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!

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! 

Mastering the Flute with William Bennett (IUP) – available to order

Front cover

My new book if officially available to order!

Here’s the link:

http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?products_id=808963

I look forward to sharing with you some useful exercises and advice passed to me from the master himself, William Bennett.

Here’s some reviews from the people who have read my book

“Bennett’s principles of musical expression are rooted in the physics of sound as well as an awareness of compositional construction…. The principles of phrasing assembled here are applicable to all musicians, whatever their instrument or voice.” —Kathryn Lukas, Professor of Music (Flute) at Indiana University Jacob’s School of Music

“Now in his eightieth year, [William Bennett] is still in high demand as a teacher at the Royal Academy in London and in masterclasses worldwide. However, finding any of his methods and exercises in writing proves to be difficult, as he hasn’t written them down himself… Seed has studied extensively with… Bennett and his students, and has also assisted at his masterclasses, so his knowledge of the material is impressively thorough. Mastering the Flute with William Bennett is an invaluable resource for flute players.” —Karen Evans Moratz, author of Flute for Dummies and Principal Flute in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

“Roderick [Seed] has collected a wide range of exercises covering many topics that give the flute player the tools to play with different dynamics and a range of expression, and simultaneously helping them with associated technical difficulties such as pitch control. [He] has introduced my approach to the flute in a clear and logical way with his own insights and experiences.” —William Bennett, Foreword,Mastering the Flute with William Bennett

Here’s a table to contents to give you an idea of what topics the book covers:

Foreword / William Bennett
Acknowledgments
Introduction
1. Finding a Sound
2. “Harmonics in Tune” Tone
3. Reaction in the Sound
4. Attacks, Articulation and Repeated Notes
5. Prosody: “Elephants And Taxis”
6. Harmonics Exercises
7. Shakuhachi Exercise for Embouchure Control
8. Intonation Exercises
9. Flexibility Exercises
10. Other Exercises: Whistle Tones and Vocalises
11. Approaching Melodies
Bibliography
Index

If you have any questions about how to order the book, please let me know.

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!

PIFR Blog: Day 7 – Concert day

2nd July 2016

#pifr2016 Day 7

Faculty concert


We heard simply beautiful performances of pieces by Dvorak, Handel, Clara Schumann, Benson, Sarasate (with a surprise piccolo part played by Wibb), Kuhlau (Wibb and Gwen embodied the ballet class in their performance!),  Gaubert, Lachner and Poulenc.   Each of the faculty members had their own unique musical personalities, but they combined perfectly. Having done the work on empathy and compassion throughout the week, I could see this clearly in their performances with Roger Admiral on piano.   They all brought out  different qualities in each others playing.  For  example, Lorna’s commitment to delivering phrases with such beauty and care was evident in the Gaubert duet- both Lorna  and Gwen  matched each other’s contouring and dynamics. Wibb’s  energy (still at the age of 80!), huge colourful sound and mischievousness were also well matched by Lorna and Gwen.  

Skit night

After dinner it was the turn of the students to perform in the form of skits.  After some wine, we were ready to poke fun at our esteemed faculty members.  I was involved in a skit entitled “Mindless Musician”- a parody of the retreat, where we basically portrayed the opposite of the faculty’s teaching and/or behaviour.  Characters included Valley Girl Gwen, Heather, easily satisfied Wibb, tight and restricted Lorna, “Graby”, and victims.  I played the part of Wibb and was happy to see him laughing at my impression of him, making short notes, drunk repeated notes, stressing in the wrong place (“elePHANT”) etc.  

The evening ended up at Mark House, where we enjoyed each other’s company and admired the beautiful sunset one last time.

It really was a most fantastic retreat.  I set out to be more open in my expression and find my confidence, and I believe I found that with inspiration to take away with me for a year of practice and self-exploration.

On the ferry home Chris noticed the fog horn or ship’s whistle sounded a bit forced- we presumed there was some tightening which restricted the flow of air and resonance.  😉

It’s been a “WONderful” week – I’m exhausted but also refreshed and rejuvenated, ready to prepare for my recital in Tokyo this August.

Hope to see everybody back next year! Make sure to check out www.fluteretreat.com and the Facebook page for interviews, recordings and more.

PIFR Blog: Day 6 – the last day of classes

1 July 2016

#pifr2016 Day 6

Heather’s workshop- the tunnel of love

It was the last day of classes today and the day started with a very emotional workshop with Heather.  We participated in an exercise that involved giving and receiving compliments.  Many tears were shed, but I think this helped the group become closer and let go of insecurities and any uncomfortableness.  

Wibb’s class on Moyse 24 Studies


Another great class by Wibb.  By the end of this retreat we got to number 10.  Not bad, considering Wibb’s huge attention to detail and excellence.  It really raised everyone’s level to a new height.  Articulation, stress, colour, atmosphere, length of notes, type of attack – the list goes on.  So many qualities that contribute to vivid music making, Wibb scrutinised every aspect.   

