen1

 

So, back to the Andersen after an overwhelming response to my previous blog on the perfect flute player.  Thank you for reading, liking and commenting.

With the acquisition of my new Windows Surface 3, I can now annotate PDFs, so here are some scribbles that might benefit your practice of this etude:

Andersen etude no.6 scribblings

Notes from PDF document:

  • Baroque section (mm.1-40). 

Character is strong and bold, with an element of dance (3/4).  Make sure the 1st beat is stronger than 2 and 3.   Follow the phrase structure of short-short-long (1 + 1 + 2)

Ornaments should be quick and neat so as to fit in with the character of the section.

Use colour and dynamic to highlight the differences in mood where the harmony suggests uncertainty and playfulness.

Don’t let the tempo drag – this section should feel somewhat brisker than the next section.

  • Romantic section

The triplet section starting in bar 41 is reminiscent of the 3rd etude.  This is more romantic than the first section and should be played with a gentle colour and very legato.  Don’t allow the melody to be distorted by playing loud in the low register.  Enjoy the harmonies and how they change from major to minor.

The last section combines both elements of baroque and romantic-  make sure to show the contrasts so that a conversation (or battle!) is heard between the two characters.  Eventually, the baroque character wins and ends the etude.

Apart from executing ornaments and embouchure flexibility, this etude is not technically demanding, but musically it can be very rewarding.

Thanks for reading and happy fluting!

 

 

The perfect flute player??

Is there such a thing as having the perfect embouchure?  Are flute players with thin lips more likely to play better than those with thicker lips?  In other words, are some people built to play flute?

My answer would be no, but this is after I and others being told various myths like, “your jaw is not good for flute playing”. “Your lips are not flute player’s lips” etc.

If anyone else has been told something similar, you should ignore it.  Everyone is different and even the perfect flute body might struggle to play well.

I have an underbite, meaning my lower teeth rest slightly in front of my upper set of teeth.  I had dental work done when I was young (including head gear at night time and upper palette expansion),  but it didn’t really get “fixed”.   It’s not that noticeable now and both rows of my teeth almost meet, but it nevertheless bothered me when I was young.

So, if I were to play in the same way as my teachers or most other flute players I  would be very sharp since the airstream would be much higher.  So I worked out that I needed to either angle the head joint towards me more and pull the headjoint out a lot, or drop my jaw back a bit so that the teeth are meeting.  This lowers the pitch to an extent where I don’t need to pull the headjoint out as much as others to be in tune.   I learnt from Jacques Zoon in a masterclass that when we blow the teeth should be slightly apart and the front teeth should be directly above the bottom to allow for a smooth uninterrupted flow of air.

For me to achieve this I need to drop my jaw more than most.    This is where I get my best tone and from years of tone exercises with Wibb and my other teachers, I have found how to play with my best tone.  I found that the most useful exercises were pitch bending and fullness of tone exercises (cresc., decresc.) – they helped a lot to find where my sound rings and where all the harmonics are in tune.

When some teachers have seen my approach, they have tried to suggest going back to a “normal” position or one teacher even suggested surgery.  To what end?

The very thing that gave me this struggle actually made me work extra hard and intelligently to overcome it and has made my playing better.  And now I see it as an advantage since I can get a full sound due to creating space in my mouth and releasing tension in the jaw which is difficult to do if you have a “normal” bite.

If you don’t look like Pahud, Galway or Wibb when you play, you have to find your own approach.  Look at the embouchures of Marcel Moyse or Denis Bouriakov- they play completely differently to the “norm”, but listen to their tone!  So embrace your differences and don’t try to copy those you admire – it might work for them but not necessarily for you.

If you have any similar stories or would like some advice on your own situation, please don’t hesitate to get in touch via the comments section.

Thanks for reading and happy fluting!

Andersen Etudes op.15 – no.3

Andersen 3

This is probably everyone’s favourite étude- it is certainly the one that gets performed the most outside of the practice room.   It’s a triplet tour de force without any breaks, but it also has a very beautiful melodic quality.

If we take away all the decoration and leave the “skeleton” of the melody, this is what we get:

Andersen 3 skeleton

First work on making beautiful phrasing with the melody alone.  This melody often reminds me of the 2nd subject in the first movement of Reinecke’s Undine Sonata :

Undine ex

Also, the piano’s melody after the first section and at the end of the Scherzo from Widor’s Suite op.34.

Widor ex

All these melodies share a common melodic shape – an upbeat followed by an appogiatura.  This is a perfect example of an “I love you” phrase.  When you say “I love you”, “I” acts as preparation to “love” which is stressed and “you” which is released:   I love you.    Many people put an undue stress “you” when playing these kind of phrases, which doesn’t make any musical sense.  Would you say to your loved one: ” I love you!”??    This might cause them to doubt you! 😉

So when we come back to the Andersen etude, practise it with the following phrasing:

Phrasing no 3

Then apply the same phrasing when you add all the notes.    You will also need to do the micro phrasing of the each triplet figure so that we don’t hear emphasis on the accompaniment (especially the low notes, which students often honk out).

micro phrasing

Notice how some micro-phrasing is over 1 quaver beat and others are over 2 quaver beats.  This tells you how to grade your diminuendo:  you don’t want to come away too quickly when it is over 2 quaver beats, otherwise you will lose the line.

The idea is to show the melody line clearly without elongating each note.  This can sound affected and can distort the rhythm.      You could also help show the line by giving the melody notes more colour and play the accompaniment notes with a softer colour.    If both parts have an equally strong colour and dynamic, the étude just becomes a study in playing a lot of notes, which is both boring and pointless.

If you have the chance, listen to  Marcel Moyse practising this étude – he really knows how to make the flute sing.  There is a box set released by the Muramatsu flute company of his recordings including his studies and various other pieces that he recorded over the years.

Thanks for reading and happy fluting!