Wibb’s repertoire class 

We heard Widor’s 4th movement and learnt about taking the phrase to the top (“Do a Rampal- take me to the top”), good accents and matching lengths of notes to suitable words: “I hate your guts!”

Next was Schumann’s Romance no.1 where we learnt the importance of tuning up with the sound we want to play the piece with.  Then came the challenge of making music without distorting the stress or rhythm.  Wibb used the 24 studies for this.

In the Bach E minor, Wibb’s incredible knowledge of harmony and phrasing was fascinating to observe.  Everything made sense and brought cohesion to the whole movement.

Wibb told a great story about Martinu in relation to his sonata.  We heard about bell chimes, Martinu as a sick, young boy stuck in a bell tower tending to a sick bird.  Wibb’s story telling invoked a great change in Marie’s playing.  I also wrote down some more exercises for the book! 

Mindful Musician
This workshop spoke of the rituals we can use to either elevate our energy levels or lower them, depending on the situation.  This related strongly to preparing for concerts or auditions where centering the breath and energy can help when we get anxious or need more “sparkle”.

Lorna and Gaby’s class (Solo flute repertoire)


We heard Syrinx and Bozza.  Lorna gave so many great pieces of advice but also demonstrated with such ease and integrity.  Her sound is beyond compare and every note has a strong musical intention.  When asked a question about finding inspiration, she said that the best thing we can do is listen.  Then she played an excerpt from Mahler which moved people to tears- such wonderful artistry that encapsulated the character of the music.  She gave another beautiful quote, which I think makes a great ending to the day: 

Allow the stillness to be there for the inner song to be heard

PIFR Blog: Day 4 – it got emotional

29th  June 2016

 Today was the longest day of the retreat so far. So many wonderful things happened today which made it pretty draining, but everything was just so fantastic that we pushed through.  

Heather’s workshop – compassion

Heather set up activities where we led our partner in a task, blindfolded! This involved trust, empathy and compassion.  We learnt that practising empathy strengthens compassion, which is having the desire to alleviate the suffering of another.  I took away various things from this. In music, as teachers, we need to have compassion for our students and let them know we are there to help.

Wibb- Moyse 24 Studies

Today,  2 more “victims” took on the task of the 24 studies, continuing from where we left off yesterday.  Colleen and Jenny got through numbers 3, 4 and 5.  Wibb worked with Colleen on various “attacks” (soft, clear etc), making number 3 sound happy and dance-like.  


With number 4, Wibb worked on getting a good bell tone in the low register. 

Like the great bell in a church (Marcel Moyse on no.4)

The variation brought up sensitive fingerings to help the octaves sound in tune when soft.  “Dream out the top note”

Number 5 required a naughty, indelicate sound.  “Keep it rude!”

Wibb repertoire class


We heard performances of Gaubert Sonatine– a piece most of us hadn’t heard of, but that we all loved! Colleen worked with Wibb on putting words to the phrase to make sense of it and was reminded not to do “Dutch bulges”!!  It was beautifully played.

Jenny worked on Airs Valaques by Doppler.  Wibb gave many humorous stories of vampires, bogey-men and Count Dracula! 

You are Dracula wanting some blood!

Mona played the second movement of the Reinecke Concerto, which Geoffrey Gilbert apparently called it “the most passionate  piece in the flute repertoire”.  

We learnt about 10 different fingerings for B above the stave! Useful for getting one out of scrapes!

Lastly, August played Corrente from Bach’s Partita.  Wibb demonstrated at the piano the harmonies and harmonic rhythm of this movement and encourages August to make great phrasing and shape.  We also learnt about “hemorrhoids”! (Hemiolas in our language!)

Mindful Musician – creativity and play

This was led by Wayne McNab.  We learnt about many things from this knowledgable man! Firstly we worked on centering our Qi- which gave us strength without excess muscle tension, something very useful for flute playing.

He talked about what blocks our creativity, drawing on points such as 

  • Only wanting to give one answer
  • Being confined by rules, assumptions and regulations 
  • Not wanting to make mistakes 
  • Having pre-conceptions 
  • Being too serious and forgetting to play

Lorna and Gaby’s class


This was perhaps one of the most magical moments I’ve ever experienced in music.  Lorna and Gaby worked together with a common goal of making magic happen, by simply allowing it to happen.  I played the Taktakishvili 2nd movement and Lorna took my playing to a level I never knew I could play at.  It was so emotional for me (and others also cried!) – we all felt something special in the room after the class.  Lorna and Gaby just have such a great commitment to making beautiful music that everybody’s playing transformed.  

Lorna worked with Marie on finding a big sound that can be menacing without an excessive air supply.  They worked on vowel sounds and resonance to achieve something truly wonderful.

Peter played Taktakishvili 1st movement and found ease in tricky passages using reverse psychology and finding an element of play.  

Alex ended the class with Marin Marais Folies d’Espagne.  Lorna made connections to ballet and the Polonaise by Bach to create an excitement and great style in Alex’s playing.

Today was over by 9pm.  Every hour was well spent.

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!

PIFR Blog: Day 3 -“Flute is like a fish – it gets away!”

28th  June 2016 

#pifr2016 Day 3

Lorna McGhee’s Technique class and repertoire class with Gabriella-Minnes Brandes, Wibb’s 24 Studies workshop and repertoire class and Heather Campbell’s workshop on empathy – a wonderful day of inspiring classes.

Empathy workshop with Heather Campbell

To start the day, we had a workshop given by Heather Campbell, the self-healing facilitator.  Today’s class centered around empathy and how to interact in a situation that makes you uncomfortable.  Heather talked about each of us having our own frequency or energy that we present to others.  She mentioned how the most powerful state is one that is neutral- since it is a place from where we can step into another emotional state or frequency.  We learnt through asking our partner a series of questions how to empathize with them, by extending our frequency to another and inviting them to return that.    This drew parallels with rehearsals and differing points of view with another musician.  We can accept and appreciate another’s point of view without allowing ourselves to get into a heightened state.  If we keep in a neutral state by working on grounding ourselves, we can empathize with that person and find common ground  (not the same as compromising).

Wibb’s 24 Studies class and repertoire class

IMG_0213

Alex and I played no.s 1 and 2 from Moyse’s 24 Studies.  Wibb’s knowledge and first-hand experience of learning these with Moyse, as well as his own unique ideas led to a fascinating class – something I never get bored of hearing.  Wibb is full of stories and it was particularly interesting to contrast the first two studies.  We worked on colours (“happy tone”), repeated notes  (“You’re drunk again!”), appogiaturas (“I love you”, legato  (“Put your fingers down slowly!”), character (“Take me to Heav-en”..”but don’t be religious about it!”), expressive articulation (“When I do something in my body- the flute- it reacts! (Moyse)”).    He also taught about soft attack and finding the sound and how Moyse said how easy it is for a sound to disappear or appear-  “The flute is like a fish- it gets away!”.

Take me to Heav-en …  but don’t be religious about it!

In the repertoire class, Wibb focused on the importance of stress and rhythm.  The two pieces were the Schulhoff Sonata played by Chris, who was told to “put some sparkle dust on it” and the 1st movement from Bach’s B minor sonata played by Peter (“I’m Pe-ter, terribly Pe-ter”- the opening theme!).  We learnt to find how our bodies resonate by singing an arpeggio and feeling how the resonance point moves up as we sing higher.   In the Bach, Wibb taught how we can use Moyse Sonority (triplet exercise) to get an expressive soft high register.

Lorna’s technique class

IMG_0410

This class was not your usual technique class.  One might expect an hour of Taffanel & Gaubert exercises or Moyse scales, but Lorna explained how “technique”was artistry.  It takes a great deal of generosity of spirit to take the trouble of getting a good technique that you share with the audience.  Technique is not simply finger co-ordination, it involves taking care of your body, listening, refusing to compromise and being self-reliant, among other things.

We worked on the technique of sound and used Alexander Technique procedures to help.  We did some work lying on the floor in semi-supine, humming to find resonance (much like Wibb did in his class with singing an arpeggio).  We learnt about opposing forces in our bodies- one pulling us up and the other yielding our feet into the ground (vertical), as well as how our chest and hips can expand horizontally to create space and build resonance.    We also did long tones and pitch bends to find a sound that sat right in the middle of our resonance and focus.

Lorna and Gaby’s class – repertoire 

Strictly, this wasn’t a repertoire class- it was more of a “how to improve your sound dramatically” class!  Gaby and Lorna worked together in a very unique approach, drawing from Alexander Technique and Lorna’s own approach to flute sound.  It was quite astonishing how everyone improved in just 30 minutes.  This was probably the most inspiring part of the day and reminded me of my amazing studies with Lorna a few years ago and why I decided to come to this flute retreat.

Some quotes from the class:

“Play like your life depended on it!”

“Breathe as if forte, even in piano“.

“Find where the note resonates and make friends with it!”

“Keep the bow moving.”

“In a diminuendo, come to rest, but don’t drop the ball!”

“Trust you have enough breath.  Don’t live in poverty, but in abundance!”

Lorna demonstrated beautifully how a sound can be so enjoyable to listen to when our bodies are free from undue tension, which “puts a lid on the piano” or “puts a mute on the sound”.

I really can’t put into words how inspiring this class and day was.  You need to experience it for yourself!   So, see you next year everyone!

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!